RCIA CLASS 17A
- THE SACRAMENT OF PENANCE
I. The Sacrament of Penance (also called Confession Reconciliation) is God's gift to His people to assure them of His forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism.
A. During His public ministry Jesus indicated to His Apostles that they would have special authority to forgive sins.
1. During His
time of preaching, Jesus gave first Peter, and then all of the Apostles
the authority to bind and loose sins. See Matt. 16:19, 18:18.
2. After His resurrection, Jesus appeared to the Apostles in the Upper Room
and said to them 'Receive
the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.
Whose sins you retain are retained.'" John 20:22-23.
B. Jesus personally spoke to penitents during His public ministry and assured them of their forgiveness. See, e.g., Mark 2:5; Luke 7:36-50, 23:39-43. It was not enough for them to confess non-verbally to God, or simply to sense mentally His forgiveness.
- Likewise, Jesus wants
us to be able to speak to Him our sins, and to receive His forgiveness.
C. The sins spoken to the priest are spoken to Christ, with the priest simply standing in for Him.
1. As a result, the priest must keep the person's sins absolutely secret under the severest penalties (excommunication and removal from ministry) for deliberate violations. "Every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. . This secret, which admits of no exception, is called the 'sacramental seal.'" Catechism 1467.
- A priest likewise
may never use anything said in the confessional to the detriment of
the penitent or for any governance decisions.
- Even in private
direction, in order for a priest to mention to a penitent the things
he said in confession, he is supposed to get the penitent's permission.
- A priest may
use understanding gained in the confessional for his own spiritual improvement
(some penitents are rather insightful and even inspiring.) Furthermore,
if the same things have been confessed so many times that it cannot
possibly be connection to any particular confession, the priest may
use insights gained from the general patterns of confession in his teaching.
2. A priest does
try to use his judgment in giving advice to penitents. The forgiveness
conferred by the confession is infallible (if the penitent is really
contrite, see below); the advice is generally based upon expertise and
experience, and thus is usually helpful. Even if it is not, however,
the penitent receives the main benefit of confession, the forgiveness
II. The sacrament of Reconciliation is fitting, for it enables one to be reconciled, through verbal and physical means, with God and the Church, but in a fashion that avoids public shame. "Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from God's mercy for the offences committed against Him and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church." Vatican II Council, Lumen Gentium (1964) 11.
A. On the penitent's part, the sacrament of Reconciliation involves true contrition for sins, and honest confession of sins, and performance of a penance for reparation. "The penitent's acts are repentance, confession or disclosure of sins to the priest and the intention to make reparation and do works of repentance." Catechism 1491.
1. Contrition is: (1) a true sorrow for sin, based upon reasons of faith; and (2) an intention to avoid this sin in the future.
- The sorrow must be real and
not based only upon earthly concerns.
- It is best
if the sorrow is more perfect and based more purely upon the love of
God, but even very imperfect sorrow (e.g., sorrow based upon the fear
of hell, the desire to have a good conscience, or very much mixed with
fear of the worldly effects of sin) is sufficient.
- The intention
to avoid sin may exist even if one knows that, through weakness, one
will find it difficult to avoid the same sin again. But an active
effort to avoid the sin is needed.
2. An honest confession involves a statement of any unconfessed grave sins, that is, sins severe enough to break one's relationship with God. Confession of venial sins is also very helpful and highly recommended, for it gives strength to live positively a life of the Spirit and to avoid getting close to mortal sins.
- As cuts and bruises
weaken a body, and make one more likely to contract more severe diseases,
so venial sins weaken one's soul and make mortal sin more likely.
Thus, in addition to the advantages of avoiding Purgatory, avoiding
venial sins and confessing them is very important.
3. Penance is
an attempt to rectify the evil done by sins; it involves actions that
strengthen the will against sin in the future. In the confession,
the priest will give an act or acts of penance for these purposes, which
generally involves prayers or practical acts of charity. The penance
does not make up for the sins, but helps one begin to restore the love
and order that sin has disrupted
B. The sacrament
also involves absolution given through a priest. "Since Christ
entrusted to his Apostles the ministry of reconciliation, bishops, who
are their successors, and priests, the bishops' collaborators,
continue to exercise this ministry. . . . The confessor is not the master
of God's forgiveness, but its servant." Catechism
C. Reasons for this sacrament include the need to reconcile with God verbally, the need to reconcile with the Church, and the need for an independent evaluation.
1. Verbal confession
and absolution satisfy a natural human need to confess sins to another
person and hear the words of God's forgiveness. "The confession
(or disclosure) of sins, even from a simply human point of view, frees
us and facilitates our reconciliation with others." Catechism
2. Because sins
not only offend God and injure individuals, but also harm the Church,
receiving words of forgiveness from a representative of the Church is
most fitting. "Sin is above all an offense against God. . .
. At the same time, it damages communion with the Church. For
this reason conversion entails both God's forgiveness and reconciliation
with the Church, which are expressed and accomplished liturgically by
the sacrament of Penance and reconciliation." Catechism 1440.
3. In addition,
verbal confession leads us to assess our relationship with God and receive
an objective assessment from a representative of Christ, "Through
such an admission, man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes
responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God."
D. "One who desires to obtain reconciliation with God and the Church, must confess to a priest all the unconfessed grave sins he remembers after having carefully examined his conscience. The confession of venial faults, without being necessary in itself, is nevertheless strongly recommended." Catechism 1493.
- To commit a mortal
sin is "to choose deliberately - that is both knowing it and willing
it - something gravely contrary to the divine law and to the ultimate
end of man." Catechism 1874.
III. The process for going to confession is fairly simple, and tries to emphasize the presence of Christ.
A. Confessions are ideally heard in a confessional, a room or area specifically set aside for the purpose.
- Confessionals are
of many shapes and sizes, but they should all give an opportunity to
go to confession anonymously ("behind the screen".) They may
also give one the ability to go to confession "face to face"
that is with the priest and penitent able to see each other. At
this parish, confession in the Church is available only behind the screen.
One can always go to confession elsewhere face to face.
- Usually, they have
a kneeler, especially on the screen side, emphasizes humility and asking
God for forgiveness and strength.
B. Before going to confession, one should make an examination of conscience, a reflection upon one's life since the last confession and careful thought about what failings there have been.
- There are a
number of written examinations that list a series of questions, frequently
organized around the Ten Commandment, to ask oneself in preparation
for confession, or simply on a regular basis.
- It can also be helpful
to review the virtues, the Beatitudes, or the like to think about how
one has been carrying out one's call to holiness.
C. The penitent would begin confession with the sign of the cross. He then says, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned" and says how long it has been since his last confession. (If it is one's first confession, one says that.)
- It can also often
be helpful to say what one's general situation in life is (e.g., a
middle aged married man with children, a widow, a businessman, a student),
for that information can give the confession a context.
- At the beginning,
or at this point, the priest may read a passage of Scripture, give a
short greeting, or say a prayer.
D. The penitent then states the sins to be confessed.
- All mortal sins that
one remembers and that have not been confessed must be confessed.
With regard to other sins, it is helpful to focus on the most common
or most important.
- One should state
enough circumstances for the priest to understand what the sin was (e.g.,
whether a lie was told out of a desire to boast, greed, or fear), but
not go on with side details (e.g., which day it was on or who else was
doing the same thing.) If one needs more lengthy discussion of
a complex matter, it is a good idea to make an appointment to see the
priest in his office.
E. The priest will
usually give some advice about how to strive for holiness and avoid
the sins confessed or similar sins. This advice is extra, and
if a priest does not give it, or it is not particularly helpful, do
not worry. The main reason for confession is forgiveness of sins,
and the most important secondary effect is strength for the future.
F. The priest will then give a penance to perform, which in this country usually involves praying about something or for someone.
- The penance helps
the process of making up for sin. The penitent must be willing
to perform the penance if it is feasible; however, the forgiveness of
sins is immediate and does not await the performance of the penance.
G. The priest then
usually asks the penitent to pray an "act of contrition," i.e.
a prayer that expresses sorrow for sins and a resolution to improve,
with God's help, in the future. There are fixed acts of contrition,
but there is also flexibility in this prayer.
H. The priest will
then pray the prayer of absolution (i.e. release from sin.) In
the Latin rite, the crucial words of the prayer are "I absolve you
from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the
Holy Spirit." The priest must say those words for the confession
to be valid.
I. The priest will then say a few words in closing.
- The two most common
of the closing phrases are: "Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good";
and "The Lord has freed you from your sins. Go in peace."
The first of these phrases quotes the 106th an 107th psalms,
while the second reflects Christ's words to people He forgave or otherwise
assisted. See Luke 7:50, 8:48; see also Luke 28:28-29
- The fitting response to the first of these phrases is "His mercy endures forever" from the psalms. As with the Mass, the response to "Go in peace" is "thanks be to God" expressing a gratitude at receiving God's forgiveness and assistance. See 2 Cor. 2:14-15, 9:11-15.