there has been a gradual return to the Sacrament of Penance (also called
Confession or Reconciliation) in the last few years. This article
is an attempt to clarify some matters about this sacrament.
often ask why they should go to a priest for confession when they can
tell God directly that they are sorry for their sins. Personal
prayers of confession and contrition are always good and helpful, but
Scripture itself calls for the confession of sins to others on earth,
and the ability of bishops and their successors to give absolution.
See, e.g., Matt. 16:19, 18:18; John 20:23; James 5:13-16; see also Acts
19:18. And thus the Church has, from an early time, considered
it a matter of faith that confession to a bishop or priest designate
is the only ordinary means of obtaining forgiveness for mortal sins
committed after baptism; and she from early days onward has encouraged
the confession of lesser sins. See, e.g., Catechism 1456-58, 1497;
Council of Trent, Decree on Penance (1551).
Bible recounts that, when Christ walked the earth, people who were repentant
of sins were not content with simply asking God in prayer for forgiveness,
but rather went to Him in visible form confessing their sins to Him
and asking His forgiveness. See, e.g., Luke 7:36-50, 23:40-43.
Likewise, just before the public ministry of Jesus, St. John the Baptist
was seen as the representative of God, and people confessed their sins
to him, as they had done before the priests and prophets before.
See Matt. 3:5-6; Mark 1:5; Num. 5:5-7; 2 Sam. 12:13-14. For there
is a natural desire to communicate with God in as personal a manner
as possible, and to hear from Him in audible form that we are forgiven,
rather than wonder at whether our confession and contrition to Him is
sufficient. Priests act as the ambassadors of Christ, see 2 Cor.
5:18-20, and thus allow people to speak to Christ in an audible and
tangible fashion. The sacraments in general provide that certainty
of God's grace through visible, tangible and audible means generally;
and the sacrament of Reconciliation does so for sins.
addition, as the Catechism notes, there is something healing about confessing
one's sins to another person, especially the one who was injured or
a representative. See Catechism 1455. As Fr. Stanley Jaki,
the former President of the Pontifical Academy of Science, wrote, psychology
as had to "discover anew those insights" of Scripture, but now increasingly
"the confessional has been replaced by the couch." See
Praying the Psalms 79. Psychological assistance has a role
in healing from the standpoint of human wisdom; but it is the priest
who, without charge, provides healing from the standpoint of the divine.
the other side of the coin, recounting one's sins to God alone in
prayer, while valuable and a good preparation for Reconciliation is
by itself too easy. Especially in the midst of sin, God can seem
distant, and thus apologies to Him may easily be half-hearted; the requirement
to go to another person, and one trained in hearing confessions, tests
one's real resolve to confess sins and atone for them. Furthermore,
we live in community and in the Church, and sins do not only offend
God, but also other humans and the Church. And thus it is important
to confess sins to another human and a representative of the Church.
And, while it is not the main reason for the sacrament, the priest in
Reconciliation can give advice on how to avoid sins in the future.
The sacrament also gives us grace and strength from heaven to "go
and sin no more." See John 5:4, 8:11. In all ways, the
sacrament of Reconciliation is based both upon divine Revelation and
common sense, and helps us continually "rid ourselves of every burden
and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies
before us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter
of our faith." Heb. 12:1-2.
II. REQUIREMENTS FOR
the penitent's part, there are three requirements for the sacrament,
namely, true contrition, an honest confession, and a willingness to
perform penance. Contrition means a true sorrow for sin
and a resolve to try to avoid the sins in the future. Contrition
is best if it is based upon a deep love for God and passionate desire
to avoid offending divine love; and such contrition makes the sacrament
all the more powerful. But lesser forms of contrition, based upon
a personal shame and disappointment, sorrow at offending others, or
even fear of divine judgment, are sufficient to make the sacrament effective.
Likewise, the resolve to try to avoid sins in the future obviously does
not mean that one will in fact never commit the same sins again; fallen
human nature is often too weak for that. See Rom. 7:18-25.
But contrition does imply that one does not intend to continue committing
those sins and will make efforts to do better. By contrast, if
one is either not sorry for sins at all, or only sorry that they caused
some negative effects on one's life, or if one has no intention of
changing, such a lack of contrition would prevents any real reconciliation
with God, as it would with another human injured by sin.
one of the names for the sacrament implies, the individual confession
of sins is an essential part of the sacrament. Only when such
individual confession is impossible (e.g., in a sinking sinking ship
or for a person who is on artificial respiration and unable to speak)
is this requirement, for the time being, waived. The confession
must include all unconfessed mortal sins that one can remember, that
is. Unless it is important to understand the nature of the sin,
it is not necessary to confess many details about a mortal sin; but
the number and kind (e.g., slander against a co-worker, missing Sunday
Mass without reason, artificial contraception) must be described.
If one cannot remember exact numbers or honestly forgets some grave
sins, which is common when a person has not been to confession for a
long time, the sacrament is still effective. Any forgotten mortal
sins should be confessed in a later Reconciliation. While the
forgiveness of mortal sins is most important, as a practical matter,
when people go to Confession regularly, they usually soon get to the
level where the main struggle is against lesser sins. Confession
of these sins is very helpful, both spiritually and psychologically,
for it calls down the power of heaven to release us from the burdens
that weigh down our souls. See, e.g., Heb. Heb. 12:1-1 James 5:16;
final part of the sacrament for the penitent is the penance assigned
by the priest. This penance does not itself make up for sins,
but rather is our cooperation in divine grace. Although penances
in a bygone era were often rather severe, today they are more a beginning
practice to help overcome the tendency to sin. Still, they are
important, and participation with Christ through them is crucial to
our call to join with Jesus and therefore become a co-heir with Him.
See Rom. 8:16-17; Catechism 1460.
the Church's part, a priest with the faculties to confer the sacrament
must hear the confession and confer absolution. In the Latin rite,
the Church has given the prayer for absolution, and said that the essential
aspect is the concluding words, "I absolve you from your sins in the
name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
In case of emergency, the priest may shorten the absolution to those
final words, but those words are essential and cannot be changed.
It is true that, as the Catechism points out, the Eastern rites of the
Church (i.e. the traditions of the Church that arose in the east parts
of the Mediterranean region, Eastern Europe and the area around the
Middle East) set forth different forms of absolution, which the priests
of those rites use. See Catechism 1481. But a priest must
use the prayer authorized by his rite. A priest does not confer
this or any sacrament by his own power, but rather by authority of the
church given by Christ.