Penance is a Sacrament of Healing
“Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more (John 8: 11).”
In this fourth catechesis on the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, I will consider the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation, often simply referred to as sacramental confession. It is a sacrament that is frequently misunderstood and often misrepresented. This catechesis will be divided into three separately published parts:
(I) what is the Sacrament of Penance or confession;
(II) what is sin; and,
(III) how to make a good confession.
When I was a young boy, my father took us to the Church for confession at least once a month, sometimes more often. In Catholic school, we were well instructed about confession and well prepared. Because we knew the parish priests as altar boys, we were not particularly afraid of going into the confessional to confess our sins. That’s not to say that we enjoyed confession but it was something that we Catholics did. There were times, however, when I wasn’t sure what to say. Don’t get me wrong — I was far from perfect or saintly. Other times, I would get distracted and forget what I had planned to say in my examination of conscience. The Sisters told us that God would forgive our sins, even if we forgot some of them.
As I grew older, I began to reflect more maturely on the circumstances of my life. My confessions became more “involved,” and I had a greater sense of my own sinfulness and the need to take advantage of this special sacrament. There was a real sense of relief when I emerged from the confessional, a feeling of peace with God.
After ordination, when I sat “on the other side of the screen” so to speak, my earlier memories and the theological and pastoral preparation I received in the seminary gave me even greater conviction about the importance of sacramental confession and the need we all have of God’s mercy and forgiveness.
The “way” that the Sacrament of Penance is administered in the Catholic Church has a long and interesting history, far too long for this brief catechesis. If you are interested, Catholic articles on the development of the Sacrament of Penance are readily available on the internet or in Catholic publications. My focus here is to consider the basics and to provide a little explanation about this wonderful occasion of God’s grace.
Sacraments are, as we have read in my previous catecheses (prompted by the Baltimore Catechism) “outward signs, instituted by Christ, to give grace.” The outward “sign” of the Sacrament of Penance has multiple parts: contrition or sorrow for sins; confession of sins to the priest; absolution of sins by the priest; performing the penance given by the priest to atone for sins confessed. For the record, priests, bishops and even the Pope have to go to confession, too.
From the point of view of Church law — and, again, the Catholic Church is a community of laws and structures, as well as a community of faith and worship — sacraments are composed of “matter” — the content or essence of the sacraments — and “form” — the way the sacraments are administered or given according to the Church’s rituals for each of them.
In the Sacrament of Penance, the “matter” is sorrow for sin or contrition. The “form” is how the Church deals with the matter, namely confession to and absolution by the priest. These are the “outward signs” of this sacrament in search of its grace, God’s mercy and forgiveness. A few words are in order about this sacrament’s “institution by Christ.” To understand this “institution,” we need to look first at the Holy Scriptures.
In a famous passage of St. Matthew’s Gospel known as “Peter’s Confession,” Jesus asks his disciples who people say that he is. After several responses, Simon Peter exclaims “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus then says in reply:
You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hell will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven (Matthew 16-18-19).
Peter is the chief of the apostles and, as such, is the foundation of Jesus’ Church. In this passage, Jesus identified Peter’s authority which scripture scholars say included many things, among them the forgiveness of sins. The point here is that “God will ratify and stand behind what Peter (and the others) enact (Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.,
‘Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew,’
In the Gospel of St. John, when Jesus appears to the disciples after his resurrection, the sacred author recalls, he greeted them saying:
“As the Father has sent me so I send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained (John 20: 22-24).”
Jesus again extends a special authority to the apostles who share in his divine mission: to forgive or retain sins.
From the Catholic Church’s perspective, these two passages for the heart of the institution of the Sacrament of Penance insofar as Jesus himself gives Peter and the apostles the power to forgive or retain sins. This power, the Catholic Church believes and teaches, has been handed down through the ages to those who succeed the apostles and are ordained by them.
The forgiveness of sins is an essential part of the mission of the Catholic Church. The earliest recorded teachings of the Christian community, the writings of the Fathers of the Church, popes, theologians and the decrees of early Church councils affirm this belief. Although the “form” of the Sacrament of Penance or “confession” developed over the centuries, it was the Fourth Lateran Council that decreed in 1215:
Let everyone of the faithful of both sexes, after he has reached the age of discretion, devotedly confess in private all the sins he has committed at least once a year to his own priest and let him strive to fulfill to the best of his ability penance enjoined upon him.
In the 16th century, the Council of Trent established more specific regulations about the manner in which sacramental confession and the absolution of sins would take place through the ministry of the priest, regulations that formed the core of the Sacrament of Penance as it was known and practiced until the 20th century. The 1917 Code of Canon Law, the Second Vatican Council (1963-65), the 1983 Code of Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) further presented the Catholic Church’s teaching and practice of the Sacrament of Penance or sacramental confession, also called “The Sacrament of Reconciliation,” in ways with which we have become familiar.
The Second Vatican Council and CCC refer to the Sacrament of Penance as a “sacrament of healing (CCC, 1421)” along with the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick (formerly called Extreme Unction). The 1983 Code of Canon Law states:
In the sacrament of penance the faithful, confessing their sins to a legitimate minister, being sorry for them, and at the same time proposing to reform, obtain from God forgiveness of sins committed after baptism through the absolution imparted by the same minister; and they likewise are reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by sinning (canon 959).
Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the only ordinary way by which the faithful person who is aware of serious sin is reconciled with God and with the Church … (canon 960).
An “integral confession” means that a baptized Catholic confesses the kind of sin committed (eg., stealing, lying, etc.) and the number of times (best, truthful estimate).
CCC likewise states:
1446 Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification …
In his homily of October 25, 2013, Pope Francis preached:
To have the courage in the presence of the confessor to call sin by its name, without hiding it … to go to confession is to encounter the love of Jesus with sincerity of heart and with the transparency of children, not refusing, but even welcoming the “grace of shame” that makes us perceive God’s forgiveness.
The confession of sins, done with humility, Pope Francis explained, is something the Church requires of all of us. He quoted the invitation of Saint James: “Confess your sins to one another.” Not to get noticed by others, the Pope explained, “but to give glory to God,” to recognize that it is God Who saves me. That, the Pope continued, is why one goes to a brother, a “brother priest” to confess. And one must do as Paul did – above all, confessing with the same “concreteness.”
Earlier this year, during his general audience in Rome on February 19, 2014, Pope Francis told those gathered in St. Peter’s Square to receive the Sacrament of Penance.
Everyone say to himself: ‘When was the last time I went to confession?’ And if it has been a long time, don’t lose another day! Go, the priest will be good. And Jesus, (will be) there, and Jesus is better than the priests - Jesus receives you. He will receive you with so much love! Be courageous, and go to confession.
Someone can say, ‘I confess my sins only to God.’ Yes, you can say to God, ‘forgive me,’ and say your sins. But our sins are also against our brothers, against the Church. This is why it is necessary to ask forgiveness of the Church and of our brothers, in the person of the priest.”
Forgiveness is not something we can give ourselves. One asks forgiveness, one asks it of another person, and in confession, we ask forgiveness from Jesus. Forgiveness is not a result of our efforts, but is a gift. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit who showers us with mercy and grace that pours forth unceasingly from the open heart of Christ crucified and risen.
From the time we were children, we became familiar with the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we also have forgiven our trespassers (Matthew 6:12).” And how often we continue to say those words! The Holy Scriptures remind us: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The Sacrament of Penance is the “outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace” that accomplishes that.
Any catechesis about a sacrament would be incomplete without explaining the requirements of Church law related to it. There is ample Church legislation about the Sacrament of Penance or confession but I will confine my study here to those things that the ordinary parishioner needs to know.
Who can receive the Sacrament of Penance?
Any baptized Catholic who has “attained the age of discretion” not only can but must receive the Sacrament of Penance and confess serious sins at least once a year (canon 989). That is one of the “precepts or commandments of the Church.” I will say more about these precepts in my next catechesis. The “age of discretion” means that the baptized Catholic penitent is able to distinguish right from wrong and has some understanding of what sin means and the purpose of sacramental confession.
How often should a baptized Catholic go to confession?
A baptized Catholic should confess serious sins to a priest as soon as possible after committing them but, minimally, once a year as noted above. Less serious sins should be confessed frequently and regularly. Canon law (Church law) does not give a requirement regarding frequency of confession. Since none of us is perfect, regular confession is recommended. A good rule of thumb — other than for the confession of serious sins — is once a month. Remember, the Sacrament of Penance is a sacrament of healing, forgiveness, conversion of heart and God’s mercy. Who doesn’t need these things? Parishes hold penance services throughout the year, most often during Advent and Lent. Certainly, baptized Catholics are advised to take advantage of these times. Parishes should make confession available every week, “at days and hours established for the convenience of the faithful (canon 986).” The schedule for confession should be posted and available for baptized Catholics in every parish. Outside of these “posted” times, a baptized Catholic may approach a priest for confession at any reasonable time.
Who is able to hear confession?
Only a validly ordained priest (or bishop) is able to hear a confession as a “minister of the sacrament (canon 965).” He obtains the power to do so by his ordination but he must obtain the “faculty” or permission from the bishop of the diocese before exercising it. How does one know if the priest has the “faculty” to hear confession? If he is a pastor or parish priest assigned to one’s own parish or a priest officially assigned by the bishop to a chaplaincy or other Catholic organization or work within the diocese, this “faculty” can ordinarily be presumed. As far as other priests are concerned, simply ask “are you able to hear my confession?” Any priest — even those who have left the priesthood and have been laicized or who do not have the “faculty” from the bishop — may hear the confession of a baptized Catholic in danger of death (canon 976).
Is it necessary to confess sins to a priest?
The simple answer is “yes.” Although it is God who “forgives sins,” Jesus gave this power specifically to the apostles and their successors, bishops and priests, as noted above. Sin displeases God since it is contrary to his will. Sin also wounds the Church community for the same reason: it is contrary to God’s will. The ordained Catholic priest is the minister of this sacrament. His “physical presence” hearing sins in confession, dispensing advice, assigning penance and giving absolution is not optional or arbitrary; he is necessary for the Sacrament of Penance. His “physical presence” giving absolution for sins is a visible sign (sacraments are “outward signs” instituted by Christ to give grace) that reconciliation between the penitent, God and his Church has taken place. In the Sacrament of Penance, the priest represents God, who is displeased by sin and also represents the Catholic Church community, wounded by sin (more on this in my next Catechesis). The priest may not, under any circumstances, reveal what an individual penitent has told him in confession. That prohibition is called the “seal of confession” and is inviolable (canon 983). Those baptized Catholics who are conscious of personal sin — whether serious or less significant — should always make some prayerful act of contrition immediately and form the intention to go to confession as soon as possible. In confession, the priest should be kind and merciful, as Christ was.
What is meant by “general confession and absolution?”
There are actually three sacramental rites of penance. Two of these rites, whether individual or in a group, require the individual confession of sins by the individual penitent confessing sins to a priest. The third rite involves general confession by a group and absolution by a priest. The only time “general confession and absolution” are permitted and valid are: (1) if there is a danger of death for the entire group and there is no time for individual confession; (2) if baptized Catholics do not have access to a priest for individual confession for such a long time that they would be forced to go without sacramental grace or Holy Communion; they must, however, intend to confess sins individually as soon as they can (canon 961.1). In the Diocese of Trenton, general confession or absolution is never permitted except in these two cases. A large number of penitents and only a few priests available to hear individual confessions (for example, in a parish penance service during Advent or Lent) do not constitute a valid reason for “general confession and absolution.” Priests and parishes who do so are acting contrary to the law of the Catholic Church. In any case or question of doubt, the priest must consult the bishop of the diocese before acting.
Where should confession be made?
Confession can be made any time. The proper place to hear sacramental confession is a designated confessional or reconciliation room in a Catholic Church, a Catholic chapel or oratory (canon 964.1). Confessions may be heard elsewhere but not without a “just cause” or reason (canon 964.3). A hospital or some other place of confinement or a rectory during a meeting with a priest are possible places where confessions may be heard. Confessions may be heard at times when it would be otherwise impossible, very difficult or significantly burdensome for a person to go to confession in a Catholic Church confessional. The priest should always use good judgment about this since we are dealing with a sacrament. It is always better for a person to go to confession when needed rather than not.
What should the baptized Catholic confess?
Any and all sins — serious or less serious — that a Catholic person commits after baptism. The penitent should mention the kind of sin and number of times committed. Prior to going to confession, the penitent should examine his/her conscience to discern what sins have been committed or what obligations he/she might have omitted. The Ten Commandments, the Precepts of the Church, the obligations of charity are good indicators of things that should be considered in an examination of conscience (more on this in my next Catechesis). In any case of doubt, simply ask the priest.
How are sins forgiven or absolved?
The penitent confesses to the priest the kind and number of sins committed since his/her last confession, expresses sorrow or contrition for those sins, is assigned a penance and receives absolution from the priest.
What is meant by “contrition” and firm purpose or intention of amendment?
When one does something wrong, he/she should feel some remorse or regret for his/her actions. The proof of that remorse is that the person decides or intends not to repeat the particular action. In polite society, a person apologizes to the one offended by his/her actions. Contrition is that feeling and expression of remorse or regret for sins committed. That contrition means little if the person does not make or intend to avoid such sins again — a firm purpose or intention of amendment.
Most Reverend David M. O'Connell, C.M.
Bishop of Trenton