Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Penance Pensées

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 01, 2024

Catholic dogma: “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things that they might exist.” (Wis. 1:13-14) The consequences of Original Sin are suffering and death: “By the envy of the devil, death entered the world.” (Wis. 2:24)

Jesus demonstrates His dominion over suffering and death with His miracles. Yet all those He healed eventually died. His miracles carry a meaning that extends beyond physical healing. His mission is to save us from our sins and restore our humanity.

Jesus confronts sin, suffering, and death on the Cross. He overcomes the root cause of suffering and death—every sin throughout history—with His glorious Resurrection. His healing anticipates His Cross and Resurrection and the forgiveness of sin in the Sacrament of Penance.

The healing mission of Jesus prompts a few thoughts on the Sacrament of Penance and traditional Catholic confessional practice.

The Penitential Rite

During the Penitential Rite of the Mass, we pray: “I confess to almighty God…that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.” Sins are actions: deliberate thoughts, words, deeds—and omissions required in justice. The Rite forgives venial sins. Regrettably, we often overlook or miss the Penitential Rite at Mass.

The Components of Sin

Sin has objective components. The action must be evil in itself or because of the circumstances. An intention may render an otherwise good act evil. “The last act is the greatest treason. To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”—T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral.

Sin has subjective components. I must know the action is a sin but freely commit it anyway. Ignorance, fear, and other intellectual and emotional factors lessen our responsibility for our sins. Before the age of reason, children cannot commit sins and need the gentle guidance of parents to grow in wisdom and self-control.

Sins are not feelings. Anger is merely a volatile emotion. What matters is how we use our anger. Did I control my anger, or did anger control me? Parents may avoid disciplining a child and feel good about it. But the failure to inflict just punishment for misbehavior is an injustice, a sinful omission.

The Consequences of Sin

There are two consequences of sin: guilt and punishment. Mortal sin extinguishes sanctifying grace and threatens the fires of hell. When I shoplift, I am guilty of theft. When I repent of my thievery, I receive forgiveness, but I must make restitution (at least to the poor box) to set the scales of justice right. A 2-year-old may touch a hot stove without guilt. But he still suffers burned fingers. We pick up the broken pieces after we drop a glass tumbler, but it may take weeks to recover the shards of glass. God forgives us, but we must pick up the pieces in the weeks and months ahead.

Venial sins weaken our souls, but the consequences can be catastrophic. Texting while driving is usually a venial sin. However, law-enforcement authorities know texting is the cause of many serious car accidents.

Emotional trauma, frustration, near occasions of sin, and venial sin usually precede a mortal sin. A good examination of conscience identifies those triggers.

The Confession of Sin

The Church teaches we must, to the best of our ability, confess the nature and number of mortal sins in Confession. Avoid unnecessary details in Confession, but feel free to ask clarifying questions.

We need not confess every venial sin. We need only to confess mortal sins to the best of our ability. Yet it is healthy to articulate those venial failures and receive the graces of the Sacrament to grow in virtue.

God forgives every sin as we try to make a good Confession. If we later remember an unconfessed mortal sin, we need not panic. God has forgiven the forgotten sin. But maintain integrity and identify the sin without drama in your next Confession as “forgotten and unconfessed.”

Contrition (Sorrow) for Sin

The Act of Contrition describes two types of sorrow: imperfect and perfect—with resolutions to do penance and sin no more.

Imperfect contrition: “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because of thy just punishments.” “Mother, I am heartily sorry for having offended you, and I detest my misbehavior because I fear you will send me to my room and cut my allowance.” Imperfect contrition is insufficient to obtain forgiveness for mortal sin without Confession.

Perfect contrition: “But most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love.” “But most of all, because I have let you down by my behavior, Mom, you deserve my love.” Perfect contrition forgives mortal sins, even outside Confession. The graces of the Sacrament of Penance ratify perfect contrition and provide certainty. The graces of the Sacrament of Penance raise imperfect contrition to perfection.

The Priest and His Sins

Before he receives Communion during Mass, a priest privately prays: “May the receiving of your Body and Blood, Lord Jesus Christ, not bring me to judgment and condemnation, but through your loving mercy be for me protection in mind and body and a healing remedy.” A priest prays he will not receive Communion in the state of mortal sin to avoid a “sacrilegious Communion.” Like a doctor, a priest should be an expert on Catholic morality. (Even if he isn’t, his prayers of absolution are valid).

Is a priest worthy to hear Confessions? Of course not. That’s not the point. He stands in for Jesus whether he likes it or not. Hearing Confessions is essential to the healing ministry of Holy Orders. The inviolable Seal of Confession respects dignity and leaves reputations in the hands of penitents.

Catholic dogma: “The glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God.” (St. Irenaeus of Lyons)

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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