By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 12, 2008

On Thursday nights, when my wife and I take a turn at Eucharistic adoration, I generally spend part of my prayer time asking for a hint as to what I should write about in my Friday article. Often I am blessed with an idea, but not last night. This morning I was in the confession line at Church at 7:45 am (yes, I really do hate going in the middle of Saturday afternoon), so while I was reviewing my sins, I asked again for a literary pointer. Suddenly, it was obvious.

The Sacrament of Penance is surely the most under-utilized of the Church’s sacraments. This is inevitable in the age of “I’m OK, you’re OK.” But our failure to use the sacrament well is an important obstacle to holiness. The five common names of the sacrament tell why: Penance because it incorporates the self-abasement and satisfaction we offer for our sins. Confession because in it we both confess our sins and, in a deeper sense, confess (acknowledge and praise) the mercy of God. Reconciliation because it reconciles us both to God and the Church. Conversion because in it we respond to Our Lord’s call and turn again toward Him. Forgiveness because we obtain absolution, conferring (as the words say) “pardon and peace.” Here alone are reasons enough for frequent Confession.

God and the Apostles

“Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Outraged at Jesus’ claim to forgive the sins of the paralytic (Mk 2:1-12), the scribes asked this question, and they were right to do so. Either Jesus was blaspheming or He was God. Our Lord understood the question perfectly, so He performed a visible, physical miracle to establish the truth of His claim. The scribes simply refused to believe. But since we do believe, we ought to take seriously the need to seek God's forgiveness each time we sin. How is this done?

Christ wants us to do this sacramentally. First, that’s the way He usually works, through external signs and created things. Second, He deliberately and obviously commissioned His apostles with a special power to forgive sins. To Peter and to the Church generally He said: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19; Mt 18:18). This refers to the power of Peter and the apostles in union with him to determine, both on earth and in heaven, who is in communion with Christ and who is not. And to the apostles together He said, very specifically: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you…. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20:21-23).

For these reasons, the Church has always held that the bishop, with the fullness of Holy Orders, is the principal minister of the Sacrament of Penance, assisted by his priests insofar as he commissions them for this service. Through the sacrament of Penance we are restored to God’s grace and reconciled with the Church (which is inseparable from being reconciled with God). We also in some measure anticipate the final judgment by obtaining God’s definitive mercy now, through the means He has wisely and generously provided. We are foolish indeed if we do not take full and frequent advantage of so clear and simple a means of forgiveness, overflowing as it is with Divine love.

Essentials of the Sacrament

There are four elements to the Sacrament of Penance, commonly listed as contrition, confession, absolution and satisfaction. First, the penitent must both have and express contrition for his sins. This contrition can be either perfect—arising from the love of God—or imperfect, arising from other considerations such as a horror of sin or a fear of judgment. Such contrition necessarily involves a sincere examination of conscience and the intention to amend one’s life in the future, even if that intention is successful only over time and through many struggles. Without contrition, the priest’s absolution has no effect.

Second, except in emergency situations, the Sacrament requires verbal confession of one’s sins. This is not only required but salutary both naturally and supernaturally. As our psychology-saturated culture knows very well, we humans typically feel a little better if we can get something off our chests. Though often difficult, this has a sort of natural cleansing power. In addition and more importantly, confession of our sins requires considerable humility and abasement before God’s tribunal. We recognize God’s authority, strip away our pride, acknowledge our sinfulness and name our specific shortcomings before God’s representative. The spiritual power of this process far exceeds any sort of “going directly to God”, as is frequently (and erroneously) advocated by Protestants.

Third, the priest must grant absolution—and may in fact withhold it if he sees no contrition or intention to amend one’s life. For example, if someone confesses cohabitation before marriage without intending to change the situation, the priest certainly ought to withhold absolution. And so with any sin. But when absolution does come in what is called a “good” confession, it is tremendously consoling. Both naturally and supernaturally, it does confer pardon and peace. Most regular users of the Sacrament have seen more than one penitent enter the confessional tense and distraught only to leave with a lighter step, or even crying tears of relief and joy.

Finally, the priest assigns a penance which we must at least intend to perform if the absolution is to take effect. This is called satisfaction. In general, of course, we must make satisfaction for any wrong we have done to others as best we can (restoring stolen property, for example). But our sins also offend God; in fact they primarily offend God, who is infinitely holy. The penances assigned by the priest will generally be directed toward this fact. They provide a small and simple means—perhaps some prayers or a work of mercy—through which we can show our sorrow and offer satisfaction to God for our sins, satisfaction which is made far more valuable because it is joined to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Growth in Holiness

Here are some other things to note about the Sacrament of Penance. What the Church strives for is not merely a formulaic ritual finished off by the mechanical performance of a penance. The Sacrament is designed to elicit that true interior penance and constant conversion which are so necessary to growth in holiness throughout life. This is why, although only mortal sins must be confessed (a mortal sin is something that the sinner knows is wrong, involves grave matter, and is done with full consent of the will), the Church recommends confession of venial sins as well, or even the restatement of sorrow for past sins. In addition, although Confession is required only once a year by ecclesiastical law, the Church also recommends frequent use of the Sacrament. Once a month is a good general guideline. All of this fosters rapidly increasing union with God.

Two other rules concerning the Sacrament of Penance are also important, especially as they have been frequently ignored in modern times. Penance is required before First Communion, even for children. And all those aware that they are in mortal sin must refrain from receiving Communion until they have made a good Confession. A third rule should bring great consolation to all of us sinners: The Church insists that all her priests honor the seal of the confessional. That is, the priest may neither reveal nor act upon anything he learns about a penitent through the Sacrament. In addition, of course, you can be sure that priests have heard most sins many, many times; they are also aware of their own sins (for they too must confess them to other priests). So there is no need for embarrassment or fear about what “Father will think.”

Kinds of Penances

Finally, a word about the nature of our penances. Throughout the history of the Church, several types of penances have been used in various times and places. In the early Church in the West, for example, fairly rigorous penances were often required, including (for very serious sins) extended public penances. In the monasteries of the East, however, private penances were more common, and this practice was introduced widely into the Latin Church by Irish monks in the seventh century. Since then, private penance has been the norm.

A distinction may also be made between punitive or “vindictive” penances and medicinal ones. Again, in earlier periods there was a tendency to emphasize the importance of the penance as giving satisfaction to God. After all, it substitutes for either eternal punishment or for the intense pains of purgatory. Consequently, penances tended to be heavier. As time went on, however, the Church reflected ever more deeply on Christ’s involvement in the penance, not just in the absolution. Accordingly, the Church began to focus on the reality that none of us can make up on our own for the offenses we have committed against God, no matter what we do. Therefore the assigned penance must be viewed in its union with Christ’s redemptive sacrifice. By the time of the Council of Trent, there was a renewed emphasis on “medicinal” penances—lighter penances designed to heal the sinner by fostering the virtue corresponding to the vice.

Of course, penances can differ from place to place and priest to priest, but we are fortunate to live in an age in which penances are not daunting. Indeed, some priests reserve the heavier penances for the holier people, and the lighter penances for those with the most serious sins—an acknowledgement, surely, of the spiritual capabilities of each penitent. The serious sinner needs first of all mercy, while those of us “further along” may become complacent; we may need a wake-up call. Whatever the case, the Sacrament of Penance is one of Christ’s most beautiful gifts to His Church, a Church which on earth is made up exclusively of sinners—sinners in dire need of grace.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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