Penance is a sacrament of the New Law instituted by Christ inwhich forgiveness of sins committed after baptism is grantedthrough the priests absolution to thosewho, with TRUE sorrow confess their sins and promise tosatisfy for the same. It is called a "sacrament“, not simply afunction or ceremony, because it is an outward sign institutedby Christ to impart grace to the soul. As an outward sign, itcomprises the actions of the penitent in presenting himself tothe priest and accusing himself of his sins, and the actions ofthe priest in pronouncing absolution and imposing satisfaction.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the seven sacraments Christ gave hischurch. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is also known as the Sacrament of Penanceor Confession. This sacrament can set us free from our sins, and from the burden ofguilt that comes along with our sins. Through the Sacrament of Reconciliation –confession – we are brought back into union with God. Our sins separate and damageour relationship with our Lord, and it is through this most powerful sacrament that ourrelationship with the Lord is repaired and strengthened. Through the Sacrament ofReconciliation we can walk more closely with the Lord once again, without the burdenof our sins weighing us down and distancing our relationship with God
"Peace be with you. As the Father hassent me, so I sent you." And when hehad said this, he breathed on themand said to them, "Receive the HolySpirit. Whose sins you forgive areforgiven them, and whose sins youretain are retained." (John 20:21-23)
The well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son is perhaps the most strikingly powerfulillustration of the human process of reconciliation, and of the theology inherent inthe new Rite of Reconciliation. But many of us find it difficult to believe the story.The father welcomes the son back instantly—doesnt even wait for him to get to thehouse. And he isnt at all interested in the young mans confession, only incelebrating.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 ofthe older son in the story: Forgiveness comes only after you recite your list ofsins, agree to suffer a bit for them, do something to make up for your offenses, givesome guarantee you wont commit the same sins again, and prove yourself worthyto join the rest of us who havent been so foolish!
A journey home to GodGods reconciling work in us doesnt happen in an instant. Reconciliation is often a long, sometimes painfulprocess. It is a journey not confined to, but completed in, sacramental celebration. It is a round-trip journey awayfrom our home with God and back again that can be summed up in terms of threeCs: 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 byaccepting our penance, and resolved to change our ways (conversion). Celebration was seldom, if ever, part of theprocess.The Parable of the Prodigal Son can help us understand the stages in our journey to reconciliation—and the orderin which they occur. This helps us see why the theology of the new Rite of Reconciliation suggests a reordering inthe 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 fromthe home of his parents—as our sin takes us from the shelter of God and the Christian community. His majorconcern in his new self-centered lifestyle—as is ours in sin—is himself and his personal gratification. None of therelationships he establishes are lasting. When his money runs out, so do his "friends." Eventually he discovershimself alone, mired in the mud of a pigpen, just as he is mired in sin. Then comes this significant phrase in thestory: "Coming to his senses at last...." This is the beginning of the journey back, the beginning of conversion.
Conversion: An ongoing processThe conversion process begins with a "coming to ones senses," with a realization that all isnot right with our values and style of life. Prompted by a faith response to Godscall, conversion initiates a desire for change. Change is the essence of conversion. Shuv, theOld Testament term for conversion, suggests a physical change of direction; metanoia, theterm the New Testament uses, suggests an internal turnabout, a change of heart that isrevealed in ones conduct.The Gospel vision of metanoia calls for an interior transformation that comes about whenGods 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 ofthe conversion process is the experience of being loved and realizing that Gods love savesus—we do not save ourselves. Our part in this saving action is to be open to the gift of Godslove—to be open to grace.
Moral conversion means making a personal, explicitly responsible decision to turnaway from the evil that blinds us to Gods love, and to turn toward God who gifts uswith love in spite of our sinfulness.Persons who turn to God in conversion will never be the same again, becauseconversion implies transforming the way we relate to others, to ourselves, to theworld, to the universe and to God. Unless we can see that our values, attitudes andactions are in conflict with Christian ones, we will never see a need to change ordesire 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 thecall of God.Conversion is not a once-in-a-lifetime moment but a continuous, ongoing, lifelongprocess which brings us ever closer to "the holiness and love of God." Eachexperience of moral conversion prompts us to turn more and more towardGod, 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 weare "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: breakingaway from our misdirected actions, leaving them behind and making some resolutionsfor the future.Lets look again at our story. The young man takes the first step in the conversionprocess when he "comes to his senses," overcomes his blindness and sees what hemust do. "I will break away and return to my father." Before he ever gets out of thepigpen, he admits his sinfulness. And in this acknowledgment of sin he both expressescontrition and determines his own penance. "I will say to him, Father, I have sinnedagainst God and against you....Treat me like one of your hired hands.“Contrition means examining our present relationships in the light of the Gospelimperative of love, and taking the necessary steps to repent and repair thoserelationships with others, ourselves and God. The repentance step in the conversionprocess is what is commonly called "making satisfaction for our sins," or "doingpenance."
Confession: Externalizing what is withinConfession, one aspect of the sacrament which used to receive the greatest emphasis, isnow seen as just one step in the total process. Confession of sin can only be sincere if it ispreceded by the process of conversion. It is actually the external expression of the interiortransformation that conversion has brought about in us. It is a much less significant aspect ofthe sacrament than we made it out to be in the past. This does not mean that confession isunimportant—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 anembrace and a kiss. Through one loving gesture, the father forgives the son—and the son hasnteven made his confession yet! When he does, it seems the father hardly listens. The confession isnot the most important thing here; the important thing is that his son has returned. The son neednot beg for forgiveness, he has been forgiven. This is the glorious Good News: Godsforgiveness, like Gods love, doesnt stop. In this parable, Jesus reveals to us a loving God whosimply cannot not forgive!
"I think of God as being exactly like me. Only bigger, stronger, crazier. And immortal, intothe bargain. Hes sitting on a pile of soft sheepskins, and his huts the sky....In his righthand hes holding not a knife or a pair of scales—those damned instruments are meant forbutchers and grocers—no, hes holding a large sponge full of water, like a rain cloud. On hisright is Paradise, on his left Hell. Here comes a soul; the poor little things quitenaked, because its lost its cloak—its body, I mean—and its shivering."...The naked soul throws itself at Gods feet. Mercy! it cries. I have sinned. And away itgoes reciting its sins. It recites a whole rigmarole and theres no end to it. God thinks thisis too much of a good thing. He yawns. For heavens sake stop! he shouts. Ive heardenough of all that! Flap! Slap! a wipe of the sponge, and he washes out all the sins. Awaywith you, clear out, run off to Paradise! he says to the soul....Because God, you know, is agreat lord, and thats what being a lord means: to forgive!"
The Rite of Reconciliation reflects this image of a God of mercy. Formerly, it was thepenitent who began the encounter in confession—"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned"—notunlike the way the sinner of Zorbas imagination approached God, or the way the son in ourparable planned to greet his father. But both Zorbas God and the parent in the parableintervened. In the same vein, now in Reconciliation it is the confessor who takes theinitiative, reaching out, welcoming the penitent and creating a hospitable environment ofacceptance and love before there is any mention of sin. Thus, the sacramental moment ofconfession—just one of the sacramental moments in the whole Rite—focuses on Godslove rather than our sin.Of course the new Rite does concern itself with the confession of sins. Butones sinfulness is not always the same as, ones sins. And, as a sacrament ofhealing, 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 arechallenged to search deep into our heart of hearts to discover the struggles, valueconflicts and ambiguities (the disease) which cause the sinful acts (the symptoms) to
Celebration: God always loves usCelebration is a word we havent often associated with the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But in Jesusparable, 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 experienceof going to gatherings with all the trappings of a celebration—people, food, drink, balloons, bands—and yetthe festivity was a flop for us. For example, attending an office party can be such an empty gathering for thespouse or friend of an employee. Celebration flows from lived experience or it is meaningless. The need forcelebration to follow common lived experiences is especially true of sacramental celebrations. All of thesacraments are communal celebrations of the lived experience of believing Christians.The communitys liturgical celebration of Reconciliation places a frame around the picture of ourcontinual journey from sin to reconciliation. Only someone who has never experienced orreflected on that journey will fail to understand the need and value of celebrating the sacrament.So there is something we can do about the unconditional forgiveness we receive fromGod: forgive as we have been forgiven. Having been forgiven, we are empowered to forgiveourselves and to forgive one another, heal one another and celebrate the fact that together wehave come a step closer to the peace, justice and reconciliation that makes us the heralds ofChrists Kingdom on earth.
Question : Why confess my sins? And why confess to a priest?Why not confess directly to God, since God has already forgivenme anyway? From Gods point of view, the simple answer is: Thereis no reason. But from our point of view, the answer is that ashuman beings who do not live in our minds alone, we need toexternalize bodily—with words, signs and gestures—what is in ourminds and heart. We need to see, hear and feel forgiveness—notjust think about it.Answer: From Gods point of view, the simple answer is: There isno reason. But from our point of view, the answer is that as humanbeings who do not live in our minds alone, we need to externalizebodily—with words, signs and gestures—what is in our minds andheart. We need to see, hear and feel forgiveness—not just thinkabout it.
We confess to a priest because that is the way Jesusinstigated the sacrament. It is at his command that weconfess to one another. When we sin against theFather our sins also affect our Christian family.Confessing sins to a priest is something that was auniversal practice and never debated in the EarlyChurch.
No Catholic believes that a priest, simply asan individual man, however pious or learned, has power to forgive sins. Thispower belongs to God alone; but He can and does exercise it through theministration of men. Since He has seen fit to exercise it by means ofthis sacrament, it cannot be said that the Church or the priest interferesbetween the soul and God; on the contrary, penance is the removal of theone obstacle that keeps the soul away from God.
Jesus entrusted his Church with the power of forgiving sins through this most wonderful sacrament. The priest is simply the one who acts in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) in the confessional, but it is our Lord who forgives our sins. The priest grants absolution (sets us free from our sins) using the power Jesus entrusted to his Church. It is through Christ, however, that our sins are forgiven. St. Paul tells us, "And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us." (2 Corinthians 5: 18-20)"Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound inheaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again, Isay to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are topray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father." (Matthew 18:18-19)
Some things that shouldbe cleared up to better understand the Sacrament of Reconciliation
ONE: Penance is not a mere human inventiondevised by the Church to secure powerover consciences or to relieve the emotionalstrain of troubled souls; it is the ordinary meansappointed by Christ for the remissionof sin. Man indeed is free to obey ordisobey, but once he has sinned, he must seekpardon not on conditions of his own choosingbut on those which God has determined, andthese for the Christian are embodied inthe Sacrament of Penance
But keep in mind :Without sorrow for sin there is no forgiveness. Hencethe Council of Trent says: "Contrition, which holds the firstplace among the acts of the penitent, is sorrow of heart anddetestation for sin committed, with the resolve to sin no more".
Two:It is not true that forthe Catholic the mere "telling ofones sins" suffices to obtain theirforgiveness. Without sincere sorrowand purpose ofamendment, confession availsnothing, the pronouncementof absolution is of no effect, and theguilt of the sinner is greater thanbefore.
NUMERO TRES : While this sacrament as a dispensation of Divine mercy facilitatesthe pardoning of sin, it by no means renders sin less hateful or its consequences lessdreadful to the Christian mind; much less does it imply permission to commit sin in thefuture. In paying ordinary debts, for example, by monthly settlements, the intention ofcontracting new debts with the same creditor is perfectly legitimate; asimilar intention on the part of him who confesses his sins would not only be wrong initself but would nullify the sacrament and prevent the forgiveness of sins then and thereconfessed.
The reconciliation of the sinner with God has as a further consequence of the revivalof those merits which he had obtained before committinggrievous sin. Good works performed in the state of grace deserve a rewardfrom God, but this is forfeited by mortal sin, so that if the sinner should dieunforgiven his good deeds avail him nothing. So long as he remains in sin, he isincapable 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 iscancelled by penance, he regains not only the state of grace but also the entire storeof merit which had, before his sin, been placed to his credit.
ACT OF CONTRITIONO my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee and Idetest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but mostof all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all goodand deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help ofThy grace, to sin no more and avoid the near occasions ofsin. Amen.
Now you must imitate Christ by forgiving others asyou have been forgiven:Matthew 6:9-15Thus therefore shall you pray: Our Father who art inheaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come.Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give usthis day our super substantial bread. And forgive usour debts, as we also forgive our debtors. And lead usnot into temptation. But deliver us from evil. Amen.For if you will forgive men their offences, yourheavenly Father will forgive you also your offences.But if you will not forgive men, neither will your Fatherforgive you your offences.