all about CONFESSION of sins


In the sacrament of Penance the sinner comes before Christ in his Church in the person of
the priest who hears the sins, imposes a penance and absolves the sinner in the name and
power of Christ.

The Catechism teaches us that “confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament
of Penance…” (1456). There is a comforting simplicity to confession. With sincere contrition
we need only open our hearts to the priest, recount our failings and ask for forgiveness.
What follows is one of those moments in the life of the Church when the awesome power
of Jesus Christ is most clearly and directly felt. In the name of the Church and Jesus Christ,
the priest absolves the penitent from sin. At the heart of confession is the momentous
action of absolution that only a priest can grant by invoking the authority of the Church and
acting in the person of Jesus Christ.

Fully conscious that only God forgives sins, we bring our failings to the Church because
Jesus imparted to his apostles his own power to forgive sins. In doing this Jesus gave to his
Church the authority to restore and reconcile the sinner with God and also the ecclesial
community, the Church. This ecclesial dimension is expressed most forcefully in Christ’s
words to Simon Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever
you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be
loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19).

The sacrament of Penance is an unusual tribunal. The guilty party, the penitent, accuses
oneself and approaches the Lord in sorrow, admitting guilt before his representative. It is in
place of Christ that the priest hears the confession of guilt; the words spoken to him are
therefore guarded by the most solemn obligation of complete confidentiality. It is in the
name of Christ that the priest pronounces the Savior’s mercy: “I absolve you from your sins
in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”


To complete the process a penance is imposed on the penitent. We must make satisfaction
for our sin, not that we are capable of truly satisfying God for the evil we have done.
Nonetheless, we must undertake some action or prayer that will express our desire to make
amends and to repair something of the disorder our sinful actions have brought into the

The penance given in the earlier days of the Church was often rather severe. Today the
penance is usually the recitation of specified prayers or some act of kindness towards
another. In the Rite of Penance we are reminded that “The kind and extent of the
satisfaction should be suited to the personal condition of each penitent so that each one
may restore the order which he disturbed and through the corresponding remedy be cured
of the sickness from which he suffered. Therefore, it is necessary that the act of penance
really be a remedy for sin and a help to renewal of life” (Introduction).

In the simple actions of contrition, confession, absolution and satisfaction we are restored
to a whole new life. It remains one of the great marvels of God’s love that God would make
forgiveness so readily available to each of us.

Never Failing Love

The sacrament, as the Catechism notes, is known by many names. Sometimes “it is called
the sacrament of conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus’ call to
conversion …” (1423). But it is also better known as the sacrament of Penance “since it
consecrates the Christian sinner’s personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance and
satisfaction” (1423).

For many of us it still continues to be known as the sacrament of Confession “since the
disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is an essential element of this sacrament” (1424).
At the same time the Catechism reminds us that it is called the sacrament of forgiveness
“since by the priest’s sacramental absolution God grants the penitent ‘pardon and peace'”
(1424). Finally it is also called the sacrament of Reconciliation because it reconciles sinners
to God and then to each other (1425).

The sacrament of Reconciliation is the story of God’s love that never turns away from us. It
endures even our shortsightedness and selfishness. Like the father in the parable of the
prodigal son, God waits, watches and hopes for our return every time we walk away. Like
the son in the parable, all we need do to return to our Father is to recognize our wrong and
seek God’s love. Jesus continues to speak to us of our noble calling to holiness and of his
loving forgiveness. He offers us reconciliation if we ask for it.

Our Continuing Conversion

The Catechism reminds us that the sacrament of Reconciliation must be seen within the
context of conversion. “Jesus calls to conversion. This call is an essential part of the
proclamation of the kingdom…” (1427). And even if our conversion is ongoing and only
partial, we are still subject to the effort that will some day reach completion. The Catechism
points out that after he denied his Master three times Saint Peter’s conversion “bears
witness” to Jesus’ infinite mercy (1429).

The importance of the sacrament of Penance is that it really does restore and renew our
baptismal holiness. A Catholic who has committed grave sin is obliged to ask forgiveness
for it in this sacrament. Once we do this and receive sacramental absolution, we are
restored again to holiness – to an innocence before God. So powerful is the grace of this
sacrament that the Rite of Penance reminds us that “frequent and careful celebration of this
sacrament is also very useful as a remedy for venial sins. This is not a mere ritual repetition
or psychological exercise, but a serious striving to perfect the grace of baptism so that, as we
bear in our body the death of Jesus Christ, his life may be seen in us ever more clearly”
(Introduction, 7).

Today the sacrament of Reconciliation finds its usual expression in two forms: the rite for
the reconciliation of individual penitents and the rite for reconciliation of several penitents
with individual confession and absolution.

The first rite is the most familiar form of penance and usually takes place in the private
confessional or reconciliation room at the church. Yet even in this “private” form of
confession, the social and communal element is still expressed since the priest represents
the Church in the act of reconciliation.

A second form, sometimes referred to as a communal penance service and often celebrated
in Advent and Lent in preparation for the great feasts of Christmas and Easter, consists
essentially in a communal celebration of the word in preparation for confession which is
then administered in the form of private, individual confession. Communal celebration
shows more clearly both the social impact and the common experience of sin and the
ecclesial nature of penance and reconciliation. It should not be confused with general
absolution which is reserved for special circumstances.

Pastoral Program

In order to concentrate on our personal reconciliation with God and the Church through
the sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance, I am proposing the following pastoral
program that has two components: one educational and the other sacramental.
To the secretariat for education, I am entrusting the task of developing religious education
materials to be used in all of the religious education programs of the archdiocese. A special
effort will be made to enhance the educational program of adults, young adults and youth
with regard to the sacrament of Penance.

Among the items to be produced in conjunction with the secretariat for pastoral ministry
and social concerns is a small, user-friendly brochure that can be distributed to all of the
faithful. This will highlight how one goes to Confession and contain the Act of Contrition
on a detachable page of the brochure for those who may wish to keep it with them.
Any form of the Act of Contrition is a powerful prayer and we should use it frequently. It is
not just for Confession. It is a prayer that we need to say every day with humility and
gratitude as we regularly place ourselves before a loving and merciful God.
Once the brochure on the sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance is completed and
distributed throughout the parishes and our archdiocesan website, I hope everyone will feel
free to take copies of it and share it with members of your household, friends and
particularly those with whom we would like to share this good news of Christ’s mercy
available to us in Confession.

…By Instruction

As a part of the educational component of our pastoral program I am also asking the
secretariat for education to work with the secretariat for pastoral life to prepare a series of
homiletic resources that can be used by the priests especially during the Sundays of Lent.
Since this is a special time of intense concentration on sacramental reconciliation, it seems
appropriate for all priests to review with our faithful the teaching of the Church on
reconciliation and to renew our understanding of the importance of this sacrament and the
need all of us have to receive it.

By the Grace of the Sacrament

We lead by example. By frequent reception of the sacrament of Penance, priests become a
living sermon on the importance of the sacrament to the faithful. I remember being strongly
impressed when, as a young person, I heard one of our parish priests speak about his going
to confession – with regularity.

In order to highlight both the importance of the sacrament of Penance and its availability
especially in the coming Lenten season, every pastor is asked to review the parish
confession schedule to ensure the adequate availability of the sacrament of Penance to the
faithful. I am also asking the deans to work with the priests of their respective deaneries so
that we can provide a series of deanery-wide reconciliation services to which the faithful of

the deanery will be invited and at which I will join a large number of our priests in hearing

In addition, during this Lenten season, beginning with the Wednesday of the first week of
Lent until the Wednesday of Holy Week, priests will be available in every church
throughout the Archdiocese from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in order to hear confessions. The
name given to this pastoral initiative is “The Light Is On For You,” highlighting that the
light will be on in churches throughout the Archdiocese as a beacon of hope, reconciliation,
and absolution.

Such an archdiocesan-wide concerted effort at sacramental Reconciliation has two obvious
positive benefits: the administration of the sacraments to those who come to the penance
services and the public witness to the importance of this sacrament.
To facilitate this effort I have asked the secretariat for pastoral life to work with the College
of Deans to see that appropriate and useful material is made available to the parishes in
anticipation of these deanery-wide reconciliation services.


As we complete these thoughts on the sacrament of Penance, we might well reflect that the
deepest spiritual joy each of us can sense is the freedom from whatever would separate us
from God and the restoration of our friendship with so loving and merciful a Father who
receives each of us with all the forgiveness and love lavished on the prodigal son. Renewed,
refreshed and reconciled in this sacrament, we who have sinned become a “new creation.”
Once more we are made new. It is this newness of spirit and soul that I hope all of us
experience this Lent.
Faithfully in Christ,

(Most Reverend) Donald W. Wuerl
Archbishop of Washington
January 8, 2007
Baptism of the Lord

Have you ever wondered why there’s no bark and
no bite in much of Catholicism these days? Is it because
there are so many touchie-feelie types in the

priesthood? You know, “Let’s all hold hands now and sing ‘All Shall Be Well,’ and then let’s give one another a big hug.” It’s like being back at some goofball summer camp.

And we get campfire sermonettes with all the substance and nutrition of a marshmallow.

Where’s the beef? We rarely, if ever, hear anything about the Church’s teachings on abortion,
contraception, euthanasia, homosexuality, premarital sex, pornography,
consumerism, the indissolubility of marriage, Purgatory, or Hell.

But we do hear about the Church’s “controversial” teachings from the newspapers and the evening news, which of course put the worst spin on them and never give the rationale for them. Rarely will a priest or
religious instructor explain why the Church teaches as she does, much less with conviction and passion. How pathetic!

We sit around hearing from fey priests about tolerance and diversity, and how all religions are equally true — but since the various religions teach radically different things, that’s patent nonsense. Hey, it’s time to get rid of those pablum pushers and replace them with real men.

Are you ready for a Catholicism with backbone? We’ve got it at the NEW OXFORD REVIEW. A robustly
orthodox Catholic monthly magazine, we don’t shy away from the “hard” teachings of Christ and His Bride, the Church. We know why we’re Catholic, and we’re not ashamed to tell the world about it.

Our degenerate culture has seduced much of the Church. And many of our Catholic leaders play loveydovey with the culture, the Culture of Death. Case in point: Most of our bishops are deathly afraid to bar proabortion

Catholic politicians from Holy Communion. This is not a matter of politics; it’s a matter of saving souls,
souls who may well eat and drink unto their own damnation (1 Cor. 11:29). Is it that many of our bishops would rather be popular than save souls?

In the clerical sex scandals,over 80% of the predations involved boys. Homosexuals must be eliminated
from the seminary, priesthood, and episcopate. You don’t put men with same-sex attractions in an all-male environment.Pope Felix III said, “Not to oppose error is to approve of it.” Silence is not golden; it’s yellow. We’re “cheeky” (says Newsweek), we’re “aggressive” (says the Hawaii

Catholic Herald), and we’re “Catholicism’s intellectual prizefighter” (says Karl Keating).
Among those who’ve written for us are Walker Percy, Alice von Hildebrand, Tom Bethell,
Piers Paul Read, Thomas Storck, and Michael S. Rose (whose book Goodbye, Good Men exposed the
homosexual rot in many of our seminaries). If you want a militant Catholicism — as in “the
Church Militant” — do subscribe. But don’t subscribe

The Commission

Christ told the apostles to follow his example: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21). Just as the apostles were to carry Christ’s message to the whole world, so they were to carry his forgiveness: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18).

This power was understood as coming from God: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). Indeed, confirms Paul, “So we are ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20).

Some say that any power given to the apostles died with them. Not so. Some powers must have, such as the ability to write Scripture. But the powers necessary to maintain the Church as a living, spiritual society had to be passed down from generation to generation. If they ceased, the Church would cease, except as a quaint abstraction. Christ ordered the apostles to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” It would take much time. And he promised them assistance: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:19–20).

If the disciples believed that Christ instituted the power to sacramentally forgive sins in his stead, we would expect the apostles’ successors—the bishops—and Christians of later years to act as though such power was legitimately and habitually exercised. If, on the other hand, the sacramental forgiveness of sins was what Fundamentalists term it, an “invention,” and if it was something foisted upon the young Church by ecclesiastical or political leaders, we’d expect to find records of protest. In fact, in early Christian writings we find no sign of protests concerning sacramental forgiveness of sins. Quite the contrary. We find confessing to a priest was accepted as part of the original deposit of faith handed down from the apostles.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Absolution: Absolution is the remission of sin, or of the punishment due to sin, granted by the Church. (For remission of punishment due to sin, see CENSURE, EXCOMMUNICATION, INDULGENCE.)

Absolution proper is that act of the priest whereby, in the Sacrament of Penance, he frees man from sin. It presupposes on the part of the penitent, contrition, confession, and promise at least of satisfaction; on the part of the minister, valid reception of the Order of Priesthood and jurisdiction, granted by competent authority, over the person receiving the sacrament. That there is in the Church power to absolve sins committed after baptism the Council of Trent thus declares: “But the Lord then principally instituted the Sacrament of Penance, when, being raised from the dead, He breathed upon His disciples saying, ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.’ By which action so signal, and words so clear the consent of all the Fathers has ever understood that the power of forgiving and retaining sins was communicated to the Apostles, and to their lawful successors for the reconciling of the faithful who have fallen after baptism” (Sess. XIV, i). Nor is there lacking in divine revelation proof of such power; the classical texts are those found in Matthew 16:19; 18:18, and in John 20:21-23. To Peter are given the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Sin is the great obstacle to entrance into the kingdom, and over sin Peter is supreme. To Peter and to all the Apostles is given the power to bind and to loose, and this again implies supreme power both legislative and judicial: power to forgive sins, power to free from sin’s penalties. This interpretation becomes more clear in studying the rabbinical literature, especially of Our Lord’s time, in which the phrase to bind and to loose was in common use. (Lightfoot, Horæ Hebraicæ Buxtorf, Lexicon Chald.; Knabenbauer, Commentary on Matthew, II, 66; particularly Maas, St. Matthew, 183, 184.) The granting of the power to absolve is put with unmistakable clearness in St. John’s Gospel: “He breathed upon them and said, ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins ye shall forgive they are forgiven them; and whose sins ye shall retain, they are retained'” (20:22-23). It were foolish to assert that the power here granted by Christ was simply a power to announce the Gospel (Council of Trent, Sess. XIX, Can. iii), and quite as unwise to contend that here is contained no power other than the power to remit sin in the Sacrament of Baptism (Ibid., Sess. XIV); for the very context is against such an interpretation, and the words of the text imply a strictly judicial act, while the power to retain sins becomes simply incomprehensible when applied to baptism alone, and not to an action involving discretionary judgment. But it is one thing to assert that the power of absolution was granted to the Church, and another to say that a full realization of the grant was in the consciousness of the Church from the beginning. Baptism was the first, the great sacrament, the sacrament of initiation into the kingdom of Christ. Through baptism was obtained not only plenary pardon for sin, but also for temporal punishment due to sin. Man once born anew, the Christian ideal forbade even the thought of his return to sin. Of a consequence, early Christian discipline was loath to grant even once a restoration to grace through the ministry of reconciliation vested in the Church. This severity was in keeping with St. Paul’s declaration in his Epistle to the Hebrews: “For it is impossible for those who were once illuminated, have tasted also the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, have moreover tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come and are fallen away, to be renewed again to penance” etc. (vi, 4-6). The persistence of this Christian ideal is very clear in the “Pastor” of Hermas, where the author contends against a rigorist school, that at least one opportunity for penance must be given by the Church (III Sim., viii, 11). He grants only one such chance, but this is sufficient to establish a belief in the power of the Church to forgive sins committed after baptism. St. Ignatius in the first days of the second century seemingly asserts the power to forgive sins when he declares in his letter to the Philadelphians that the bishop presides over penance. This tradition was continued in the Syrian Church, as is evident from passages found in Aphraates and Ephrem, and St. John Chrysostom voices this same Syrian tradition when he writes “De Sacerdotio” (Migne P. G., LXVII, 643), that “Christ has given to his priests a power he would not grant to the angels, for he has not said to them, ‘Whatsoever ye bind, will be bound,'” etc.; and further down he adds, “The Father hath given all judgment into the hands of his Son, and the Son in turn has granted this power to his priests.”


Attrition or Imperfect Contrition (Latin attero, “to wear away by rubbing”; p. part. attritus).
The Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, Chap. iv) has defined contrition as “sorrow of soul, and a hatred of sin committed, with a firm purpose of not sinning in the future”. This hatred of sin may arise from various motives, may be prompted by various causes. The detestation of sin arise from the love of God, Who has been grievously offended, then contrition is termed perfect; if it arise from any other motive, such its loss of heaven, fear of hell, or the heinousness of guilt, then it is termed imperfect contrition, or attrition. That there exists such a disposition of soul as attrition, and that it is a goodly things an impulse of the Spirit of God, is the clear teaching of the Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, iv).

And as to that imperfect contrition which is called attrition, because it is commonly conceived either from the consideration of the turpitude of sin, or from the fear of hell and of punishment, the council declares that if with the hope of pardon, it excludes the wish to sin, it not only does not make man a hypocrite and a greater sinner, but that it is even a gift of God, and an impulse of the Holy Spirit, who does not indeed as yet dwell in the penitent, but who only moves him whereby the penitent, being assisted, prepares a way for himself unto justice, and although this attrition cannot of itself, without the Sacrament of Penance, conduct the sinner to justification yet does it dispose him to receive the grace of God in the Sacrament of Penance. For smitten profitably with fear, the Ninivites at the preaching of Jonas did fearful penance and obtained mercy from Lord.

Wherefore attrition, the council in Canon v, Sess. XIV, declares: “If any man assert that attrition . . . is not a true and a profitable sorrow; that it does not prepare the soul for grace, but that it makes a man a hypocrite, yea, even a greater sinner, let him be anathema”. The doctrine of the council is in accord with the teaching of the Old and the New Testament. The Old Testament writers praise without hesitation that fear of God which is really “the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. cx). One of the commonest forms of expression found in the Hebrew scriptures is the “exhortation to the fear of the Lord” (Ecclesiasticus 1:13; 2:19 sqq.). We are told that “without fear there is no justification” (ibid, i, 28; ii, 1; ii, 19). In this fear there is confidence of strength” and it is “fountain of life” (Proverbs 14:26-27); and the Psalmist prays (Ps. cxviii, 120): “Pierce thou my flesh with thy fear: for I am afraid of thy judgments.”


Even when the law of fear had given way to the law of love, Christ does not hesitate to inculcate that we must “fear him who can destroy both soul and body into hell” (Matthew 10:28). Certainly, too, the vivid account of the destruction of Jerusalem, typical of the final destruction of the world, was intended by Jesus to strike terror into the hearts of those who heard, and those who read; nor can one doubt that the last great Judgment as portrayed by Matthew, xxv, 31 sqq., must have been described by Christ for the purpose of deterring men from sin by reason of God’s awful judgments. The Apostle appears not less insistent when he exhorts us to work out “our salvation in fear and trembling” lest the anger of God come upon us (Phil., ii, 12). The Fathers of the earliest days of Christianity have spoken of fear of God’s punishments as a goodly virtue that makes for salvation. Clement of Alexandria (Strom., VII) speaks of righteousness which comes of love and rightousness arising from fear, and he speaks at length on the utility of fear, and answers all objections brought forward against his position. The most striking sentence is the one wherein he says: “cautious fear is therefore shown to be reasonable, from which arises repentence of previous sins”, etc. St. Basil (fourth interrogatory on the Rule) speaks of the fear of God and of His judgments, and he asserts that for those who are beginning a life of piety “exhortation based on the fear is of greatest utility”, he quotes the wise man asserting, “The fear of the Lord is the begining of wisdom”, (P.G. XXXI). St. John Chrysostom may be quoted in the same sense (P.G., XLIX, 154). St. Ambrose, in the fifteenth sermon on the Psalm cxviii speaks at large on godly fear which begets charity, begets love: Hunc timorem sequitur charitas (P.L., xv, 1424), and his disciple, St. Augustine, treats fully the godliness of fear as a motive to repentance. In the 161st of his sermons (P.L., XXXVIII, 882 sqq), he speaks of refraining from sin for fear of God’s judgments, and he asks: “Dare I say such fear is wrong”? He replies that he dare not, for the Lord Christ urging men to refrain from wrongdoing suggested the motive of fear. “Fear not those who kill the body”, etc. (Matthew 10). True, what follows in St. Augustine has been subject to much dispute, but the general doctrine of the godliness of fear is here propounded, and the difficulty, if aught there be, touches the other question hereinafter treated anent “Initial Love”.


In Holy Writ nothing is more common than exhortations to repentance: “I desire not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11); “Except you do penance you shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5; cf. Matthew 12:41). At times this repentance includes exterior acts of satisfaction (Ps. vi, 7 sqq.); it always implies a recognition of wrong done to God, a detestation of the evil wrought, and a desire to turn from evil and do good. This is clearly expressed in Ps. 1 (5-14): “For I know my iniquity . . . To thee only have I sinned, and have done evil before thee . . .. Turn away thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create a clean heart in me”, etc. More clearly does this appear in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:13), and more clearly still in the story of the prodigal (Luke 15:11-32): “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee: I am not worthy to be called thy son”.
This interior repentance has been called by theologians “contrition”. It is defined explicitly by the Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, ch. iv de Contritione): “a sorrow of soul and a hatred of sin committed, with a firm purpose of not sinning in the future”. The word contrition itself in a moral sense is not of frequent occurrence in Scripture (cf. Ps. 1, 19). Etymologically it implies a breaking of something that has become hardened. St. Thomas Aquinas in his Commentary on the Master of the Sentences thus explains its peculiar use: “Since it is requisite for the remission of sin that a man cast away entirely the liking for sin which implies a sort of continuity and solidity in his mind, the act which obtains forgiveness is termed by a figure of speech ‘contrition'” (In Lib. Sent. IV, dist. xvii; cf. Supplem. III, Q. i, a. 1). This sorrow of soul is not merely speculative sorrow for wrong done, remorse of conscience, or a resolve to amend; it is a real pain and bitterness of soul together with a hatred and horror for sin committed; and this hatred for sin leads to the resolve to sin no more. The early Christian writers in speaking of the nature of contrition sometimes insist on the feeling of sorrow, sometimes on the detestation of the wrong committed (Augustine in P.L., XXXVII, 1901, 1902; Chrysostom, P.G., XLVII, 409, 410). Augustine includes both when writing: “Compunctus corde non solet dici nisi stimulus peccatorum in dolore pœnitendi” (P.L., Vol. VI of Augustine, col. 1440). Nearly all the medieval theologians hold that contrition is based principally on the detestation of sin. This detestation presupposes a knowledge of the heinousness of sin, and this knowledge begets sorrow and pain of soul. “A sin is committed by the consent, so it is blotted out by the dissent of the rational will; hence contrition is essentially sorrow. But it should be noted that sorrow has a twofold signification–dissent of the will and the consequent feeling; the former is of the essence of contrition, the latter is its effect” (Bonaventure, In Lib. Sent. IV, dist. xvi, Pt. I, art. 1). [See also St. Thomas Aquinas, Comment. in Lib. Sent. IV; Billuart (De Sac. Pœnit., Diss. iv, art. 1) seems to hold the opposite opinion.]
Until the time of the Reformation no theologian ever thought of denying the necessity of contrition for the forgiveness of sin. But with the coming of Luther and his doctrine of justification by faith alone the absolute necessity of contrition was excluded as by a natural consequence. Leo X in the famous Bull “Exsurge” [Denzinger, no. 751 (635)] condemned the following Lutheran position: “By no means believe that you are forgiven on account of your contrition, but because of Christ’s words, ‘Whatsoever thou shalt loose’, etc. On this account I say, that if you receive the priest’s absolution, believe firmly that you are absolved, and trulyabsolved you will be, let the contrition be as it may.” Luther could not deny that in every true conversion there was grief of soul, but he asserted that this was the result of the grace of God poured into the soul at the time of justification, etc. (for this discussion see Vacant, Dict. de théol. cath., s.v. Contrition.) Catholic writers have always taught the necessity of contrition for the forgiveness of sin, and they have insisted that such necessity arises (a) from the very nature of repentance as well as (b) from the positive command of God. (a) ‘They point out that the sentence of Christ in Luke, xiii, 5, is final: “Except you do penance”, etc., and from the Fathers they cite passages such as the following from Cyprian, “De Lapsis”, no. 32: “Do penance in full, give proof of the sorrow that comes from a grieving and lamenting soul . . . they who do away with repentance for sin, close the door to satisfaction.” Scholastic doctors laid down the satisfaction’ principle, “No one can begin a new life who does not repent him of the old” (Bonaventure, In Lib. Sent. IV, dist. xvi, Pt. II, art. 1, Q. ii, also ex professo, ibid., Pt. I, art. I, Q. iii), and when asked the reason why, they point out the absolute incongruity of turning to God and clinging to sin, which is hostile to God’s law. The Council of Trent, mindful of the tradition of the ages, defined (Sess. XlV. ch. iv de Contritione) that “contrition has always been necessary for obtaining forgiveness of sin”. (b) The positive command of God is also clear in the premises. The Baptist sounded the note of preparation for the coming of the Messias: “Make straight his paths”; and, as a consequence “they went out to him and were baptized confessing their sins”. The first preaching of Jesus is described in the words: “Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”; and the Apostles, in their first sermons to the people, warn them to “do penance and be baptized for the remission of their sins” (Acts 2:38). The Fathers followed up with like exhortation (Clement in P.G., I, 341; Hermas iii P.G., II, 894; Tertullian in P.L., II).
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Catholic teaching distinguishes a twofold hatred of sin; one, perfect contrition, rises from the love of God Who has been grievously offended; the other, imperfect contrition, arises principally from some other motives, such as loss of heaven, fear of hell, the heinousness of sin, etc. (Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, ch. iv de Contritione). For the doctrine of imperfect contrition see ATTRITION.
In accord with Catholic tradition contrition, whether it be perfect or imperfect, must be at once (a) interior, (b) supernatural, (c) universal, and (d) sovereign.
(a) Interior
Contrition must be real and sincere sorrow of heart, and not merely an external manifestation of repentance. The Old Testament Prophets laid particular stress on the necessity of hearty repentance. The Psalmist says that God despises not the “contrite heart” (Ps. I, 19), and the call to Israel was, “Be converted to me with all your heart . . . and rend your hearts, and not your garments” (Joel, ii, 12 sq). Holy Job did penance in sackcloth and ashes because he reprehended himself in sorrow of soul (Job 13:6). The contrition adjudged necessary by Chris and his Apostles was no mere formality, but the sincere expression of the sorrowing soul (Luke 14:11-32; Luke 18:13); and the grief of the woman in the house of the Pharisee merited forgiveness because “she loved much”. The exhortations to penance found everywhere in the Fathers have no uncertain sound (Cyprian, De Lapsis, P.L., IV; Chrysostom, De compunctione, P.G., XLVII, 393 sqq.), and the Scholastic doctors from Peter Lombard on insist on the same sincerity in repentance (Peter Lombard, Lib. Sent. IV, dist. xvi, no. 1).
(b) Supernatural
In accordance with Catholic teaching contrition ought to be prompted by God’s grace and aroused by motives which spring from faith, as opposed to merely natural motives, such as loss of honour, fortune, and the like (Chemnitz, Exam. Concil. Trid., Pt. II, De Poenit.). In the Old Testament it is God who gives a “new heart” and who puts a “new spirit)” into the children of Israel (Ezekiel 36:25-29); and for a clean heart the Psalmist prays in the Miserere (Ps. 1, 11 sqq.). St. Peter told those to whom he preached in the first days after Pentecost that God the Father had raised up Christ “to give repentance to Israel” (Acts 5:30 sq.). St. Paul in advising Timothy insists on dealing gently and kindly with those who resist the truth, “if peradventure God may give them full repentance” (2 Timothy 2:24-25). In the days of the Pelagian heresy Augustine insisted on the supernaturalness of contrition, when he writes, “That we turn away from God is our doing, and this is the bad will; but to turn back to God we are unable unless He arouse and help us, and this is the good will.” Some of the Scholastic doctors, notably Scotus, Cajetan, and after them Francisco Suárez (De Poenit., Disp. iii, sect. vi), asked speculatively whether man if left to himself could elicit a true act of contrition, but no theologian ever taught that makes for forgiveness of sin in the present economy of God could be inspired by merely natural motives. On the contrary, all the doctors have insisted on the absolute necessity of grace for contrition that disposes to forgiveness (Bonaventure, In Lib. Sent. IV, dist. xiv, Pt. I, art. II, Q. iii; also dist. xvii, Pt. I, art. I, Q. iii; cf. St. Thomas, In Lib. Sent. IV). In keeping with this teaching of the Scriptures and the doctors, the Council of Trent defined; “If anyone say that without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and without His aid a man can repent in the way that is necessary for obtaining the grace of justification, let him be anathema.”
(c) Universal
The Council of Trent defined that real contrition includes “a firm purpose of not sinning in the future”; consequently he who repents must resolve to avoid all sin. This doctrine is intimately bound up with the Catholic teaching concerning grace and repentance. There is no forgiveness without sorrow of soul, and forgiveness is always accompanied by God’s grace; grace cannot coexist with sin; and, as a consequence, one sin cannot be forgiven while another remains for which their is no repentance. This is the clear teaching of the Bible. The Prophet urged men to turn to God with their whole heart (Joel, ii, 12 sq.), and Christ tells the doctor of the law that we must love God with our whole mind, our whole strength (Luke 10:27). Ezechiel insists that a man must “turn from his evil ways” if he wish to live. The Scholastics inquired rather subtly into this question when they asked whether or not there must be a special act of contrition for every serious sin, and whether, in order to be forgiven, one must remember at the moment all grievous transgressions. To both questions they answered in the negative, judging that an act of sorrow which implicitly included all his sins would be sufficient.
(d) Sovereign
The Council of Trent insists that true contrition includes the firm will never to sin again, so that no mater what evil may come, such evil must be preferred to sin. This doctrine is surely Christ’s: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?” Theologians have discussed at great length whether or not contrition which must be sovereign appretiative, i.e., in regarding sin as the greatest possible evil, must also be sovereign in degree and in intensity. The decision has generally been that sorrow need not be sovereign “intensively”, for intensity makes no change in the substance of an act (Ballerini, Opus Morale: De Contritione; Bonaventure, In Lib. Sent. IV, dist. xxi, Pt. I, art. II, Q. i).
Contrition is not only a moral virtue, but the Council of Trent defined that it is a “part”, nay more, quasi materia, in the Sacrament of Penance. “The (quasi) matter of this sacrament consists of the acts of the penitent himself, namely, contrition, confession, and satisfaction. These, inasmuch as they are by God’s institution required in the penitent for the integrity of the sacrament and for the full and perfect remission of sin, are for this reason called parts of penance. “In consequence of this decree of Trent theologians teach that sorrow for sin must be in some sense sacramental. La Croix went so far as to say that sorrow must be aroused with a view of going to confession, but this seems to be asking too much; most theologians think with Schieler-Heuser (Theory and Practice of Confession, p. 113) that it is sufficient if the sorrow coexist in any way with the confession and is referred to it. Hence the precept of the Roman Ritual, “After the confessor has heard the confession he should try by earnest exhortation to move the penitent to contrition” (Schieler-Heuser, op. cit., p. 111 sqq.).
Regarding that contrition which has for its motive the love of God, the Council of Trent declares: “The Council further teaches that, though contrition may sometimes be made perfect by charity and may reconcile men to God before the actual reception of this sacrament, still the reconciliation is not to be ascribed to the contrition apart from the desire for the sacrament which it includes.” The following proposition (no. 32) taken from Baius was condemned by Gregory XIII: “That charity which is the fullness of the law is not always conjoined with forgiveness of sins.” Perfect contrition, with the desire of receiving the Sacrament of Penance, restores the sinner to grace at once. This is certainly the teaching of the Scholastic doctors (Peter Lombard in P.L., CXCII, 885; St. Thomas, In Lib. Sent. IV, ibid.; St. Bonaventure, In Lib. Sent. IV, ibid.). This doctrine they derived from Holy Writ. Scripture certainly ascribes to charity and the love of God the power to take away sin: “He that loveth me shall be loved by My Father”; “Many sins are forgiven her because she hath loved much”. Since the act of perfect contrition implies necessarily this same love of God, theologians have ascribed to perfect contrition what Scripture teaches belongs to charity. Nor is this strange, for in the Old Covenant there was some way of recovering God’s grace once man had sinned. God wills not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live (Ezekiel 33:11). This total turning to God corresponds to our idea of perfect contrition; and if under the Old Law love sufficed for the pardon of the sinner, surely the coming of Christ and the institution of the Sacrament of Penance cannot be supposed to have increased the difficulty of obtaining forgiveness. That the earlier Fathers taught the efficacy of sorrow for the remission of sins is very clear (Clement in P.G., I, 341 sqq.; and Hermas in P.G., II, 894 sqq.; Chrysostom in P.G., XLIX, 285 sqq.) and this is particularly noticeable in all the commentaries on Luke, vii, 47. The Venerable Bede writes (P.L., XCII, 425): “What is love but fire; what is sin but rust? Hence it is said, many sins are forgiven her because she hat loved much, as though to say, she hath burned away entirely the rust of sin, because she is inflamed with the fire of love.” Theologians have inquired with much learning as to the kind of love that justifies with the Sacrament of Penance. All are agreed that pure, or disinterested, love (amor benevolentiæ, amor amicitiæ) suffices; when there is question of interested, or selfish, love (amor concupiscentia) theologians hold that purely selfish love is not sufficient. When on furthermore asks what must be the formal motive in perfect love, there seems to be no real unanimity among the doctors. Some say that where there is perfect love God is loved for His great goodness alone; other, basing their contention on Scripture, think that the love of gratitude (amor gratitudinis) is quite sufficient, because God’s benevolence and love towards men are intimately united, nay, inseparable from His Divine perfections (Hurter, Theol. Dog., Thesis ccxlv, Scholion iii, no 3; Schieler-Heuser, op. cit., pp. 77 sq.).
In the very nature of things the sinner must repent before he can be reconciled with God (Sess. XIV, ch. iv, de Contritione, Fuit quovis tempore, etc.). Therefore he who has fallen into grievous sin must either make an act of perfect contrition or supplement the imperfect contrition by receiving the Sacrament of Penance; otherwise reconciliation with God is impossible. This obligation urges under pain of sin when there is danger of death. In danger of death, therefore, if a priest be not at hand to administer the sacrament, the sinner must make an effort to elicit an act of perfect contrition. The obligation of perfect contrition is also urgent whensoever one has to exercise some act for which a state of grace is necessary and the Sacrament of Penance is not accessible. Theologians have questions how long a man may remain in the state of sin, without making an effort to elicit an act of perfect contrition. They seem agreed that such neglect must have extended over considerable time, but what constitutes a considerable time they find it hard to determine (Schieler-Hauser, op. cit., pp. 83 sqq.). Probably the rule of St. Alphonsus Liguori will aid the solution: “The duty of making an act of contrition is urgent when one is obliged to make an act of love” (Sabetti, Theologia Moralis: de necess. contritionis, no. 731; Ballerine, Opus Morale: de contritione).

Reserved Cases
A term used for sins whose absolution is not within the power of every confessor, but is reserved to himself by the superior of the confessor, or only specially granted to some other confessor by that superior. To reserve a case is then to refuse jurisdiction for the absolution of a certain sin. Christ gave power to the rulers of His Church to make such reservations: “Whose sins you shall retain they are retained” (John 20:23). The reservation of sins presupposes jurisdiction, and therefore the pope alone can make reservation for the whole Church; bishops can do the same for their diocese only, and certain regular prelates for their religious subjects. That a sin be reserved it must be mortal, external, and consummated. If a sin be reserved in one diocese, and a penitent, without the intention of evading the law, confess to a priest in another diocese where the sin is not reserved, the latter may absolve the reserved sin. Cases are reserved either
merely on account of the sin itself, that is without censure, or
on account of the censure attached to it.
If a penitent be in danger of death, any priest can absolve hinm, both from reserved censures and reserved sins. In case of reserved censures, if he recover, he must later present himself to the one having special power for reserved censures, unless the case was simply reserved to the pope. As to reserved sins, he need not, as a general rule, present himself again after convalescence. In a case of urgent necessity, when it is not possible to have recourse to the proper superior, an ordinary priest may absolve a penitent, directly from unreserved sins and indirectly from episcopal reserved cases, but the penitent must afterwards apply to the person having power to absolve from the reservation. If there were also papal reservations, either simple or special, the absolution is direct, but in case of special reservations to the pope a relation must be made to the Holy See that its mandates on the subject may be obtained. Ignorance of a censure prevents its being incurred, but moralists dispute whether ignorance of a reservation, with or without censure, excuses from its incurrence. If it be a case with censure reserved to the pope, all agree that ignorance does excuse from it; if reserved to a bishop, it is controverted. Some moralists hold that ignorance excuses from all reservations, whether with or without censure. It is certain, however, that a bishop has authority to declare that ignorance of a reservation does not prevent its incurrence in his diocese.

The Sacrament of Penance
Penance is a sacrament of the New Law instituted by Christ in which forgiveness of sins committed after baptism is granted through the priest’s absolution to those who with true sorrow confess their sins and promise to satisfy for the same. It is called a “sacrament” not simply a function or ceremony, because it is an outward sign instituted by Christ to impart grace to the soul. As an outward sign it comprises the actions of the penitent in presenting himself to the priest and accusing himself of his sins, and the actions of the priest in pronouncing absolution and imposing satisfaction. This whole procedure is usually called, from one of its parts, “confession”, and it is said to take place in the “tribunal of penance”, because it is a judicial process in which the penitent is at once the accuser, the person accused, and the witness, while the priest pronounces judgment and sentence. The grace conferred is deliverance from the guilt of sin and, in the case of mortal sin, from its eternal punishment; hence also reconciliation with God, justification. Finally, the confession is made not in the secrecy of the penitent’s heart nor to a layman as friend and advocate, nor to a representative of human authority, but to a duly ordained priest with requisite jurisdiction and with the “power of the keys”, i.e., the power to forgive sins which Christ granted to His Church.
By way of further explanation it is needful to correct certain erroneous views regarding this sacrament which not only misrepresent the actual practice of the Church but also lead to a false interpretation of theological statement and historical evidence. From what has been said it should be clear:
that penance is not a mere human invention devised by the Church to secure power over consciences or to relieve the emotional strain of troubled souls; it is the ordinary means appointed by Christ for the remission of sin. Man indeed is free to obey or disobey, but once he has sinned, he must seek pardon not on conditions of his own choosing but on those which God has determined, and these for the Christian are embodied in the Sacrament of Penance.
No Catholic believes that a priest simply as an individual man, however pious or learned, has power to forgive sins. This power belongs to God alone; but He can and does exercise it through the ministration of men. Since He has seen fit to exercise it by means of this sacrament, it cannot be said that the Church or the priest interferes between the soul and God; on the contrary, penance is the removal of the one obstacle that keeps the soul away from God.
It is not true that for the Catholic the mere “telling of one’s sins” suffices to obtain their forgiveness. Without sincere sorrow and purpose of amendment, confession avails nothing, the pronouncement of absolution is of no effect, and the guilt of the sinner is greater than before.
While this sacrament as a dispensation of Divine mercy facilitates the pardoning of sin, it by no means renders sin less hateful or its consequences less dreadful to the Christian mind; much less does it imply permission to commit sin in the future. In paying ordinary debts, as e.g., by monthly settlements, the intention of contracting new debts with the same creditor is perfectly legitimate; a similar intention on the part of him who confesses his sins would not only be wrong in itself but would nullify the sacrament and prevent the forgiveness of sins then and there confessed.
Strangely enough, the opposite charge is often heard, viz., that the confession of sin is intolerable and hard and therefore alien to the spirit of Christianity and the loving kindness of its Founder. But this view, in the first place, overlooks the fact that Christ, though merciful, is also just and exacting. Furthermore, however painful or humiliating confession may be, it is but a light penalty for the violation of God’s law. Finally, those who are in earnest about their salvation count no hardship too great whereby they can win back God’s friendship.
Both these accusations, of too great leniency and too great severity, proceed as a rule from those who have no experience with the sacrament and only the vaguest ideas of what the Church teaches or of the power to forgive sins which the Church received from Christ.
Teaching of the Church
The Council of Trent (1551) declares:
As a means of regaining grace and justice, penance was at all times necessary for those who had defiled their souls with any mortal sin. . . . Before the coming of Christ, penance was not a sacrament, nor is it since His coming a sacrament for those who are not baptized. But the Lord then principally instituted the Sacrament of Penance, when, being raised from the dead, he breathed upon His disciples saying: ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained’ (John 20:22-23). By which action so signal and words so clear the consent of all the Fathers has ever understood that the power of forgiving and retaining sins was communicated to the Apostles and to their lawful successors, for the reconciling of the faithful who have fallen after Baptism. (Sess. XIV, c. i)
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Farther on the council expressly states that Christ left priests, His own vicars, as judges (praesides et judices), unto whom all the mortal crimes into which the faithful may have fallen should be revealed in order that, in accordance with the power of the keys, they may pronounce the sentence of forgiveness or retention of sins” (Sess. XIV, c. v)
Power to Forgive Sins
It is noteworthy that the fundamental objection so often urged against the Sacrament of Penance was first thought of by the Scribes when Christ said to the sick man of the palsy: “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” “And there were some of the scribes sitting there, and thinking in their hearts: Why doth this man speak thus? he blasphemeth. Who can forgive sins but God only?” But Jesus seeing their thoughts, said to them: “Which is easier to say to the sick of the palsy: Thy sins are forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, take up thy bed and walk? But that you may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (he saith to the sick of the palsy,) I say to thee: Arise, take up thy bed, and go into thy house” (Mark 2:5-11; Matthew 9:2-7). Christ wrought a miracle to show that He had power to forgive sins and that this power could be exerted not only in heaven but also on earth. This power, moreover, He transmitted to Peter and the other Apostles. To Peter He says: “And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). Later He says to all the Apostles: “Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). As to the meaning of these texts, it should be noted:
that the “binding” and “loosing” refers not to physical but to spiritual or moral bonds among which sin is certainly included; the more so because
the power here granted is unlimited — “whatsoever you shall bind, . . . whatsoever you shall loose”;
the power is judicial, i.e., the Apostles are authorized to bind and to loose;
whether they bind or loose, their action is ratified in heaven. In healing the palsied man Christ declared that “the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins”; here He promises that what these men, the Apostles, bind or loose on earth, God in heaven will likewise bind or loose. (Cf. also POWER OF THE KEYS.)
But as the Council of Trent declares, Christ principally instituted the Sacrament of Penance after His Resurrection, a miracle greater than that of healing the sick. “As the Father hath sent me, I also send you. When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained’ (John 20:21-23). While the sense of these words is quite obvious, the following points are to be considered:
Christ here reiterates in the plainest terms — “sins”, “forgive”, “retain” — what He had previously stated in figurative language, “bind” and “loose”, so that this text specifies and distinctly applies to sin the power of loosing and binding.
He prefaces this grant of power by declaring that the mission of the Apostles is similar to that which He had received from the Father and which He had fulfilled: “As the Father hath sent me”. Now it is beyond doubt that He came into the world to destroy sin and that on various occasions He explicitly forgave sin (Matthew 9:2-8; Luke 5:20; 7:47; Revelation 1:5), hence the forgiving of sin is to be included in the mission of the Apostles.
Christ not only declared that sins were forgiven, but really and actually forgave them; hence, the Apostles are empowered not merely to announce to the sinner that his sins are forgiven but to grant him forgiveness-“whose sins you shall forgive”. If their power were limited to the declaration “God pardons you”, they would need a special revelation in each case to make the declaration valid.
The power is twofold — to forgive or to retain, i.e., the Apostles are not told to grant or withhold forgiveness nondiscriminately; they must act judicially, forgiving or retaining according as the sinner deserves.
The exercise of this power in either form (forgiving or retaining) is not restricted: no distinction is made or even suggested between one kind of sin and another, or between one class of sinners and all the rest: Christ simply says “whose sins”.
The sentence pronounced by the Apostles (remission or retention) is also God’s sentence — “they are forgiven . . . they are retained”.
It is therefore clear from the words of Christ that the Apostles had power to forgive sins. But this was not a personal prerogative that was to erase at their death; it was granted to them in their official capacity and hence as a permanent institution in the Church — no less permanent than the mission to teach and baptize all nations. Christ foresaw that even those who received faith and baptism, whether during the lifetime of the Apostles or later, would fall into sin and therefore would need forgiveness in order to be saved. He must, then, have intended that the power to forgive should be transmitted from the Apostles to their successors and be used as long as there would be sinners in the Church, and that means to the end of time. It is true that in baptism also sins are forgiven, but this does not warrant the view that the power to forgive is simply the power to baptize. In the first place, as appears from the texts cited above, the power to forgive is also the power to retain; its exercise involves a judicial action. But no such action is implied in the commission to baptize (Matthew 28:18-20); in fact, as the Council of Trent affirms, the Church does not pass judgment on those who are not yet members of the Church, and membership is obtained through baptism. Furthermore, baptism, because it is a new birth, cannot be repeated, whereas the power to forgive sins (penance) is to be used as often as the sinner may need it. Hence the condemnation, by the same Council, of any one “who, confounding the sacraments, should say that baptism itself is the Sacrament of Penance, as though these two sacraments were not distinct and as though penance were not rightly called the second plank after shipwreck” (Sess. XIV, can. 2 de sac. poen.).
These pronouncements were directed against the Protestant teaching which held that penance was merely a sort of repeated baptism; and as baptism effected no real forgiveness of sin but only an external covering over of sin through faith alone, the same, it was alleged, must be the case with penance. This, then, as a sacrament is superfluous; absolution is only a declaration that sin is forgiven through faith, and satisfaction is needless because Christ has satisfied once for all men. This was the first sweeping and radical denial of the Sacrament of Penance. Some of the earlier sects had claimed that only priests in the state of grace could validly absolve, but they had not denied the existence of the power to forgive. During all the preceding centuries, Catholic belief in this power had been so clear and strong that in order to set it aside Protestantism was obliged to strike at the very constitution of the Church and reject the whole content of Tradition.
Belief and Practice of the Early Church
Among the modernistic propositions condemned by Pius X in the Decree “Lamentabili sane” (3 July, 1907) are the following:
“In the primitive Church there was no concept of the reconciliation of the Christian sinner by the authority of the Church, but the Church by very slow degrees only grew accustomed to this concept. Moreover, even after penance came to be recognized as an institution of the Church, it was not called by the name of sacrament, because it was regarded as an odious sacrament.” (46)
“The Lord’s words: ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost, whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain they are retained’ (John xx, 22-23), in no way refer to the Sacrament of Penance, whatever the Fathers of Trent may have been pleased to assert.” (47)
According to the Council of Trent, the consensus of all the Fathers always understood that by the words of Christ just cited, the power of forgiving and retaining sins was communicated to the Apostles and their lawful successors (Sess. XIV, c. i). It is therefore Catholic doctrine that the Church from the earliest times believed in the power to forgive sins as granted by Christ to the Apostles. Such a belief in fact was clearly inculcated by the words with which Christ granted the power, and it would have been inexplicable to the early Christians if any one who professed faith in Christ had questioned the existence of that power in the Church. But if, contrariwise, we suppose that no such belief existed from the beginning, we encounter a still greater difficulty: the first mention of that power would have been regarded as an innovation both needless and intolerable; it would have shown little practical wisdom on the part of those who were endeavouring to draw men to Christ; and it would have raised a protest or led to a schism which would certainly have gone on record as plainly at least as did early divisions on matters of less importance. But no such record is found; even those who sought to limit the power itself presupposed its existence, and their very attempt at limitation put them in opposition to the prevalent Catholic belief.
Turning now to evidence of a positive sort, we have to note that the statements of any Father or orthodox ecclesiastical writer regarding penance present not merely his own personal view, but the commonly accepted belief; and furthermore that the belief which they record was no novelty at the time, but was the traditional doctrine handed down by the regular teaching of the Church and embodied in her practice. In other words, each witness speaks for a past that reaches back to the beginning, even when he does not expressly appeal to tradition.
St. Augustine (d. 430) warns the faithful: “Let us not listen to those who deny that the Church of God has power to forgive all sins” (De agon. Christ., iii).
St. Ambrose (d. 397) rebukes the Novatianists who “professed to show reverence for the Lord by reserving to Him alone the power of forgiving sins. Greater wrong could not be done than what they do in seeking to rescind His commands and fling back the office He bestowed. . . . The Church obeys Him in both respects, by binding sin and by loosing it; for the Lord willed that for both the power should be equal” (De poenit., I, ii,6).
Again he teaches that this power was to be a function of the priesthood. “It seemed impossible that sins should be forgiven through penance; Christ granted this (power) to the Apostles and from the Apostles it has been transmitted to the office of priests” (op. cit., II, ii, 12).
The power to forgive extends to all sins: “God makes no distinction; He promised mercy to all and to His priests He granted the authority to pardon without any exception” (op. cit., I, iii, 10).
Against the same heretics St. Pacian, Bishop of Barcelona (d. 390), wrote to Sympronianus, one of their leaders: “This (forgiving sins), you say, only God can do. Quite true: but what He does through His priests is the doing of His own power” (Ep. I ad Sympron, 6 in P.L., XIII, 1057).
In the East during the same period we have the testimony of St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 447): “Men filled with the spirit of God (i.e. priests) forgive sins in two ways, either by admitting to baptism those who are worthy or by pardoning the penitent children of the Church” (In Joan., 1, 12 in P.G., LXXIV, 722).
St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) after declaring that neither angels nor archangels have received such power, and after showing that earthly rulers can bind only the bodies of men, declares that the priest’s power of forgiving sins “penetrates to the soul and reaches up to heaven”. Wherefore, he concludes, “it were manifest folly to condemn so great a power without which we can neither obtain heaven nor come to the fulfillment of the promises. . . . Not only when they (the priests) regenerate us (baptism), but also after our new birth, they can forgive us our sins” (De sacred., III, 5 sq.).
St. Athanasius (d. 373): “As the man whom the priest baptizes is enlightened by the grace of the Holy Ghost, so does he who in penance confesses his sins, receive through the priest forgiveness in virtue of the grace of Christ” (Frag. contra Novat. in P. G., XXVI, 1315).
These extracts show that the Fathers recognized in penance a power and a utility quite distinct from that of baptism. Repeatedly they compare in figurative language the two means of obtaining pardon; or regarding baptism as spiritual birth, they describe penance as the remedy for the ills of the soul contracted after that birth. But a more important fact is that both in the West and in the East, the Fathers constantly appeal to the words of Christ and given them the same interpretation that was given eleven centuries later by the Council of Trent. In this respect they simply echoed the teachings of the earlier Fathers who had defended Catholic doctrine against the heretics of the third and second centuries. Thus St. Cyprian in his “De lapsis” (A.D. 251) rebukes those who had fallen away in time of persecution, but he also exhorts them to penance: “Let each confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession can be received, while satisfaction and the forgiveness granted by the priests is acceptable to God” (c. xxix). (See LAPSI.) The heretic Novatian, on the contrary, asserted that “it is unlawful to admit apostates to the communion of the Church; their forgiveness must be left with God who alone can grant it” (Socrates, “Hist. eccl.”, V, xxviii). Novatian and his party did not at first deny the power of the Church to absolve from sin; they affirmed that apostasy placed the sinner beyond the reach of that power — an error which was condemned by a synod at Rome in 251 (See NOVATIANISM.)
The distinction between sins that could be forgiven and others that could not, originated in the latter half of the second century as the doctrine of the Montanists, and especially of Tertullian. While still a Catholic, Tertullian wrote (A.D. 200-6) his “De poenitentia” in which he distinguishes two kinds of penance, one as a preparation for baptism, the other to obtain forgiveness of certain grievous sins committed after baptism, i.e., apostasy, murder, and adultery. For these, however, he allows only one forgiveness: “Foreseeing these poisons of the Evil One, God, although the gate of forgiveness has been shut and fastened up with the bar of baptism, has permitted it still to stand somewhat open. In the vestibule He has stationed a second repentance for opening to such as knock; but now once for all, because now for the second time; but never more, because the last time it had been in vain. . . . However, if any do incur the debt of a second repentance, his spirit is not to be forthwith cut down and undermined by despair. Let it be irksome to sin again, but let it not be irksome to repent again; let it be irksome to imperil oneself again, but let no one be ashamed to be set free again. Repeated sickness must have repeated medicine” (De poen., VII). Tertullian does not deny that the Church can forgive sins; he warns sinners against relapse, yet exhorts them to repent in case they should fall. His attitude at the time was not surprising, since in the early days the sins above mentioned were severely dealt with; this was done for disciplinary reasons, not because the Church lacked power to forgive.
In the minds, however, of some people the idea was developing that not only the exercise of the power but the power itself was limited. Against this false notion Pope Callistus (218-22) published his “peremptory edict” in which he declares: “I forgive the sins both of adultery and of fornication to those who have done penance.” Thereupon Tertullian, now become a Montanist, wrote his “De pudicitia” (A. D. 217-22). In this work he rejects without scruple what he had taught as a Catholic: “I blush not at an error which I have cast off because I am delighted at being rid of it . . . one is not ashamed of his own improvement.” The “error” which he imputes to Callistus and the Catholics was that the Church could forgive all sins: this, therefore, was the orthodox doctrine which Tertullian the heretic denied. In place of it he sets up the distinction between lighter sins which the bishop could forgive and more grievous sins which God alone could forgive. Though in an earlier treatise, “Scorpiace”, he had said (c. x) that “the Lord left here to Peter and through him to the Church the keys of heaven” he now denies that the power granted to Peter had been transmitted to the Church, i.e., to the numerus episcoporum or body of bishops. Yet he claims this power for the “spirituals” (pneumatici), although these, for prudential reasons, do not make use of it. To the arguments of the “Psychici”, as he termed the Catholics, he replies: “But the Church, you say, has the power to forgive sin. This I, even more than you, acknowledge and adjudge. I who in the new prophets have the Paraclete saying: ‘The Church can forgive sin, but I will not do that (forgive) lest they (who are forgiven) fall into other sins” (De pud., XXI, vii). Thus Tertullian, by the accusation which he makes against the pope and by the restriction which he places upon the exercise of the power of forgiving sin, bears witness to the existence of that power in the Church which he had abandoned.
Not content with assailing Callistus and his doctrine, Tertullian refers to the “Shepherd” (Pastor), a work written A.D. 140-54, and takes its author Hermas to task for favouring the pardon of adulterers. In the days of Hermas there was evidently a school of rigorists who insisted that there was no pardon for sin committed after baptism (Simil. VIII, vi). Against this school the author of the “Pastor” takes a resolute stand. He teaches that by penance the sinner may hope for reconciliation with God and with the Church. “Go and tell all to repent and they shall live unto God. Because the Lord having had compassion, has sent me to give repentance to all men, although some are not worthy of it on account of their works” (Simil. VIII, ii). Hermas, however, seems to give but one opportunity for such reconciliation, for in Mandate IV, i, he seems to state categorically that “there is but one repentance for the servants of God”, and further on in c. iii he says the Lord has had mercy on the work of his hands and hath set repentance for them; “and he has entrusted to me the power of this repentance. And therefore I say to you, if any one has sinned . . he has opportunity to repent once”. Repentance is therefore possible at least once in virtue of a power vested in the priest of God. That Hermas here intends to say that the sinner could be absolved only once in his whole life is by no means a necessary conclusion. His words may well be understood as referring to public penance (see below) and as thus understood they imply no limitation on the sacramental power itself. The same interpretation applies to the statement of Clement of Alexandria (d. circa A.D. 215): “For God being very merciful has vouchsafed in the case of those who, though in faith, have fallen into transgression, a second repentance, so that should anyone be tempted after his calling, he may still receive a penance not to be repented of” (Stromata, II, xiii).
The existence of a regular system of penance is also hinted at in the work of Clement, “Who is the rich man that shall be saved?”, where he tells the story of the Apostle John and his journey after the young bandit. John pledged his word that the youthful robber would find forgiveness from the Saviour; but even then a long serious penance was necessary before he could be restored to the Church. And when Clement concludes that “he who welcomes the angel of penance . . . will not be ashamed when he sees the Saviour”, most commentators think he alludes to the bishop or priest who presided over the ceremony of public penance. Even earlier, Dionysius of Corinth (d. circa A.D. 17O), setting himself against certain growing Marcionistic traditions, taught not only that Christ has left to His Church the power of pardon, but that no sin is so great as to be excluded from the exercise of that power. For this we have the authority of Eusebius, who says (Hist. eccl., IV, xxiii): “And writing to the Church which is in Amastris, together with those in Pontus, he commands them to receive those who come back after any fall, whether it be delinquency or heresy”.
The “Didache” (q.v.) written at the close of the first century or early in the second, in IV, xiv, and again in XIV, i, commands an individual confession in the congregation: “In the congregation thou shalt confess thy transgressions”; or again: “On the Lord’s Day come together and break bread . . . having confessed your transgressions that your sacrifice may be pure.” Clement I (d. 99) in his epistle to the Corinthians not only exhorts to repentance, but begs the seditious to “submit themselves to the presbyters and receive correction so as to repent” (c. lvii), and Ignatius of Antioch at the close of the first century speaks of the mercy of God to sinners, provided they return” with one consent to the unity of Christ and the communion of the bishop”. The clause “communion of the bishop” evidently means the bishop with his council of presbyters as assessors. He also says (Ad Philadel,) “that the bishop presides over penance”.
The transmission of this power is plainly expressed in the prayer used at the consecration of a bishop as recorded in the Canons of Hippolytus: “Grant him, 0 Lord, the episcopate and the spirit of clemency and the power to forgive sins” (c. xvii). Still more explicit is the formula cited in the “Apostolic Constitutions” (q.v.): “Grant him, 0 Lord almighty, through Thy Christ, the participation of Thy Holy Spirit, in order that he may have the power to remit sins according to Thy precept and Thy command, and to loosen every bond, whatsoever it be, according to the power which Thou hast granted to the Apostles.” (Const. Apost., VIII, 5 in P. (i., 1. 1073). For the meaning of “episcopus”, “sacerdos”, “presbyter”, as used in ancient documents, see BISHOP; HIERARCHY.
Exercise of the Power
The granting by Christ of the power to forgive sins is the first essential of the Sacrament of Penance; in the actual exercise of this power are included the other essentials. The sacrament as such and on its own account has a matter and a form and it produces certain effects; the power of the keys is exercised by a minister (confessor) who must possess the proper qualifications, and the effects are wrought in the soul of the recipient, i.e., the penitent who with the necessary dispositions must perform certain actions (confession, satisfaction).
Matter and Form
According to St. Thomas (Summa, III, lxxiv, a. 2) “the acts of the penitent are the proximate matter of this sacrament”. This is also the teaching of Eugenius IV in the “Decretum pro Armenis” (Council of Florence, 1439) which calls the act’s “quasi materia” of penance and enumerates them as contrition, confession, and satisfaction (Denzinger-Bannwart, “Enchir.”, 699). The Thomists in general and other eminent theologians, e.g., Bellarmine, Toletus, Francisco Suárez, and De Lugo, hold the same opinion. According to Scotus (In IV Sent., d. 16, q. 1, n. 7) “the Sacrament of Penance is the absolution imparted with certain words” while the acts of the penitent are required for the worthy reception of the sacrament. The absolution as an external ceremony is the matter, and, as possessing significant force, the form. Among the advocates of this theory are St. Bonaventure, Capreolus, Andreas Vega, and Maldonatus. The Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, c. 3) declares: “the acts of the penitent, namely contrition, confession, and satisfaction, are the quasi materia of this sacrament”. The Roman Catechism used in 1913 (II, v, 13) says: “These actions are called by the Council quasi materia not because they have not the nature of true matter, but because they are not the sort of matter which is employed externally as water in baptism and chrism in confirmation”. For the theological discussion see Palmieri, op. cit., p. 144 sqq.; Pesch, “Praelectiones dogmaticae”, Freiburg, 1897; De San, “De poenitentia”, Bruges, 1899; Pohle, “Lehrb. d. Dogmatik”. Regarding the form of the sacrament, both the Council of Florence and the Council of Trent teach that it consists in the words of absolution. “The form of the Sacrament of penance, wherein its force principally consists, is placed in those words of the minister: “I absolve thee, etc.”; to these words indeed, in accordance with the usage of Holy Church, certain prayers are laudably added, but they do not pertain to the essence of the form nor are they necessary for the administration of the sacrament” (Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, c. 3). Concerning these additional prayers, the use of the Eastern and Western Churches, and the question whether the form is deprecatory or indicative and personal, see ABSOLUTION. Cf. also the writers referred to in the preceding paragraph.
“The effect of this sacrament is deliverance from sin” (Council of Florence). The same definition in somewhat different terms is given by the Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, c. 3): “So far as pertains to its force and efficacy, the effect (res et effectus) of this sacrament is reconciliation with God, upon which there sometimes follows, in pious and devout recipients, peace and calm of conscience with intense consolation of spirit”. This reconciliation implies first of all that the guilt of sin is remitted, and consequently also the eternal punishment due to mortal sin. As the Council of Trent declares, penance requires the performance of satisfaction “not indeed for the eternal penalty which is remitted together with the guilt either by the sacrament or by the desire of receiving the sacrament, but for the temporal penalty which, as the Scriptures teach, is not always forgiven entirely as it is in baptism” (Sess. VI, c. 14). In other words baptism frees the soul not only from all sin but also from all indebtedness to Divine justice, whereas after the reception of absolution in penance, there may and usually does remain some temporal debt to be discharged by works of satisfaction (see below). “Venial sins by which we are not deprived of the grace of God and into which we very frequently fall are rightly and usefully declared in confession; but mention of them may, without any fault, be omitted and they can be expiated by many other remedies” (Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, c. 3). Thus, an act of contrition suffices to obtain forgiveness of venial sin, and the same effect is produced by the worthy reception of sacraments other than penance, e.g., by Holy Communion.
The reconciliation of the sinner with God has as a further consequence the revival of those merits which he had obtained before committing grievous sin. Good works performed in the state of grace deserve a reward from God, but this is forfeited by mortal sin, so that if the sinner should die unforgiven his good deeds avail him nothing. So long as he remains in sin, he is incapable of meriting: even works which are good in themselves are, in his case, worthless: they cannot revive, because they never were alive. But once his sin is cancelled by penance, he regains not only the state of grace but also the entire store of merit which had, before his sin, been placed to his credit. On this point theologians are practically unanimous: the only hindrance to obtaining reward is sin, and when this is removed, the former title, so to speak, is revalidated. On the other hand, if there were no such revalidation, the loss of merit once acquired would be equivalent to an eternal punishment, which is incompatible with the forgiveness effected by penance. As to the further question regarding the manner and extent of the revival of merit, various opinions have been proposed; but that which is generally accepted holds with Francisco Suárez (De reviviscentia meritorum) that the revival is complete, i.e., the forgiven penitent has to his credit as much merit as though he had never sinned. See De Augustinis, “De re sacramentaria”, II, Rome, 1887; Pesch, op. cit., VII; Göttler, “Der hl. Thomas v. Aquin u. die vortridentinischen Thomisten über die Wirkungen d. Bussakramentes”, Freiburg, 1904.
The Minister (i.e., the Confessor)
From the judicial character of this sacrament it follows that not every member of the Church is qualified to forgive sins; the administration of penance is reserved to those who are invested with authority. That this power does not belong to the laity is evident from the Bull of Martin V “Inter cunctas” (1418) which among other questions to be answered by the followers of Wyclif and Huss, has this: “whether he believes that the Christian . . . is bound as a necessary means of salvation to confess to a priest only and not to a layman or to laymen however good and devout” (Denzinger-Bannwart, “Enchir.”, 670). Luther’s proposition, that “any Christian, even a woman or a child” could in the absence of a priest absolve as well as pope or bishop, was condemned (1520) by Leo X in the Bull “Exurge Domine” (Enchir., 753). The Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, c. 6) condemns as “false and as at variance with the truth of the Gospel all doctrines which extend the ministry of the keys to any others than bishops and priests, imagining that the words of the Lord (Matthew 18:18; John 20:23) were, contrary to the institution of this sacrament, addressed to all the faithful of Christ in such wise that each and every one has the power of remitting sin”. The Catholic doctrine, therefore, is that only bishops and priests can exercise the power.
These decrees moreover put an end, practically, to the usage, which had sprung up and lasted for some time in the Middle Ages, of confessing to a layman in case of necessity. This custom originated in the conviction that he who had sinned was obliged to make known his sin to some one — to a priest if possible, otherwise to a layman. In the work “On true penance and false” (De vera et falsa poenitentia), erroneously ascribed to St. Augustine, the counsel is given: “So great is the power of confession that if a priest be not at hand, let him (the person desiring to confess) confess to his neighbour.” But in the same place the explanation is given: “although he to whom the confession is made has no power to absolve, nevertheless he who confesses to his fellow (socio) becomes worthy of pardon through his desire of confessing to a priest” (P. L., XL, 1113). Lea, who cites (I, 220) the assertion of the Pseudo-Augustine about confession to one’s neighbour, passes over the explanation. He consequently sets in a wrong light a series of incidents illustrating the practice and gives but an imperfect idea of the theological discussion which it aroused. Though Albertus Magnus (In IV Sent., dist. 17, art. 58) regarded as sacramental the absolution granted by a layman while St. Thomas (IV Sent., d. 17, q. 3, a. 3, sol. 2) speaks of it as “quodammodo sacramentalis”, other great theologians took a quite different view. Alexander of Hales (Summa, Q. xix, De confessione memb., I, a. 1) says that it is an “imploring of absolution”; St. Bonaventure (“Opera’, VII, p. 345, Lyons, 1668) that such a confession even in cases of necessity is not obligatory, but merely a sign of contrition; Scotus (IV Sent., d. 14, q. 4) that there is no precept obliging one to confess to a layman and that this practice may be very detrimental; Durandus of St. Pourcain (IV Sent., d. 17, q. 12) that in the absence of a priest, who alone can absolve in the tribunal of penance, there is no obligation to confess; Prierias (Summa Silv., s.v. Confessor, I, 1) that if absolution is given by a layman, the confession must be repeated whenever possible; this in fact was the general opinion. It is not then surprising that Dominicus Soto, writing in 1564, should find it difficult to believe that such a custom ever existed: “since (in confession to a layman) there was no sacrament . . . it is incredible that men, of their own accord and with no profit to themselves, should reveal to others the secrets of their conscience” (IV Sent., d. 18, q. 4, a. 1). Since, therefore, the weight of theological opinion gradually turned against the practice and since the practice never received the sanction of the Church, it cannot be urged as a proof that the power to forgive sins belonged at any time to the laity. What the practice does show is that both people -and theologians realized keenly the obligation of confessing their sins not to God alone but to some human listener, even though the latter possessed no power to absolve.
The same exaggerated notion appears in the practice of confessing to the deacons in case of necessity. They were naturally preferred to laymen when no priest was accessible because in virtue of their office they administered Holy Communion. Moreover, some of the earlier councils (Elvira, A. D. 300; Toledo, 400) and penitentials (Theodore) seemed to grant the power of penance to the deacon (in the priest’s absence). The Council of Tribur (895) declared in regard to bandits that if, when captured or wounded they confessed to a priest or a deacon, they should not be denied communion; and this expression “presbytero vel diacono” was incorporated in the Decree of Gratian and in many later documents from the tenth century to the thirteenth. The Council of York (1195) decreed that except in the gravest necessity the deacon should not baptize, give communion, or “impose penance on one who confessed”. Substantially the same enactments are found in the Councils of London (1200) and Rouen (1231), the constitutions of St. Edmund of Canterbury (1236), and those of Walter of Kirkham, Bishop of Durham (1255). All these enactments, though stringent enough as regards ordinary circumstances, make exception for urgent necessity. No such exception is allowed in the decree of the Synod of Poitiers (1280): “desiring to root out an erroneous abuse which has grown up in our diocese through dangerous ignorance, we forbid deacons to hear confessions or to give absolution in the tribunal of penance: for it is certain and beyond doubt that they cannot absolve, since they have not the keys which are conferred only in the priestly order”. This “abuse” probably disappeared in the fourteenth or fifteenth century; at all events no direct mention is made of it by the Council of Trent, though the reservation to bishops and priests of the absolving power shows plainly that the Council excluded deacons.
The authorization which the medieval councils gave the deacon in case of necessity did not confer the power to forgive sins. In some of the decrees it is expressly stated that the deacon has not the keys — claves non habent. In other enactments he is forbidden except in cases of necessity to “give” or “impose penance”, poenitentiam dare, imponere. His function then was limited to the forum externum; in the absence of a priest he could “reconcile” the sinner, i.e., restore him to the communion of the Church; but he did not and could not give the sacramental absolution which a priest would have given (Palmieri, Pesch). Another explanation emphasizes the fact that the deacon could faithfully administer the Holy Eucharist. The faithful were under a strict obligation to receive Communion at the approach of death, and on the other hand the reception of this sacrament sufficed to blot out even mortal sin provided the communicant had the requisite dispositions. The deacon could hear their confession simply to assure himself that they were properly disposed, but not for the purpose of giving them absolution. If he went further and “imposed penance” in the stricter, sacramental sense, he exceeded his power, and any authorization to this effect granted by the bishop merely showed that the bishop was in error (Laurain, “De l’intervention des laïques, des diacres et des abbesses dans l’administration de la pénitence”, Paris, 1897). In any case, the prohibitory enactments which finally abolished the practice did not deprive the deacon of a power which was his by virtue of his office; but they brought into clearer light the traditional belief that only bishops and priests can administer the Sacrament of Penance. (See below under Confession.)
For valid administration, a twofold power is necessary: the power of order and the power of jurisdiction. The former is conferred by ordination, the latter by ecclesiastical authority (see JURISDICTION). At his ordination a priest receives the power to consecrate the Holy Eucharist, and for valid consecration he needs no jurisdiction. As regards penance, the case is different: “because the nature and character of a judgment requires that sentence be pronounced only on those who are subjects (of the judge) the Church of God has always held, and this Council affirms it to be most true, that the absolution which a priest pronounces upon one over whom he has not either ordinary or delegated jurisdiction, is of no effect” (Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, c. 7). Ordinary jurisdiction is that which one has by reason of his office as involving the care of souls; the pope has it over the whole Church, the bishop within his diocese, the pastor within his parish. Delegated jurisdiction is that which is granted by an ecclesiastical superior to one who does not possess it by virtue of his office. The need of jurisdiction for administering this sacrament is usually expressed by saying that a priest must have “faculties” to hear confession (see FACULTIES). Hence it is that a priest visiting in a diocese other than his own cannot hear confession without special authorization from the bishop. Every priest, however, can absolve anyone who is at the point of death, because under those circumstances the Church gives all priests jurisdiction. As the bishop grants jurisdiction, he can also limit it by “reserving” certain cases (see RESERVATION) and he can even withdraw it entirely.
Recipient (i.e., the Penitent)
The Sacrament of Penance was instituted by Christ for the remission of Penance was instituted by Christ for the remission of sins committed after baptism. Hence, no unbaptized person, however deep and sincere his sorrow, can be validly absolved. Baptism, in other words, is the first essential requisite on the part of the penitent. This does not imply that in the sins committed by an unbaptized person there is a special enormity or any other element that places them beyond the power of the keys; but that one must first be a member of the Church before he can submit himself and his sins to the judicial process of sacramental Penance.
Contrition and Attrition
Without sorrow for sin there is no forgiveness. Hence the Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, c. 4): “Contrition, which holds the first place among the acts of the penitent, is sorrow of heart and detestation for sin committed, with the resolve to sin no more”. The Council (ibid.) furthermore distinguishes perfect contrition from imperfect contrition, which is called attrition, and which arises from the consideration of the turpitude of sin or from the fear of hell and punishment. See ATTRITION; CONTRITION, where these two kinds of sorrow are more fully explained and an account is given of the principal discussions and opinions. See also treatises by Pesch, Palmieri, Pohle. For the present purpose it need only be stated that attrition, with the Sacrament of Penance, suffices to obtain forgiveness of sin. The Council of Trent further teaches (ibid.): “though it sometimes happens that this contrition is perfect and that it reconciles man with God before the actual reception of this sacrament, still the reconciliation is not to be ascribed to the contrition itself apart from the desire of the sacrament which it (contrition) includes”. In accordance with this teaching Pius V condemned (1567) the proposition of Baius asserting that even perfect contrition does not, except in case of necessity or of martyrdom, remit sin without the actual reception of the sacrament (Denzinger-Bannwart, “Enchir.”, 1071). It should be noted, however, that the contrition of which the Council speaks is perfect in the sense that it includes the desire (votum) to receive the sacrament. Whoever in fact repents of his sin out of love for God must be willing to comply with the Divine ordinance regarding penance, i.e., he would confess if a confessor were accessible, and he realizes that he is obliged to confess when he has the opportunity. But it does not follow that the penitent is at liberty to choose between two modes of obtaining forgiveness, one by an act of contrition independently of the sacrament, the other by confession and absolution. This view was put forward by Peter Martinez (de Osma) in the proposition: “mortal sins as regards their guilt and their punishment in the other world, are blotted out by contrition alone without any reference to the keys”; and the proposition was condemned by Sixtus IV in 1479 (Denzinger-Bannwart, “Enchir.”, 724). Hence it is clear that not even heartfelt sorrow based on the highest motives, can, in the present order of salvation, dispense with the power of the keys, i.e., with the Sacrament of Penance.
Confession (Necessity)
“For those who after baptism have fallen into sin, the Sacrament of Penance is as necessary unto salvation as is baptism itself for those who have not yet been regenerated” (Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, c. 2). Penance, therefore, is not an institution the use of which was left to the option of each sinner so that he might, if he preferred, hold aloof from the Church and secure forgiveness by some other means, e.g., by acknowledging his sin in the privacy of his own mind. As already stated, the power granted by Christ to the Apostles is twofold, to forgive and to retain, in such a way that what they forgive God forgives and what they retain God retains. But this grant would be nullified if, in case the Church retained the sins of penitent, he could, as it were, take appeal to God’s tribunal and obtain pardon. Nor would the power to retain have any meaning if the sinner, passing over the Church, went in the first instance to God, since by the very terms of the grant, God retains sin once committed so long as it is not remitted by the Church. It would indeed have been strangely inconsistent if Christ in conferring this twofold power on the Apostles had intended to provide some other means of forgiveness such as confessing “to God alone”. Not only the Apostles, but any one with an elementary knowledge of human nature would have perceived at once that the easier means would be chosen and that the grant of power so formally and solemnly made by Christ had no real significance (Palmieri, op. cit., thesis X). On the other hand, once it is admitted that the grant was effectual and consequently that the sacrament is necessary in order to obtain forgiveness, it plainly follows that the penitent must in some way make known his sin to those who exercise the power. This is conceded even by those who reject the Sacrament of Penance as a Divine institution. “Such remission was manifestly impossible without the declaration of the offences to be forgiven” (Lea, “History etc.”, I, p. 182). The Council of Trent, after declaring that Christ left his priests as His vicars unto whom as rulers and judges the faithful must make known their sins, adds: “It is evident that the priests could not have exercised this judgment without knowledge of the cause, nor could they have observed justice in enjoining satisfaction if (the faithful) had declared their sins in a general way only and not specifically and in detail” (Sess. XIV, c. 5).
Since the priest in the pardoning of sin exercises a strict judicial function, Christ must will that such tremendous power be used wisely and prudently. Moreover, in virtue of the grant of Christ the priest can forgive all sins without distinction, quoecumque solveritis. How can a wise and prudent judgment be rendered if the priest be in ignorance of the cause on which judgment is pronounced? And how can he obtain the requisite knowledge unless it come from the spontaneous acknowledgment of the sinner? This necessity of manifestation is all the clearer if satisfaction for sin, which from the beginning has been part of the penitential discipline, is to be imposed not only wisely but also justly. That there is a necessary connection between the prudent judgment of the confessor and the detailed confession of sins is evident from the nature of a judicial procedure and especially from a full analysis of the grant of Christ in the light of tradition. No judge may release or condemn without full knowledge of the case. And again the tradition of the earliest time sees in the words of Christ not only the office of the judge sitting in judgment, but the kindness of a father who weeps with the repentant child (Aphraates, “Ep. de Poenitentia”, dem. 7) and the skill of the physician who after the manner of Christ heals the wounds of the soul (Origen in P. G., XII, 418; P.L., Xll, 1086). Clearly, therefore, the words of Christ imply the doctrine of the external manifestation of conscience to a priest in order to obtain pardon.
Confession (Various Kinds)
Confession is the avowal of one’s own sins made to a duly authorized priest for the purpose of obtaining their forgiveness through the power of the keys. Virtual confession is simply the will to confess even where, owing to circumstances, declaration of sin is impossible; actual confession is any action by which the penitent manifests his sin. It may be made in general terms, e.g., by reciting the “Confiteor”, or it may consist in a more or less detailed statement of one’s sins; when the statement is complete, the confession is distinct. Public confession, as made in the hearing of a number of people (e.g. a congregation) differs from private, or secret, confession which is made to the priest alone and is often called auricular, i.e., spoken into the ear of the confessor. We are here concerned mainly with actual distinct confession which is the usual practice in the Church and which so far as the validity of the sacrament is concerned, may be either public or private. “As regards the method of confessing secretly to the priest alone, though Christ did not forbid that any one, in punishment of his crimes and for his own humiliation as also to give others an example and to edify the Church, should confess his sins publicly, still, this has not been commanded by Divine precept nor would it be prudent to decree by any human law that sins, especially secret sins, should be publicly confessed. Since, then, secret sacramental confession, which from the beginning has been and even now is the usage of the Church, was always commended with great and unanimous consent by the holiest and most ancient Fathers; thereby is plainly refuted the foolish calumny of those who make bold to teach that it (secret confession) is something foreign to the Divine command, a human invention devised by the Fathers assembled in the Lateran Council” (Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, c. 5). It is therefore Catholic doctrine, first, that Christ did not prescribe public confession, salutary as it might be, nor did He forbid it; second, that secret confession, sacramental in character, has been the practice of the Church from the earliest days.
Traditional Belief and Practice
How firmly rooted in the Catholic mind is the belief in the efficacy and necessity of confession, appears clearly from the fact that the Sacrament of Penance endures in the Church after the countless attacks to which it has been subjected during the last four centuries. If at the Reformation or since the Church could have surrendered a doctrine or abandoned a practice for the sake of peace and to soften a “hard saying”, confession would have been the first to disappear. Yet it is precisely during this period that the Church has defined in the most exact terms the nature of penance and most vigorously insisted on the necessity of confession. It will not of course be denied that at the beginning of the sixteenth century confession was generally practised throughout the Christian world. The Reformers themselves, notably Calvin, admitted that it had been in existence for three centuries when they attributed its origin to the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). At that time, according to Lea (op. cit., I, 228), the necessity of confession “became a new article of faith” and the canon, omnis utriusque sexus, “is perhaps the most important legislative act in the history of the Church” (ibid., 230). But, as the Council of Trent affirms, “the Church did not through the Lateran Council prescribe that the faithful of Christ should confess — a thing which it knew to be by Divine right necessary and established — but that the precept of confessing at least once a year should be complied with by all and every one when they reached the age of discretion” (Sess., XIV, c. 5). The Lateran edict presupposed the necessity of confession as an article of Catholic belief and laid down a law as to the minimum frequency of confession — at least once a year.

The Law of the Seal of Confession
In the “Decretum” of the Gratian who compiled the edicts of previous councils and the principles of Church law which he published about 1151, we find (secunda pars, dist. VI, c. II) the following declaration of the law as to the seal of confession: “Deponatur sacerdos qui peccata p nitentis publicare præsumit”, i.e., “Let the priest who dares to make known the sins of his penitent be deposed”, and he goes on to say that the violator of this law should be made a life-long, ignominious wanderer. Canon 21 of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), binding on the whole Church, lays down the obligation of secrecy in the following words: “Let the priest absolutely beware that he does not by word or sign or by any manner whatever in any way betray the sinner: but if he should happen to need wiser counsel let him cautiously seek the same without any mention of person. For whoever shall dare to reveal a sin disclosed to him in the tribunal of penance we decree that he shall be not only deposed from the priestly office but that he shall also be sent into the confinement of a monastery to do perpetual penance” (see Hefele-Leclercq, “Hist. des Conciles” at the year 1215; also Mansi or Harduin, “Coll. conciliorum”). It is to be noted that neither this canon nor the law of the “Decretum” purports to enact for the first time the secrecy of confession. In a context cited further on the great fifteenth-century English canonist, Lyndwood, speaks of two reasons why a priest is bound to keep secret a confession, the first being on account of the sacrament because it is almost (quasi) of the essence of the sacrament to keep secret the confession. (Cf. also Jos. Mascardus, “De probationibus”, Frankfort, 1703, arg. 378.)

The Sacrament of Reconciliation:
Celebrating God’s Forgiveness
by Sandra DeGidio, O.S.M.

The well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son is perhaps the most strikingly powerful illustration of the human process of reconciliation, and of the theology inherent in the new Rite of Reconciliation. But many of us find it difficult to believe the story (see Luke 15:11-32). The father welcomes the son back instantly—doesn’t even wait for him to get to the house. And he isn’t at all interested in the young man’s confession, only in celebrating.

This is not the way we Catholics have viewed the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Even with the new Rite, most of us tend to view this sacrament with the attitude of the older son in the story: Forgiveness comes only after you recite your list of sins, agree to suffer a bit for them, do something to make up for your offenses, give some guarantee you won’t commit the same sins again, and prove yourself worthy to join the rest of us who haven’t been so foolish!
But God really is like the merciful parent in this parable: not out to catch us in our sin but intent on reaching out and hanging on to us in spite of our sin. Reconciliation (and the new Rite is careful to point this out) is not just a matter of getting rid of sin. Nor is its dominant concern what we, the penitents, do. The important point is what God does in, with and through us.

A journey home to God

God’s reconciling work in us doesn’t happen in an instant. Reconciliation is often a long, sometimes painful process. It is a journey not confined to, but completed in, sacramental celebration. It is a round-trip journey away from our home with God and back again that can be summed up in terms of three C’s: conversion, confession and celebration—and in that order.

In the past the order was different: Receiving the sacrament meant beginning with a recitation of sins (confession). Then we expressed our sorrow with an Act of Contrition, agreed to make some satisfaction for our sins by accepting our penance, and resolved to change our ways (conversion). Celebration was seldom, if ever, part of the process.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son can help us understand the stages in our journey to reconciliation—and the order in which they occur. This helps us see why the theology of the new Rite of Reconciliation suggests a reordering in the pattern that we were familiar with in the past.

The journey for the young man in the parable (and for us) begins with the selfishness of sin. His sin takes him from the home of his parents—as our sin takes us from the shelter of God and the Christian community. His major concern in his new self-centered lifestyle—as is ours in sin—is himself and his personal gratification. None of the relationships he establishes are lasting. When his money runs out, so do his “friends.” Eventually he discovers himself alone, mired in the mud of a pigpen, just as he is mired in sin. Then comes this significant phrase in the story: “Coming to his senses at last….” This is the beginning of the journey back, the beginning of conversion.
Conversion: An ongoing process

The conversion process begins with a “coming to one’s senses,” with a realization that all is not right with our values and style of life. Prompted by a faith response to God’s call, conversion initiates a desire for change. Change is the essence of conversion. Shuv, the Old Testament term for conversion, suggests a physical change of direction; metanoia, the term the New Testament uses, suggests an internal turnabout, a change of heart that is revealed in one’s conduct.

The Gospel vision of metanoia calls for an interior transformation that comes about when God’s Spirit breaks into our lives with the Good News that God loves us unconditionally. Conversion is always a response to being loved by God. In fact, the most important part of the conversion process is the experience of being loved and realizing that God’s love saves us—we do not save ourselves. Our part in this saving action is to be open to the gift of God’s love—to be open to grace
Moral conversion means making a personal, explicitly responsible decision to turn away from the evil that blinds us to God’s love, and to turn toward God who gifts us with love in spite of our sinfulness.
Persons who turn to God in conversion will never be the same again, because conversion implies transforming the way we relate to others, to ourselves, to the world, to the universe and to God. Unless we can see that our values, attitudes and actions are in conflict with Christian ones, we will never see a need to change or desire to be reconciled.

The need for conversion does not extend only to those who have made a radical choice for evil. Most often metanoia means the small efforts all of us must continually make to respond to the call of God.
Conversion is not a once-in-a-lifetime moment but a continuous, ongoing, lifelong process which brings us ever closer to “the holiness and love of God.” Each experience of moral conversion prompts us to turn more and more toward God, because each conversion experience reveals God in a new, brighter light.

When we discover in the examination of our values, attitudes and style of life that we are “missing the mark,” we experience the next step in the conversion process—contrition. This step moves us to the next leg of our conversion journey: breaking away from our misdirected actions, leaving them behind and making some resolutions for the future.

Let’s look again at our story. The young man takes the first step in the conversion process when he “comes to his senses,” overcomes his blindness and sees what he must do. “I will break away and return to my father.” Before he ever gets out of the pigpen, he admits his sinfulness. And in this acknowledgment of sin he both expresses contrition and determines his own penance. “I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against God and against you….Treat me like one of your hired hands.”

Contrition means examining our present relationships in the light of the Gospel imperative of love, and taking the necessary steps to repent and repair those relationships with others, ourselves and God. The repentance step in the conversion process is what is commonly called “making satisfaction for our sins,” or “doing penance.”
For many people in the past penance connoted “making up to God” by punishing ourselves for our sins. But true reparation is not punishment. At its root, reparation is repairing or correcting a sinful lifestyle. In the past we were told to do penance as temporal punishment for our sins. Now, however, we understand that our real “punishment” is the continuing pattern of sin in our lives and the harmful attitudes and actions it creates in us. The purpose of doing penance is to help us change that pattern. Penance is for growth, not for punishment. “Doing penance” means taking steps in the direction of living a changed life; it means making room for something new.

Lillian Hellman provides a wonderful image of this process of reconciliation in her explanation of the word pentimento at the beginning of Pentimento: A Book of Portraits: “Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter ‘repented,’ changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by the later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.”
Confession: Externalizing what is within

Confession, one aspect of the sacrament which used to receive the greatest emphasis, is now seen as just one step in the total process. Confession of sin can only be sincere if it is preceded by the process of conversion. It is actually the external expression of the interior transformation that conversion has brought about in us. It is a much less significant aspect of the sacrament than we made it out to be in the past. This does not mean that confession is unimportant—only that it is not the essence of the sacrament.

Look again at the parable. The father, seeing his son in the distance, runs out to meet him with an embrace and a kiss. Through one loving gesture, the father forgives the son—and the son hasn’t even made his confession yet! When he does, it seems the father hardly listens. The confession is not the most important thing here; the important thing is that his son has returned. The son need not beg for forgiveness, he has been forgiven. This is the glorious Good News: God’s forgiveness, like God’s love, doesn’t stop. In this parable, Jesus reveals to us a loving God who simply cannot not forgive!

Zorba the Greek—that earthy, raucous lover of life created by Nikos Kazantzakis—captures this loving God when he says: “I think of God as being exactly like me. Only bigger, stronger, crazier. And immortal, into the bargain. He’s sitting on a pile of soft sheepskins, and his hut’s the sky….In his right hand he’s holding not a knife or a pair of scales—those damned instruments are meant for butchers and grocers—no, he’s holding a large sponge full of water, like a rain cloud. On his right is Paradise, on his left Hell. Here comes a soul; the poor little thing’s quite naked, because it’s lost its cloak—its body, I mean—and it’s shivering.

“…The naked soul throws itself at God’s feet. ‘Mercy!’ it cries. ‘I have sinned.’ And away it goes reciting its sins. It recites a whole rigmarole and there’s no end to it. God thinks this is too much of a good thing. He yawns. ‘For heaven’s sake stop!’ he shouts. ‘I’ve heard enough of all that!’ Flap! Slap! a wipe of the sponge, and he washes out all the sins. ‘Away with you, clear out, run off to Paradise!’ he says to the soul….Because God, you know, is a great lord, and that’s what being a lord means: to forgive!”

Our attitude toward the Sacrament of Reconciliation is intimately related to our image of God. We need to really believe that our God, like Zorba’s, is not some big bogeyman waiting to trip us up, but a great Lord who is ever ready to reach out in forgiveness.

The Rite of Reconciliation reflects this image of a God of mercy. Formerly, it was the penitent who began the encounter in confession—”Bless me, Father, for I have sinned”—not unlike the way the sinner of Zorba’s imagination approached God, or the way the son in our parable planned to greet his father. But both Zorba’s God and the parent in the parable intervened. In the same vein, now in Reconciliation it is the confessor who takes the initiative, reaching out, welcoming the penitent and creating a hospitable environment of acceptance and love before there is any mention of sin. Thus, the sacramental moment of confession—just one of the sacramental moments in the whole Rite—focuses on God’s love rather than our sin.

Of course the new Rite does concern itself with the confession of sins. But one’s sinfulness is not always the same as one’s sins. And, as a sacrament of healing, Reconciliation addresses the disease (sinfulness) rather than the symptoms (sins). So, the sacrament calls us to more than prepared speeches or lists of sins. We are challenged to search deep into our heart of hearts to discover the struggles, value conflicts and ambiguities (the disease) which cause the sinful acts (the symptoms) to appear.

A question that often arises is: Why confess my sins? And why confess to a priest? Why not confess directly to God, since God has already forgiven me anyway? From God’s point of view, the simple answer is: There is no reason. But from our point of view, the answer is that as human beings who do not live in our minds alone, we need to externalize bodily—with words, signs and gestures—what is in our minds and heart. We need to see, hear and feel forgiveness—not just think about it.

We need other human beings to help us externalize what is within and open our hearts before the Lord, which puts confessors in a new light. They are best seen, not as faceless and impersonal judges, but as guides in our discernment, compassionately helping us experience and proclaim the mercy of God in our lives. As the Introduction to the Rite puts it, the confessor “fulfills a parental function…reveals the heart of the Father and shows the image of the Good Shepherd.” Another of the confessor’s roles is to say the prayer of absolution. Contrary to what we may have thought in the past, this prayer, which completes or seals the penitent’s change of heart, is not a prayer asking for forgiveness. It is a prayer signifying God’s forgiveness of us and our reconciliation with the Church—which is certainly something to celebrate.
Celebration: God always loves us

Celebration is a word we haven’t often associated with the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But in Jesus’ parable, it is obviously important and imperative. “Quick!” says the father. “Let us celebrate.” And why? Because a sinner has converted, repented, confessed and returned.

Celebration makes sense only when there is really something to celebrate. Each of us has had the experience of going to gatherings with all the trappings of a celebration—people, food, drink, balloons, bands—and yet the festivity was a flop for us. For example, attending an office party can be such an empty gathering for the spouse or friend of an employee. Celebration flows from lived experience or it is meaningless. The need for celebration to follow common lived experiences is especially true of sacramental celebrations. All of the sacraments are communal celebrations of the lived experience of believing Christians.

Perhaps what we need to help us feel more comfortable with the idea of celebration in relation to Reconciliation is a conversion from our own rugged individualism. Let’s face it—there is something about believing in a bogeyman God from whom we have to earn forgiveness that makes us feel good psychologically. It’s harder to feel good about a God who loves and forgives us unconditionally—whether we know it or not, want it or not, like it or not. In the face of such love and forgiveness we feel uncomfortable. It creates a pressure within us that makes us feel we should “do something” to deserve such largess—or at least feel a little bit guilty.

The older brother in our story expresses this same discomfort. Upon witnessing the festivities, he appeals to fairness and legalism. In a sense, he is hanging on to the courtroom image of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, suggesting that there is no way everyone can feel good about the return of the younger brother until amends have been made.
But this older son is far too narrow in his understanding of life, of God and of the sacrament. He is too calculating, too quantitative, not unlike the butchers and grocers that Zorba refers to in his description of God. This son finds it difficult to understand that we are never not forgiven. The Sacrament of Reconciliation does not bring about something that was absent. It proclaims and enables us to own God’s love and forgiveness that are already present.
The older brother’s problem is a universal human one. It’s tough for most of us to say, “I’m sorry.” It is even tougher to say, “You’re forgiven.” And it is most difficult of all to say gracefully, “I accept your forgiveness.” To be able to do that we must be able to forgive ourselves. That, too, is what we celebrate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The community’s liturgical celebration of Reconciliation places a frame around the picture of our continual journey from sin to reconciliation. Only someone who has never experienced or reflected on that journey will fail to understand the need and value of celebrating the sacrament.

The older son in our story may be such a person. When the father calls for a celebration, everyone else in the household responds. Not only do they celebrate the younger son’s return, they celebrate their own experience of forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation as well. They, like us, have been on that journey from which the young man has returned.

So there is something we can do about the unconditional forgiveness we receive from God: forgive as we have been forgiven. Having been forgiven, we are empowered to forgive ourselves and to forgive one another, heal one another and celebrate the fact that together we have come a step closer to the peace, justice and reconciliation that makes us the heralds of Christ’s Kingdom on earth.

An Experience of Forgiveness
by Ellen Fanizzi

Jeff is 16 and considers himself a pretty lucky guy. Last month, his two best friends got arrested for shoplifting. Now they’re spending their weekends doing the volunteer work ordered by the juvenile court judge.

Jeff would be right there alongside them, if luck hadn’t been with him that Saturday at the mall when the three tried shoplifting CD’s. A security guard caught his friends red-handed, but not Jeff. With no evidence, the judge had to drop the charge against him. Jeff “beat the rap.”

Why is it then that he feel so lousy about the whole incident? Why can’t he just forget about it?
Jeff is not what you’d describe as a really religious guy. His parents send him to a Catholic school, but he isn’t very interested in what he calls Church stuff. He’s interested in broadcasting and spends his Sunday afternoons at the radio station where he has an internship.

So, he is surprised to find himself thinking about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, about asking a priest at school to hear his confession. Why would anybody voluntarily reveal their failures, faults or even their crimes?

Who Needs It?
Occasionally, when I talk about religion with friends who aren’t Catholic, they’ll say, “It must be awful to have to tell your sins to a priest!” I have to disagree. Going to Confession is not easy most times, it’s true. On the other hand, I’m certainly glad that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is there when I need it.

Why does the Catholic Church have this ritual? After the Resurrection, Jesus established this sacrament for his followers. He realized that even after Baptism we would still have to deal with the reality of sin. Out of his great love, Jesus instituted this sacrament through which a sinner who is sorry receives pardon and peace and is restored to the fullness of grace with God.

Confession is a very intimate experience. Even in a communal reconciliation service that you might attend during Advent, Lent or a retreat, individual confessions are private.

The Catholic Church maintains, however, that there is also a social aspect to sin. Sin not only affects our relationship with God, sin also alienates us from other people and the Church.
In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Jesus provides us with a way of being reconciled to God and to those we’ve hurt, and to be strengthened in our connection to God’s entire family. This is more than symbolic; it is spiritual reality expressed through ritual.

Maybe there are a few people who don’t need ritual in their life, but most do. Isn’t the peak of every school year the traditional events at its end? Seniors spend weeks planning for commencement as well as preparing the invitations, going to the parties. It is a big event, a ritual.

A principal can, I suppose, just send the diplomas through the mail, but most realize it is important for students to have a ceremony. I know, when I graduated from high school, I wanted to walk across that auditorium stage in cap and gown and be handed my hard-earned diploma. God understands this about us. Human beings need rituals and ceremonies to celebrate the important moments in life.

No Mere Magic

How would you define sin? When you were young, you might have thought of sin in terms of the breaking of Church rules. Children’s confessions often consist solely of a list of broken commandments. As you grew, however, you probably developed a more mature understanding of sin. As a teenager, you understand better than a child that sin can take place in any aspect of your life.

A lot of images have been used to explain what happens when we sin. My grandmother told me that when she was preparing for her first Confession she was told to think of her soul as a white dress. When she sinned, it was like spilling grape juice on it.

The Church provides a clearer notion. It defines sin as a deliberate turning away from God and God’s goodness. Since God is love and only wills what is ultimately good, sin is a rejection of love. It leads to division, conflict and pain. These are the characteristics of life apart from God. On the other hand, whatever is good and leads to God is holy.

In some ways, it is really hard to commit sin, because sin involves making a conscious decision to turn away from God and God’s goodness. You do not sin when you simply make an honest mistake. On the other hand, sometimes sin can come quite easily, especially when you’ve let bad habits such as gossiping or lying become part of your behavior.

God has given you a wonderful freedom to love him, his creation and everyone in it. When you sin, you misuse that freedom. Fortunately, sin doesn’t have to have the last word in your life. You can repent and turn back to God. Jesus is there to help you make that move. Through his death, Jesus rescued humanity to the Father. As risen Lord, he now dwells within the Church.

The formula for absolution recounts this great mystery of salvation. Absolution does not work like magic, but it is amazing to realize how extraordinary God’s redeeming love for you really is.
God of Compassion

Sometimes people think of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in terms of a criminal trial. They imagine God as the judge, the priest as God’s lawyer and the sinner as being on trial. And they think the penance the sinner receives is punishment for the offense committed. This idea is completely off the mark.

There’s an old saying, “God hates the sin, not the sinner.” Just as a loving mother disapproves of those destructive behaviors which harm her child, so God condemns our sins. So while it’s true that when you sin you turn away from God, it does not follow that God turns away from you.

The God you encounter in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the God of compassion. In the battle against sin, God is on your side. That doesn’t mean God is pleased by sin. Rather, it means that, because of an overwhelming love for us, God reaches out even further to meet us when we need our Maker most.

When it comes to sin, we can be sure that God is not vengeful or spiteful but merciful and forgiving. That’s clear from the example of Jesus. Think of how he dealt with the sinners whom he encountered.

Luke tells the story of a sinful woman who sought out Jesus. He was eating at the home of Simon the Pharisee, a well-established and self-righteous man in the community, when this sinful woman showed up at the dinner party. She was obviously uninvited. Because she had a bad reputation, she was considered a terrible sinner and hence an outcast. But Jesus welcomed her in.

Simon the Pharisee was outraged that Jesus would associate with this kind of woman. But the Lord knew of her sorrow for her sins, and her humble heart which desired healing. Jesus said of this woman that “her many sins are forgiven; hence, she has shown great love” (Luke 7:47).

It’s About Real Life
Religion is not just about what goes on in church. It’s about your whole life, because God is everywhere. When someone believes in God and has faith, it affects his or her whole life. Someone who is nice in church but a jerk the rest of the week is someone who is not fully committed to living a Christian life. If that kind of hypocrisy turns you off, it should. Real religion is faith expressed on a daily basis.

So, what types of things should you mention in Confession? All aspects of life are fair game: missing Mass, sexual misconduct, cheating on test and not trusting your own brain. Remember that sin can be committed in any part of your life. It’s not restricted to the list of sins you might have been shown when you were preparing for your very first Confession.

When you ignore or mistreat a classmate because that person’s of a different race, or you attempt to solve your disagreements with your fists, that’s sinful. Racial prejudice and violence are also sins. A good examination of conscience requires that you consider how you might have expressed the love of Jesus and failed to do so.
The Three Elements

In your parents’ day, the Sacrament of Reconciliation was usually celebrated in private in a closet-sized space called a confessional box. Today, there are several ways to celebrate the sacrament. It can be completely private, in either a confessional or reconciliation room or other suitable place, such as an office. It can also be celebrated communally, during a public reconciliation service which includes the opportunity for individual confession. Depending upon the setting, a Scripture reading or music may be included.

In any case, a few things are indispensable. A priest is necessary, since only an ordained person has the authority to give absolution. On your part, three essential elements are required.

1. Be repentant. O.K., you blew it. Being repentant is the recognition that you’ve made a mess of something in your life, and you want to clean it up.
Your ability to face your sins is a good sign. A real scoundrel doesn’t feel guilty about the evil he or she has committed. So if you’re feeling bad about something you’ve done, that already says something good about you.

2. Confess your sins. When you confess your sins, you’re not telling God anything God doesn’t know already. The point is to be honest with yourself, to hear yourself name those ugly sins out loud and in the presence of a priest who alone can provide you with the peace of absolution.

3. Accept the penance. Accepting a penance from the priest and completing it is proof of your true sorrow. It is a way of expressing your sincere sorrow, a way of “putting your money where your mouth is.”

Consider it this way: Suppose a friend snatched your allowance which was in your locker. What would you think if that friend said, “Hey, I’m sorry I stole the money. Let’s forget it.” Maybe you’re a nice person and you decide to cut the kid a break. But wouldn’t you also expect the money back?

Wouldn’t it be crazy if your friend said, “I’m sorry. Forgive me. Let’s be friends again—but I get to keep the money I stole.” Justice demands that words of regret be accompanied by actions which demonstrate true contrition.
True contrition itself is a dynamic reality that seeks to turn aside from sin and evil, and to turn back to God. Accepting and performing the penance assigned by the priest puts us on the road to God again, our final goal.
Peace and Freedom

Sometimes people put off this sacrament or avoid it altogether because they don’t have big sins to confess. Well, the reality is this: While most of us will never be great saints, we’ll never be great sinners either. We’ll just be ordinary sinners, but still people in need of God’s healing.

If you are ever hesitant or nervous about approaching a pnest for Reconciliation, here are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, whatever you discuss with the priest is under “the seal of confession” and under no circumstances can he violate that secrecy. Second, every priest goes to Confession, too. He knows how hard it can be. If you’re not sure how to examine your conscience or forget how to make an Act of Contrition, tell the priest that. Priests are trained to help you receive the sacrament. Basically, you just need to show up with a sorrowful heart.
At some point in your life, you have probably gotten away with something, only to end up secretly punishing yourself for the misdeed. That’s because no matter who else was fooled, you still knew about it and so did God. That’s why Jeff, who got away with a petty theft, now finds himself feeling not so lucky after all. Unforgiven sins have a way of haunting us.

Instead of beating yourself over the head with bad feelings about past misdeeds, consider accepting the forgiveness God offers you through Jesus.

The words of absolution recited over you will renew your inner peace. St. Paul assures us that “whoever is in Christ is a new creation….and all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18). The Sacrament of Reconciliation can set you free.

How to Celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation Today
by Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., S.T.D.

What happened to confession? The lines of penitents waiting to enter the confessional on Saturday afternoon seem to have disappeared. Have Catholics simply stopped going to confession? How does one celebrate the sacrament today?

When I was in grade school, each Saturday evening my mom and dad took me to church and we went to confession. I never questioned why we did this, it was simply something that good Catholics did. Now, I would explain the practice by saying that this was a way to assure that we would be in the state of sanctifying grace in order to receive holy Communion at Mass the following day, Sunday morning. Even for those of us without grave sin and who were already in the state of grace—and I certainly would place my parents in that category—Saturday confession was a way to prepare ourselves to be as holy as possible to receive the most holy Sacrament of the Eucharist.
Today two things have changed: The Eucharist itself is seen as a sacrament of forgiveness; and the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not simply (or even primarily) a preparation for holy Communion. It has its own meaning as a wonderful sign of God’s love and forgiveness.


When Mass was in Latin, I never really noticed how frequently the prayers spoke of the forgiveness of sins. Now, Sunday after Sunday, I (together with the whole Church) hear, “May almighty God…forgive us our sins” (Penitential Rite); “You take away the sin of the world: have mercy on us” (Glory to God); “Though we are sinners, we trust in your mercy and love. Do not consider what we truly deserve, but grant us your forgiveness” (Eucharistic Prayer I); “Our Father…forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Lord’s Prayer); “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world….Lord, I am not worthy…but only say the word and I shall be healed” (Invitation to Communion).

At each Eucharist we hear Christ’s command: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.” And in holy Communion, I am in com-union (union-with) Christ and the Church. As my sins distance me from Christ and the Church, holy Communion draws me back into intimate union with Christ and his members. Meals, especially ritual meals, have traditionally been times of forgiveness and reconciliation. It is not surprising, then, that for many Catholics the Sunday Eucharist has become the usual sacrament by which they experience the forgiveness of their sins.

But are Catholics required to go to confession? The current law of the Church states that a person who is conscious of grave sin is not to receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess (Canon 916).

Think, for example, of the parable of the prodigal son. The boy who had cut himself off from the life of the family was now to be readmitted to the daily family table. He admitted his fault and asked forgiveness. Yet to restore the son’s place, a special celebration of reconciliation and homecoming was needed. “Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found” (Luke 15:23-24).
For those Catholics who have cut ourselves off from God and the Church by serious (grave, mortal) sin and now wish to return to God’s table (many Catholics find this situation rarely happens in their lives), the Church offers the Sacrament of Reconciliation to celebrate their “homecoming.” This is the only time when Catholics are required to celebrate the sacrament. But we celebrate Reconciliation not merely because we have to, but because it is a sacrament—a sign and celebration of God showing forth his mercy “by reconciling the world to himself in Christ and by making peace for all things on earth and in heaven by the blood of Christ on the cross”—as we read in the very first words of the Rite of Penance.


The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is not merely a time for spiritual direction (as wholesome as that is), or a time for seeking moral guidance (as necessary as that may be at times). Reconciliation is primarily a sacrament—a corporate act of worship which builds up the Body of Christ. The Church affirmed this understanding in the first document of Vatican II, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: “Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations belonging to the Church” (#26), and “Whenever rites, according to their specific nature, make provision for communal celebration involving the presence and active participation of the faithful, it is to be stressed that this way of celebrating them is to be preferred, as far as possible, to a celebration that is individual and, so to speak, private” (#27).

That is why, in addition to a rite for Reconciliation that is individual (one penitent and one priest) the new rite offers communal rites for the celebration of the sacrament. Many Catholics have moved from individual confession to these communal celebrations. In parishes across the United States we can find large numbers of Catholics participating in the communal Sacrament of Reconciliation, especially before Easter and Christmas.

Communal celebrations show more clearly that Reconciliation is a sacrament, a corporate act of worship. When we celebrate together as a parish family, we are reminded of the social nature of sin—that every sin, even the most private and personal sin, has implications for the larger community. In addition, when we celebrate Reconciliation with others, we are more clearly reminded of our obligation to “forgive those who trespass against us” even as we ask God to forgive us our trespasses.

Interpersonal forgiveness and reconciliation are part of the hoped-for outcomes of this sacrament. Christianity stresses the relation of the “horizontal” and the “vertical”—interpersonal forgiveness and divine forgiveness. “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24).


But whether one celebrates Reconciliation communally or individually, the corporate dimension of the sacrament remains. In the individual rite, the priest represents the whole Church. In either case, the sacrament has the same basic, ritual shape—a shape it receives from the Eucharist. The Eucharist is not only one of seven, it is the model and source of all the sacraments—they take not only their meaning but also their shape from the Eucharist. The external “shape” (outward sign) of the Eucharist is that of a meal.

Think of a typical Thanksgiving dinner. There are four movements: 1) we come together; 2) we tell our stories and review what has happened since we were last together; 3) we move to the table and eat; 4) then we take our leave and go our separate ways. These are the four movements of the Eucharist: 1) gathering; 2) storytelling (the Liturgy of the Word); 3) meal sharing (bringing the bread and wine to the altar, the Eucharistic Prayer and the Communion Rite); and 4) commissioning (the dismissal, announcements, etc.). The reformed rite for the Sacrament of Reconciliation has this same fourfold structure.

We gather and come together as a worshiping community to
form the Body of Christ.
2) We get in touch with the sacred story (as revealed in Scripture),
which has formed us as a people and which leads us to reform
our lives and do penance.
3) We celebrate God’s forgiveness for Reconciliation.
4) We turn to the world with our resolve to follow more closely in
the way of the gospel, to amend our lives, do penance and sin
no more.

The most important thing that happens in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is what Jesus does. While the examination of conscience, sorrow for sin, telling the sins to the priest and acts of satisfaction are all important elements on our part, the key to understanding the sacrament today is to focus on God’s part. The Sacrament celebrates God’s gift of reconciliation and peace.

Four Steps in Celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation Individually
The Rite for Reconciliation of Individual Penitents gives many options to both priest and penitent, but it is helpful to see the rite in light of the same four movements as the Eucharist: gathering, storytelling, reconciling, commissioning.

We enter the reconciliation chapel and we exchange a greeting with the priest. We can sit face-to-face with the priest or remain anonymous behind a screen. Many people worry about what the priest thinks of them when they tell him their sins. They imagine that in confessing their sins the priest sees them at their worst. Actually the very opposite is true. Everybody sins; however, only some sinners are moved to do penance. When you tell your sins to the priest and express your desire to repent, the priest sees you at your best. The priest sees you, not in your sinning, but in your repentance. As a priest I have found that many Catholics, once they have tried the face-to-face option, prefer it.

After saying hello we move to prayer. Even though there are only two people present, we are about to celebrate a sacrament of the Church, an act of worship. The whole Church is made present through the priest who is ordained to speak in the name of the Church and through the promise of Christ to be present where two or three are gathered in his name. We begin “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The priest will say a prayer and may invite us to pray.

While in this atmosphere of prayer, we turn to Scripture (perhaps the Sunday Gospel) and hear again of God’s faithful love. While the reading of Scripture is optional from a legal viewpoint, the rite recommends it, because it is very important for the meaning of the sacrament. Although some priests will have legitimate reasons not to do so, ideally the priest will invite you to read a passage from the Bible (or he himself will read a passage). Every sacramental action is a response to the Word of God.

One of the blessings of the Second Vatican Council is the increasing importance that the sacred Scriptures play in my life and in the lives of most Catholics. “When the Scriptures are read in the church, it is Christ himself who speaks” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 7). When I first started going to confession I was taught to examine my conscience in the light of the Ten Commandments. The whole moral life was divided and categorized under these 10 headings. Today I form my conscience not only from the Ten Commandments, but from all of Scripture, particularly the Gospels. I find this gives a rich variety to my “confessions” as I reflect on the Scriptures in the various seasons of my life and the life of the Church.

As a child, I understood sin to be breaking the law. I learned about laws and obedience from my parents. When I went to school, I learned that sin was breaking God’s law. As an adult, I realize that sin must be understood in relation to God’s love. In the Scriptures and in the experiences of our daily lives, we see how much God has loved us and continues to care for us.

When we examine our lives in the light of God’s love, we come to realize that our love for God, our neighbor and ourselves falls far short of God’s love for us. When we consider the difference between these two loves—how much God has loved us and how we have loved in return—we become aware of our sinfulness. Sin, in a sense, is basically ingratitude: our lack of response to the generosity of the loving creator. The creator calls us to life, growth and wholeness.

Sin is the refusal of that gift of life and call to growth. To be aware of sin, we must first be aware of God’s love. Those who do not see the constant role that God plays in their lives are not aware of sin. They can recognize that they do bad things or that they break the law, but sin—in this religious meaning of the word—requires a holy person or at least one who is seeking holiness. That’s why Scripture is important for reconciliation: It helps us to understand better how God loves us. Even if your priest does not include a reading during the sacrament, you might consider reading the parable of the prodigal son or some other Scripture in preparation for the sacrament.

Following the reading from Scripture (or the opening prayer, if the Scripture is omitted) the priest invites you to say whatever is in your heart: sins, fears, joys, questions, doubts. The priest responds by applying the sacred Scripture to the situation of the penitent and suggests a penance—something that you might do or a prayer you might say to show or express your conversion.

3) RECONCILING After the exchange with the priest, you turn once again to prayer. You will tell God that you are sorry for your sins—this may be a prayer that you know by heart or you may pray in your own words. Or you may find the Our Father an appropriate act of contrition. The priest then prays the prayer of absolution. If you are not separated by a screen, he may place his hands on your head in the biblical gesture of healing and invocation.
The words of absolution are not merely a legal formula. They are the very heart of the sacrament. While our sins disrupt and rupture the beauty and harmony of creation, God our merciful Father has restored this harmony by the paschal victory of Christ. This restoration and reconciliation give name to the sacrament: Reconciliation. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation the Holy Spirit is sent among us “for the forgiveness of sins.” The fruits of forgiveness and reconciliation are “pardon and peace.” We receive these gifts of the Holy Spirit “through the ministry of the Church” and the ministry of the priest who is ordained to speak in the name of the Spirit-filled Church:

“God, the Father of mercies,/ through the death and resurrection of his Son/ has reconciled the world to himself/ and sent the Holy Spirit among us/ for the forgiveness of sins;/ through the ministry of the Church/ may God give you pardon and peace,/ and I absolve you from your sins/ in the name of the Father, and of the Son,/ and of the Holy Spirit./

(And the penitent answers) Amen.”

The individual rite closes very simply. The priest says: “The Lord has freed you from your sins. Go in peace,” or: “Go in peace and God bless you” or some similar words of dismissal. You respond: “Amen,” or “Thank you, Father.”

When you compare this way of celebrating the sacrament with the way Catholics “went to confession” decades ago, not much seems to have changed, at least externally. We do now basically what we did then. But the primary focus of the rite has changed. As in all acts of worship, the focus of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is on God and what God does. The focus of confession was often on me and my sinfulness. Even in naming the sacrament we have moved from “confession” (what we do) to “reconciliation” (what God does).


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