Chapter 6 – The Sacrament of Penance

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“Those who approach the Sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from God’s mercy for the offense committed against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example, and by prayer labors for their conversion” (LG 11 § 2) (CCC #1422)

The Sacrament of Penance is given many names.  The various names highlight its effects in our lives.  Here are the various names we use:

Sacrament of Penance: This Sacrament allows us to do acts of penance for our sins as a way of deepening our conversion and turning away from the sins we confess.

Sacrament of Conversion: It calls us to change, to convert and become more conformed to the image of Christ.

Sacrament of Confession: In this Sacrament, we are called to disclose our conscience and reveal our sins in absolute confidentiality to the priest.

Sacrament of Forgiveness: The ultimate effect of this Sacrament is forgiveness of our sins.

Sacrament of Reconciliation: By receiving this Sacrament, we are not only reconciled to God, we are also reconciled to the other members of the Church.

When a person is baptized, every sin is forgiven.  Of course, if we were baptized as infants, there were no “personal” sins present, only “original sin.”  In that case, original sin is wiped away.  But for those who are baptized as adults, they should be pleased to know that every sin of their past is fully wiped away at baptism.  As mentioned in Chapter Three, in the early Church there were those who actually waited to be baptized until later in life so that they could receive this effect of Baptism closer to death.  But if we have a proper understanding of both Baptism and Penance, we will realize that infant baptism is the ideal when followed by regular participation in the Sacrament of Penance.  Saint Ambrose is quoted in the Catechism to illustrate this by saying, “there are water and tears: the water of Baptism and the tears of repentance” (St. Ambrose, ep. 41, 12: PL 16, 1116). (CCC #1429)

The key to understanding the Sacrament of Penance is to understand how glorious it is to embrace a life of ongoing conversion.  This is the Christian life!  It’s a life of continually growing closer to God and moving further away from our sins.  For some, this can seem like a burden and can be undesirable.  But if we understood the wonderful interior rewards of ongoing and deepening conversion, it would be our greatest desire.

How do we convert?  First and foremost, it’s an interior action.  It means we discover two things in the depths of our conscience.  We discover sin, and we discover God.  The goal is obviously to see sin for what it is and then to turn it over to our merciful God.  But God also wants this interior conversion to have exterior aspects.  Hence, we have the Sacrament of Penance.  In this Sacrament, we invite Christ, in the person of the priest, to enter into our conscience and to wipe it clean leaving only God there to consume us more fully.

This interior conversion also has the exterior effect of changing our actions and enabling God to shine through us in a more manifest way, so as to offer His love and mercy to others.  So conversion is something first interior which unfolds in our exterior lives.  

Let’s now take a look at the necessary preparations we must make for the Sacrament of Penance from a more practical point of view.  If we can understand this Sacrament for what it is, we may also come to accept the value of regularly practicing it!

How I Prepare

Preparation for the Sacrament of Penance is an ongoing process.  It requires a daily acknowledgement of two things.  First, we must see God’s mercy for what it is.  Second, when and only when we understand and believe in God’s mercy will we then be properly prepared to fully embrace this Sacrament.

Mercy is love.  It’s the form of love given to us by God.  In order to receive mercy, we must understand it.  And in order to properly understand mercy, we must understand who God is.  

Is God a God of wrath and anger?  Is He a God of judgment and justice?  Well, yes, He is.  But His wrath and anger are holy and are directed at our sins, not us.  God hates our sin but loves us with an infinite love.  In fact, the reason He hates our sin so much is because He loves us so much.  He knows that our sin hurts us and hinders our ability to love Him and find the fulfillment in life we so deeply seek.  God wants us happy and, for that reason, wants us free from sin.

Start with an understanding of an all-powerful God filled with a holy wrath toward that which hurts us most…our sin.  Ideally, you will let your own heart grow in the same holy wrath toward your sin.  You will ideally let your heart see sin for what it is and grow in a desire to be freed of it so that you can be free to love and live as you were made to live.

God is also a God of judgment and justice.  Again, this is good!  Why?  Because His judgment is perfectly just.  It is not harsh or arbitrary.  It is not condemning or oppressive.  His judgment is grounded only in Truth.  And it is that Truth that sets us free.  

For this reason, we should desire judgment and justice in our lives.  Unfortunately, when we hear the word “judgment,” we can think of being “judgmental.”  God is not judgmental in the way we normally use that word.  He does not hold onto our sin and keep it always before us as if to continually say, “You are a sinner, shame on you.”  No, God’s judgment is such that it clears up confusion, helping us to sort through that which burdens us the most.  So do not be afraid of this pure and holy form of judgment and justice that comes from our loving and merciful God.

Once we have a proper understanding of holy wrath, anger, judgment and justice, we will be in a position to let those holy qualities fill our own souls.  We will take on these attributes from God and use them for our own holiness.  We will begin to see sin for what it is and deeply desire to be freed of it.  What a grace this is!

These good and holy qualities will lead us to practice penance and repentance.  Regarding the practice of penance and repentance, the Catechism states:

The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving (Tob 12:8; Mt 6:1–18), which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others. Alongside the radical purification brought about by Baptism or martyrdom they cite as means of obtaining forgiveness of sins: efforts at reconciliation with one’s neighbor, tears of repentance, concern for the salvation of one’s neighbor, the intercession of the saints, and the practice of charity “which covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8; cf. Jas 5:20). (#1434)

Effort at reconciliation with one’s neighbor: How hard this is!  When we have been hurt by another it takes a tremendous amount of mercy to reconcile and forgive.  One way to do this is to see the justice of God at work.  In God’s justice, He desires that all people be saved.  The first step in this process is to forgive and offer mercy.  This mercy is a form of justice in that it brings about reconciliation.  Think about those you need to forgive and be reconciled with.  How are you doing at that?  If you find yourself lacking, this is a good area to look at and grow in. 

Tears of repentance: This is simply a holy hatred for our sin that affects even our emotions and passions.  It means we are so repulsed by sin that we are consumed with a holy desire to overcome even the smallest weaknesses.  Emotions should not be the driving force or else they may cause more problems than they solve.  But they play a role when they are directed by the Holy Spirit.  Surrender your emotions to God and ask that He fill them with the same passion for freedom that rules His heart, and the same hatred for sin that He has.

Concern for the salvation of one’s neighbor and the practice of charity: True repentance always looks to the other.  We will not sit there self-consumed; rather, we will desire to overcome our sin because it will have a glorious effect in the lives of others.  Repentance of our own sin is ultimately done out of charity in that we seek freedom so that we can be a better instrument of grace for them.

Intercession of the saints: We are not alone.  It’s easy to forget that the saints are there praying for us constantly.  Remember that!  Call on them and rely on them.  Let their powerful intercession become an effective means of grace in your life and in the lives of those you are called to love.

The above practices are accomplished when we embrace basic spiritual principles of repentance, penance and ongoing conversion.  We must daily read the Scriptures, be faithful to Mass, spend time every day in prayer, practice charitable works and make daily sacrifices (even if it’s not Lent!).  All of these tried and true spiritual practices will have the effect of preparing us to be freed of our sin.  Once prepared, we are ready to enter into the glorious Sacrament of Forgiveness.

Understanding this Glorious Gift

Sin is before all else an offense against God, a rupture of communion with him. 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 (LG 11). (Catechism #1440)

God alone is the one who can forgive sins.  But He can do this any way He chooses.  And the primary way He has chosen to offer the grace of forgiveness is through the Church.  He is the source, but the Church is intimately involved.  And among the greatest ways the Church is involved is the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  Let’s look at some of the practical aspects of this Sacrament and its effects so that we will grow in our love for this glorious gift.

The Ministry of the Church: The Church is intimately involved in the Sacrament of Reconciliation in two specific ways.  First, it is through the ministry of priests that God directly enters in and wipes sin away.  This power to forgive was given to the Apostles and handed down through the ages to all those who share in the ordained ministry.  The priest forgives; but, in reality, it is Christ in the person of the priest who forgives.  God is the source of all forgiveness and mercy.

We see this power given to the Apostles when, after His Resurrection, Jesus appeared to them, ordained them, and commanded them to forgive.  This is in John 20:21–23:

[Jesus] said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

When we sin, we hurt our relationship with God, but we also hurt our relationship with one another and with the entire Church.  Therefore, the Sacrament of Reconciliation also reconciles us to the other members of Christ’s Body, the Church.

Forgiveness of Mortal Sin: Mortal sin is ugly.  More will be said on it in Book Three of this series.  But for now, suffice it to say that a mortal sin contains three basic elements: 1) It is a grave action against God; 2) We know it is gravely wrong; 3) We fully intend and consent to do it anyway.  When all three of these elements are present, we have committed a mortal sin.  

By “mortal” we mean that the sin is so serious that it completely severs our relationship with God and His Church.  And if we were to die without repenting of this sin, we’d go to Hell.  So, yes, that’s what makes it so ugly.  Mortal sin introduces grave disorder into our lives and affects us in every way: emotionally, spiritually, intellectually; and it weakens our will.  The way to freedom and forgiveness is the Sacrament of Confession.  In this Sacrament, God lifts the heavy burden of mortal sin and restores us to His grace.  A good understanding of mortal sin, what it is and what it is not, is very important in making a good and balanced confession.

We say that Confession is the “ordinary way” to receive forgiveness of mortal sins.  This means that the Church does not know of any other way that God forgives.  Now we do not want to limit God’s mercy and say that it’s impossible to receive forgiveness from Him through some other means, but it is important to make clear that this is the only way we know of that God has forgiven us.  So if you’ve struggled with mortal sin, make sure to read on and to embrace this Sacrament!

Forgiveness of Venial Sin: Very often, sin does not rise to the level of being mortal.  Even if the action itself is grave, there are often some diminishing circumstances involved.  For example, say someone struggles with some form of sexual addiction such as pornography.  This is becoming a very common struggle in our day and age.  Looking at pornography is a serious offence against God, and so it should be considered grave.  However, what about the person who has struggled with this for years and is finally getting help.  He is going to confession every week and seeking good spiritual advice as well as the grace of the Sacrament.  He has put filters on his computer and has friends keeping him accountable.  In other words, he is trying hard to overcome this addiction.  

Say this person has done well for weeks and then, in a moment of weakness, falls and looks at some images online.  Say he had been very stressed out that week and was momentarily overwhelmed.  He feels horrible about it and is repulsed by this fall.  Has he just committed a mortal sin?  In other words, has he just completely cut off his relationship with God?  Perhaps, but probably not.  In this case, we do not want to give the impression that he did nothing wrong, because he did.  This was certainly sin.  But the facts are that his ongoing struggle, his addiction, his honest attempts to overcome this, and his immediate sorrow indicate that this grave action was a venial sin rather than a mortal one.  If anything diminishes personal guilt for a serious action, the sin moves into the category of venial rather than mortal.  Our moral tradition has recognized that factors such as force, fear, passion and ignorance diminish a person’s culpability before God.

The point here is definitely NOT to give the impression that it was no big deal.  Rather, we need to make sure that we do not overreact to our weakness, temptations and sin.  We should be merciful to ourselves in the same way that God is merciful.  In this case, the person should immediately say an act of contrition, express sorrow and recommit himself to overcoming this struggle.  And he should mention it in his next confession.  But he should also be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that he is now doomed to Hell until his next confession.  God does not work that way.

Venial sin is also every other sin that would not fall into the category of “grave” but is still wrong.  This would be any of the commandments or capital sins outlined below that are committed to a lesser degree.  Venial sin is always with us, and it requires a daily commitment to battle against it.  Receiving the Eucharist, signing ourselves with holy water, or making a sincere act of contrition will bring God’s forgiveness for venial sins.  However, what is even more powerful in our battle against every venial sin is taking them to confession.  By confessing these sins, we allow God to pour forth His healing salve upon the areas we struggle with the most.  We let Him strengthen us in our times of need and completely blot out all sin.  

The least serious form of venial sin (that which is the least sinful) can be called “spiritual imperfections.”  These sins manifest the many ways we lack perfect virtue.  We are all guilty of these spiritual imperfections and, therefore, always have something to say in confession.  Specifically, we are guilty of not having perfect faith, hope and charity.  The Sacrament of Confession also helps us in these areas in that the sacramental grace given strengthens us in these virtues to make us more like Christ.

Seal of Confession: One of the greatest gifts we receive from the Church is the promise of absolute confidentiality when confessing our sins.  The priest can never, under any circumstance, reveal our sins to another.  That means, for example, if he is called into civil court and told that he must reveal your confession to the judge and jury, the priest must decline and refuse regardless of the civil consequences against him.  He cannot reveal your confession to another priest, to his bishop or to anyone.  The seal is absolute!  In fact, if a priest were to ever intentionally reveal someone’s confession, he would automatically and immediately be excommunicated from the Church.  Ouch!  We take the seal of Confession very seriously!

From Interior Repentance to the Grace of the Sacrament

Let’s look more practically at how this Sacrament is celebrated.  It follows a certain process and liturgical rite.  Within that liturgical celebration, the interior intention and action is of utmost importance.  Here are the keys you need to know and embrace for a good celebration of this Sacrament.

Examining our Conscience: We will greatly benefit from examining our Conscience so as to practically see what sin we need to be freed of.  There are many forms of examination of conscience, but the best ones are based on the Ten Commandments or the Seven Capital Sins.  Below are a couple of examinations that will shed light on what we need to let go of if we want to enter more fully into God’s abundant mercy.

Individual Examination of Conscience—7 Deadly Sins

Pride: “Pride is an untrue opinion of ourselves, an untrue idea of what we are not.”  Have I a superior attitude in thinking, or speaking or acting? Am I snobbish?  Have I offensive, haughty ways of acting or carrying myself?  Do I hold myself above others? Do I demand recognition?  Do I desire to be always first? Do I seek advice?  Am I ready to accept advice? Am I in any sense a “bully”?  Am I inclined to be “bossy”?  Do I speak ill of others?  Have I lied about others?  Do I make known the faults of others?  Do I seek to place the blame on others, excusing myself?  Is there anyone to whom I refuse to speak? Is there anyone to whom I have not spoken for a long time?  Am I prone to argue?  Am I offensive in my arguments? Have I a superior “know-it-all attitude” in arguments?  Am I self-conscious?  Am I sensitive?  Am I easily wounded?

Envy:  “Envy is a sadness which we feel, on account of the good that happens to our neighbor.”  Do I feel sad at the prosperity of others? At their success in games? In athletics?  Do I rejoice at their failures?  Do I envy the riches of others?  

Sloth: “Sloth is a kind of cowardice and disgust, which makes us neglect and omit our duties rather than to discipline ourselves.”  Have I an inordinate love of rest, neglecting my duties?  Do I act lazily?  Am I too fond of rest?  Do I take lazy positions in answering prayers? Do I kneel in a lounging way?  Do I delight in idle conversation?  Do I fail to be fervent in the service of God?  

Lust: “Lust is the love of the pleasures that are contrary to purity.”  Have I desired or done impure things? Have I taken pleasure in entertaining impure thoughts or desires? Have I read impure material, listened to music with impure lyrics, or looked at impure images, whether in photos or on television or in movies or on the Internet? Have I aroused sexual desire in myself or another by impure kissing, embracing, or touching? Have I committed impure actions alone, i.e., masturbation? Do I dress immodestly or am I too concerned with the way I look? Do I use vulgar language or tell or listen to impure jokes or stories? Have I given into desires of adultery even in my imagination?

Covetousness: “Covetousness is a disordered love of the goods of this world.”  Do I dispose of my money properly or selfishly?  Do I discharge my duties in justice to my fellow man?  Do I discharge my duties in justice to the Church?  

Gluttony: “Gluttony is a disordered love of eating and drinking.”  Do I eat to live or live to eat?  Do I drink to excess?  Do I get drunk?  Do I misuse prescription drugs?  Do I use illegal drugs?  Have I allowed myself to become addicted to alcohol and/or drugs?  

Anger: “An emotion of the soul, which leads us violently to repel whatever hurts or displeases us.”  Am I prone to anger?  Does practically any little thing arouse my temper?  Am I what is generally termed “a sore-head”? Do I fail to repress the first signs of anger? Do I fail to get along well with everybody? Do I ponder over slights or injuries and even presume them?  Do I rejoice at the misfortunes of others? Do I think of means of revenge? Of “getting even”?  Am I of an argumentative disposition? Have I a spirit of contradiction?  Am I given to ridicule of persons, places, or things?  Am I hard to get along with?  Do I carry grudges, remain “on the outs” with anyone?  Do I talk about the faults of others?  Do I reveal the faults or defects of others?  Do I reveal the faults of others from the wrong motive?

Individual Examination of Conscience—10 Commandments

First Commandment: “I am the Lord your God, you shall not have strange gods before Me.”  Have I denied God? Have I been ashamed of or denied my faith in front of others? Have I ridiculed the teachings or practices of the Church? Have I neglected my prayers? Have I used witchcraft, Wicca, or other Occult practices? Have I practiced various forms of superstition such as fortune tellers, mediums, ouija boards, tarot cards? 

Second Commandment: “Do not take the name of the Lord in vain.”  Do I use God’s name carelessly, in anger, or in surprise? Have I called down evil upon anyone or anything?

Third Commandment: “Keep holy the Sabbath Day.”  Have I, through my own fault, failed to come to Mass each Sunday and every Holy Day of Obligation? Do I arrive at Mass late or leave early without good reason? Do I allow myself to be distracted at Mass?

Fourth Commandment: “Honor your father and mother.”  Have I disobeyed my parents or treated them with disrespect? Am I disrespectful, impolite, or discourteous toward my family? Have I neglected my work or my studies? Have I been helpful in my home? Have I failed to study seriously and with diligence? Have I missed an exam at school because of laziness? Am I disrespectful toward the elderly? Am I disobedient to the civil law or to those in authority such as the police?

Fifth Commandment: “You shall not kill.”  Did I have an abortion or help another to have an abortion? Have I mutilated my body or another’s body? Did I attempt suicide or seriously consider thoughts of suicide? Do I act violently by fighting or hitting others? Have I had thoughts of hatred toward another? Have I taken illegal drugs or abused prescription drugs? Have I sold or distributed illegal drugs? Do I neglect to take proper care of my body? Do I eat too much, or sleep too much? Do I drink beer or other alcoholic beverages in excess? Have I allowed myself to become intoxicated?  Am I too concerned about my health or appearance? Do I deliberately harbor unkind and revengeful thoughts about others? Have I taken revenge? Have I used harsh or abusive language toward another? Do I act rudely, impolitely, or ridicule others? Have I been guilty of the sin of racism? Am I cruel to animals?

Sixth & Ninth Commandments: “Do not commit adultery.  Do not covet your neighbors wife.”  Have I desired or done impure things? Have I taken pleasure in entertaining impure thoughts or desires? Have I read impure material, listened to music with impure lyrics, or looked at impure images, whether in photos or on television or in movies or on the Internet? Have I aroused sexual desire in myself or another by impure kissing, embracing, or touching? Have I committed impure actions alone, i.e., masturbation? Have I committed homosexual acts or other unnatural acts? Do I use artificial contraception whether surgical, barrier or chemical methods? Have I dressed immodestly or been too concerned with the way I look? Do I use vulgar language or tell or listen to impure jokes or stories? 

Seventh and tenth Commandments: “You shall not steal.  Do not covet your neighbor’s goods.”  Have I taken anything that was not my own? Have I damaged private or public property or defaced it by vandalism? Have I been guilty of shop-lifting? Have I accepted or bought stolen property or helped someone to steal? Have I bribed someone? Do I gamble excessively? Have I borrowed something without the owner’s permission? Have I failed to return something I borrowed? Do I waste money or spend it extravagantly? Have I harbored a greed for money or worldly possessions? Have I made of money, or any possession, a false god? Do I waste goods or food? Have I cheated on tests or schoolwork? Have I cheated in games or sports?

Eighth Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”  Have I lied deliberately? Have I sworn to do something sinful or illegal? Have I slandered others by attributing to them sins they did not commit or of which I had no evidence? Do I gossip about others or listen to gossip? Have I told a secret I was asked to keep? Have I betrayed someone’s trust? Have I criticized anyone uncharitably? Do I make rash judgments and harbor false suspicions about others? Have I deliberately misled or deceived anyone? Have I refused to forgive someone or held a grudge against him or her? Have I failed to apologize or make amends to someone I offended? 

Other considerations:  Am I greedy or selfish or do I indulge in self-pity? Am I proud or vain or do I show off?  Am I superficial and worldly? Do I desire to be praised by exaggerating my success? Am I touchy and hypersensitive? Do I magnify the least oversight or thoughtlessness into an insult or deliberate slight? Have I been boastful? Have I been arrogant with others? Have I obstinately defended actions which are sinful, either my own or other’s? Am I rebellious? Have I spent useless time planted before the TV when I could be doing more constructive things? Am I envious of someone’s possessions and do I inordinately desire them to be my own? Do I take delight in the misfortunes of others?

OK, so you’ve let God reveal to you your sin, and you now desire to overcome it.  What’s next?  After spending sufficient time with an examination of conscience, it’s key to let that examination foster true contrition.  Contrition for sin is one of the most important parts of this Sacrament, and it all depends on us!

Contrition: Contrition has been spoken of in two basic ways: 1) Imperfect contrition; 2) Perfect contrition.  Obviously, the latter is what we should aim for.  

Imperfect contrition is a sorrow for our sins because we fear punishment.  By analogy, it would be like a child who is tempted to take a cookie but refrains because he knows his mom will find out and he will get punished.  It is the fear of punishment that keeps him from disobedience.  Or, an even clearer example may be when that same child hits his brother and gets in trouble for it.  He is told, “If you do not say you are sorry, you will have to go to your room!”  The boy reluctantly says, “I’m sorry.”  He is sorry due to fear of punishment.

In our spiritual lives the same is true.  We often fear punishment, and more specifically, we may fear Hell.  This holy fear of going to Hell is a good starting point in fostering a contrite (sorrowful) heart.  Though this is not the ideal and perfect form of sorrow, God accepts it and works with it.  Therefore, if we were to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and confess a serious sin with imperfect contrition, God would accept our contrition.  In this case, the confession may look like this: “Father, forgive me for (mentions serious sin).  I do not want to go to Hell, so I ask you to please forgive me.”  OK, God will forgive you.  It is sufficient.

Sufficient, yes, but far from ideal!  What is the ideal?  The ideal is “perfect contrition.”  Perfect contrition is a sorrow that says, “I’m sorry for what I did because I love you and I see that my sin hurt that love.  I want to repair what I’ve done; and, so, I’m sorry because I do love you.”

Perfect contrition is based in love and is motivated by love.  It’s not motivated by a selfish fear, but it is motivated by a different form of “fear.”  It’s the gift of fear given as one of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit: the Gift of “Fear of the Lord.”  This is a “fear-based” love of God or another in that we love the other so much we fear doing anything that hurts them and our relationship with them.

Similarly, let’s say spouses love each other so deeply that they are always in tune with what will help or hurt their relationship.  The holy fear they experience is not motivated by avoiding conflict, rather, this form of holy fear is that they want their love to keep deepening and want to make sure nothing gets in the way.  This holy fear is a driving force to always keep them recommitting themselves to their relationship.

So it is with our relationship with God; having perfect contrition for our sins means we love God so deeply that this love, and the possibility of losing or harming this love, becomes the motivating factor for our contrition.  This is the kind of contrition we should strive for in confession.

In the section later in this chapter on how to go to Confession, there is a traditional Act of Contrition.  This is a beautiful prayer that clearly expresses both forms of contrition.  It states that we are sorry because of God’s “just punishments.”  But it goes on to say, “most of all because they have offended You, my God, who are all-good and deserving of all my love.”  

Firm Purpose of Amendment: The Act of Contrition concludes with a firm purpose of amendment by saying, “I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.”  This is hard to mean and harder to do.  It expresses that we are not only deeply sorry, but we are also committed to change.  This firm purpose of amendment is very important if we wish to let the grace of this Sacrament transform us. 

Celebrating the Sacrament: The actual form of the Sacrament of Penance, meaning the practical way we celebrate it, has taken on various forms over the ages.  In the early Church, it was offered to serious sinners once in their lifetimes.  The public sinner would have to do public penance, sometimes for years, before he was given the grace of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  However, in the seventh century, the Irish missionaries began the practice of offering this Sacrament in a private way.  Penance and the confession of sin no longer involved the entire Church.  This opened the door for a more frequent celebration of Reconciliation, which evolved into the practice we have today where this Sacrament is encouraged to be a regular part of our spiritual lives.  Some suggest it be celebrated weekly, others suggest monthly and others suggest it be celebrated at least once or twice a year in Advent and Lent.  Perhaps a good goal would be to practice it monthly or bi-monthly, unless you feel the need to go more often.  The Church only requires that we go once a year when we are aware of serious sin, but this is a bottom line requirement.  We should aim much higher!

The form of this Sacrament today is quite simple.  The priest guides you through it if you are not well versed in how to do it.  Here is the most common way to celebrate this Sacrament:

How to Go to Confession

Begin by saying: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.   

Bless me, father, for I have sinned.  It has been (how long?) since my last confession and these are my sins…

(confess all your sins…be not afraid!).

After you confess your sins, the priest gives you a penance and then ask you to pray an Act of Contrition: 

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You, and I detest all my sins because of Your just punishments, but most of all because they offend You, my God, who are all-good and deserving of all my love.  I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.  Amen.

The priest then prays the prayer of absolution (forgiveness).  

If your penance is to say some prayers, immediately go say those prayers, or do whatever penance is given.

You are forgiven!

Absolution:  Among the many things we say about this Sacrament of Reconciliation, the central teaching we should cling to with much gratitude is the gift of absolution.  Absolution means that once we have done our part by preparing, cultivating contrition, and confessing, God then does His part.  He absolves all sin.  This is done through the ministry of the priest and is imparted to us through the prayer of absolution.  Once the priest prays it over us, our sins are wiped clean!

Satisfaction and Penance: We cannot ever make up for our sins, but we must, nonetheless, strive to do penance for them.  The Catechism states it this way:

Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused (Council of Trent (1551): DS 1712).  Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must “make satisfaction for” or “expiate” his sins. This satisfaction is also called “penance.” (#1459)

This happens by the priest assigning you a certain penance.  The penance, according to the Catechism, could be any of the following: “prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear” (#1460).  Hopefully the priest will examine your situation and give some good spiritual advice and assign a penance that will help you toward conversion and freedom from sin.  But it’s not magic!  It’s up to you to let the grace enter into your heart and soul and, from there, transform your actions.

Receiving forgiveness is primarily up to God.  Working to be completely purified of our sin and the effects of our sin is the next big commitment we must make.  In addition to the penance the priest gives us in Confession, we must strive to do additional penances.  One grace that goes hand-in-hand with receiving the Sacrament of Penance is the act of receiving an indulgence.  Let’s now look at how this gift provides the grace needed to overcome our attachment to the sins we have confessed.

Forgiveness is Not Enough…The Grace of Indulgences

This seems like a strange subheading for this chapter, but it’s true.  Forgiveness is not enough to grow holy.  Here is a classic question that illustrates the point.  

Often it is asked whether someone will go straight to Heaven if they go to confession, confess all their sins, and, as they walk out of the church, have a heart attack and die.  They were just forgiven, so this must mean they go straight to Heaven with no time in Purgatory!  Right?  Wrong.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation does in fact forgive all our sins.  For that reason, someone who goes to confession and dies prior to committing an unrepented mortal sin will, indeed, go to Heaven.  But getting into Heaven also requires something else.  It requires complete freedom from all attachment to sin!  And that’s a tall order.

Sin not only hurts our relationship with God, it also strengthens our “relationship,” so to speak, with sin itself.  In other words, the more we sin, the more we are attached to sin.  Confession forgives our past sins and helps us overcome future sins, but we do need additional grace to be freed from the “attachment” we experience.  

For example, say someone is a habitual liar.  They have become so used to lying that they do it for no real reason.  The habit is deep and strong, and they practice it daily and throughout the day.  

Now let’s say that person goes to confession and receives forgiveness for all past sins of lying.  That’s excellent!  But does this mean that as soon as the person walks out of the confessional they have also completely broken the habit they have formed?  Certainly not.  Most likely, within a few hours, they will be tempted to lie again, simply because the habit is strong within them.  This fact reveals to us that forgiveness is not enough; we also need a special grace to help us become detached from all tendencies toward sin.  And this is where an indulgence comes in.

The Catechism defines an indulgence in the following way:

“An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints” (Paul VI, apostolic constitution, Indulgentiarum doctrina, Norm 1). 
“An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin” (Indulgentiarum doctrina, Norm 2; cf. Norm 3).  The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead (CIC, can. 994). (#1471)

Now there is a lot packed into this statement, which may be confusing.  So let’s look at it one piece at a time.

Temporal Punishment: First of all, punishment due to sin is either eternal or temporal.  Eternal punishment (Hell) is removed in confession, but temporal punishment remains.  This language can be misleading.  This is not a punishment from God.  It’s not as if God says, “Because you did this, you deserve 10 years in purgatory unless you make up for it now.”  The “punishment” is “due to sin.”  In other words, sin itself imposes a punishment upon us.  What is that punishment?  It’s attachment to sin.  By sinning we become attached to the sin through our habit, and this attachment is a punishment from the sin itself.  God wants to break that attachment.  The grace of an indulgence is specifically for this purpose.

Prescribed Actions of the Church: All grace comes from God, but the Church is given the authority to dispense the grace of God through certain means.  An indulgence is one of those means.  Therefore, when the Church says that certain actions open the warehouse of grace, we can be certain that this is true.  For example, one of the indulgences offered by the Church requires the following: make a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament; go to confession within seven days of that holy hour; receive communion within seven days; and pray for the pope.  Upon the completion of these requirements, we can be certain that all the grace we need to completely detach from the sins we confess is given to us.  That’s right.  The grace is there.  

Interior Disposition: But there is one catch to the above explanation!  We have to be open to that grace if it is going to have an effect in our lives.  And this is the most important part to remember (and the most difficult to fulfill).  To illustrate, let’s go back to our earlier example.  Say a person went to confession, completed the requirements of a full indulgence, and THEN walked outside and was hit by a car and died.  Does the indulgence mean the person went straight to Heaven?  Maybe, but probably not.  The person would go straight to Heaven, bypassing Purgatory, if and only if that person’s heart was ALSO perfectly open to the infinite grace given through this indulgence.  Forgiveness of sin is certain.  Therefore, Heaven will happen.  But whether one goes to Purgatory or not depends on how open the person is to completely detaching from all sin and all tendency to sin.  This is the grace the indulgence seeks to give if we are willing to receive it.  And if we do fully open our heart to it, this means we have completely converted to God and are perfectly in His grace.  This, of course, must be our goal!

Types of Indulgences: An indulgence is either “partial” or “full.”  “Partial,” meaning some of the grace needed for the full conversion is given; and “full,” meaning that all of the grace needed is made available if the person’s heart is fully open.

So this is the glorious and transforming Sacrament of Penance, Reconciliation, Confession, and Forgiveness.   It’s a gift so many fear but a gift we ought to love.  Examine your approach to this Sacrament and let God speak to you, draw you to it and help you fall in love with it.  If you do, you’ll find that this is one of the best ways available to encounter the love and mercy of our perfectly loving and merciful God!

Next: Chapter 7 – The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick

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