What You Need to Know
Penance (Reconciliation, Confession)
When it comes to understanding the Sacrament of Penance (also called the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or simply Confession), we can move quickly from the barest possible outline to one of the deepest documents the Church has issued in the modern era.The best short summary of the theology behind the sacrament, its history, and its structure and efficacy is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.Given that Confession is both under-appreciated and underutilitzed in our own day, Pope John Paul II issued a brief document, On the Mercy of God, outlining and defending a proper understanding and use of the Sacrament of Penance in 2002.But the gold standard on this issue is the same Pope’s masterful Apostolic Exhortation On Reconciliation and Penance (also in 1984). This lengthy document, which grew out of an earlier Synod of Bishops devoted to the same topic, provides a rich theological and ecclesial background for not only the Sacrament itself but the very concepts of penance and reconciliation in the Christian life. It may be read all at once or used for spiritual reading, a little at a time.
If you only have time to look at three things, LOOK AT THESE.
- The Catechism on the Sacrament of Penance
- Misericordia Dei (On the Mercy of God) (John Paul II, 2002)
- Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (On Reconciliation and Penance)
And if you've got more time...
A brief definition of the Sacrament of Penance, covering the bare essentials, is found in Fr. Hardon's Catholic Dictionary under the entry Sacrament of Penance.
The heated modern question of whether children might receive First Communion before receiving First Penance was settled definitively in the negative in 1973 by the Congregations for the Clergy and the Sacraments in Sanctus Pontifex. The contrary practice is an abuse.
While the practice of general absolution without personal confession of sins to a priest is possible in emergency situation, its widespread abuse has been condemned many times, perhaps most recently in a 1999 instruction by the Congregation for Divine Worship to the Church in Australia, The Sacrament of Penance.
In the same year Reconciliatio et Paenitentia was issued, the late Bishop Austin Vaughan of New York offered a useful catalogue of questions and confusions which have contributed to a decline in the use of the Sacrament of Penance.
Finally, both popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have frequently emphasized the importance of rediscovering the Sacrament of Penance, not only among lay people but for frequent use by priests as a key to holiness. See, for example, By Going to Confession Priests Become Holy (John Paul II) and Rediscover the Sacrament of Penance (Benedict XVI, 2007).