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The sacrament of mercy

Written by Marie-Anne Jacques on Friday, 01 January 2010. Posted in Confession

"Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them" (John 20:21-23)

 Jesus saving Peter

Jesus, through the sacrament of Reconciliation, draws us from the darkness of sin into the light of grace

God’s mercy manifests itself in a dramatic way in the sacrament of Reconciliation (also called the Sacrament of Penance or Confession). The example of mercy that it demonstrates, tells us that God loves us – all of us – no matter how great our sins. He wants us to recognize that His mercy is greater than our sin, so that we will put our trust in Him. Thus, all will come to share His joy. The graces of His mercy are dependent upon our trust, so that the more we trust in Jesus, the more graces and blessings we will receive. He gave us one example of the depth of His mercy in the parable of the prodigal son.

In this parable, a man with two sons gave to the youngest his inheritance. The young man went out and wasted his fortune on riotous living. Soon afterwards, there was a famine in the country and he lost all he had.

He found employment with a swine farmer, but such was his fate that even the swine were given better nourishment than he was. So he said to himself, "How many hired men in my father’s house have bread in abundance, while I am perishing here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; take me as one of your hired men.’ " And he rose and went to his father.

While he was yet a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion, and ran and fell upon his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son." But the father said to his servants, "Fetch quickly the best robe and put it on him, and give him a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet; and bring out the fattened calf and kill it. Let us eat and make merry; because my son was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and is found." And they had a great feast in honour of his return. (Lk 15:11-32)

This is only a comparison of what occurs in Heaven when one sinner returns to God after, perhaps, many years of living in sin. "I tell you, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner repenting than over ninety-nine upright people who have no need of repentance." (Lk 15:7)

The institution of the sacrament

Christ instituted the Sacrament of Penance when he appeared to the Apostles after the Resurrection. He gave them authority to forgive or retain sins when He pronounced these words: "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 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).

Christ gave the Apostles the power to forgive sins, but this did not end with their death. It was given to them in view of their capacity as bishops and priests and because of this, as a permanent institution in the Church – just as they had a mission to teach and baptize all nations. Christ foresaw that His people would fall into sin; therefore they would need forgiveness in order to be saved. As long as there are sinners in the Church (until the end of time) there will be a need for the sacrament. 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 the proper authority.

The sacrament produces certain effects: the power of the keys exercised by a minister (confessor) who must possess the proper qualifications, the effects on the soul of the recipient, i.e., the penitent who with the necessary disposition must perform certain actions and/or satisfaction due to the sin committed.

The Sacrament of Penance

According to St. Thomas (Summa Theologiæ III.74.2) "the acts of the penitent are the proximate matter of this sacrament". 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).

"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, eternal punishment due to mortal sin. As the Council of Trent declares that the sacrament 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).

Why we confess our sins

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that, "All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession, even if they are most secret and have been committed against the last two precepts of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments); for these sins sometimes wound the soul more grievously and are more dangerous than those which are committed openly." [1456]

A penitent that wilfully conceals a mortal sin, derives no benefit but makes void the sacrament and incurs the guilt of sacrilege. If, however, the sin be omitted, not through any fault of the penitent, but through forgetfulness, it is forgiven indirectly; but it must be declared at the next confession.

The Catechism continues, "After having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation to faithfully confess serious sins at least once a year." Anyone who has a mortal sin on his soul must not receive Holy Communion, even if he experiences deep contrition, without first having received sacramental absolution, unless he has a grave reason for receiving Communion and there is no possibility of going to confession. Children must go to the sacrament of Penance before receiving Holy Communion for the first time. [1457]

Without it being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit. By receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father’s mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as He is merciful. [1458]

Return into God’s family

After the reception of absolution, there usually remains some temporal debt to be discharged by works of satisfaction. "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). 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, eg., by Holy Communion.

Once the sinner is reconciled with God, he experiences the revival of all 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 all the good that he did in his life will avail him nothing. As long as he remains in the state of serious sin, he cannot merit from any good works. But after his sin is cancelled by penance, he regains the state of grace and also the entire store of merit that he had before.

The only obstacle to obtaining the reward of God’s grace is sin and once this is removed, we are brought back into God’s grace. If the merit lost through our sin would not be returned upon our reception of confession, this loss could almost be the equivalent to an eternal punishment, which is not compatible with the forgiveness of the sacrament. A generally accepted opinion is that of Francisco Suarez (De reviviscentia meritorum), who stated that the recovery of grace is complete, in other words, the forgiven penitent has regained all of his merit back, as if he had never sinned.

Unbaptized persons

The Sacrament of Penance was instituted by Christ for the remission of sins committed after baptism. No unbaptized person can be validly absolved, however deep and sincere his sorrow for his sins may be. This does not mean that the sins committed by unbaptized persons are worse than that of anyone else, 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.


Jesus forgiving Mary Magdalen

Without sorrow for sin there is no forgiveness. Hence the Council of Trent states that (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 evil of sin or from the fear of hell and punishment.

He who repents of his sin out of love for God must acquiescence to the divine ordinance regarding penance, i.e., that he would confess if there were a priest available. He is obliged to confess when he has the next opportunity. (This applies to serious sins.) But this does not mean that the penitent has the choice between two methods of receiving forgiveness, because one cannot obtain contrition independently from the sacrament of Confession. So it is clear then, that not even a heartfelt sorrow based on the highest motives can dispense with the power of the Sacrament.

"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). It is important to understand that the sacrament of Penance is not an institution the use of which is left to the option of each sinner. The penitent must, within the sacrament, secure forgiveness by telling his sins to the priest who will then give absolution. The power given by Christ to the Apostles is twofold; a priest may forgive or retain sins according to the circumstances and dispositions of the penitent. Through the sacrament, God forgives or retains sin, through the intermediary of the priest.

In the history of the Church, the founding fathers knew well that one of the greatest difficulties a penitent has is overcoming shame, but they exhorted and encouraged frequent confession despite this. St. John Chrysostom (d. 347) pleads eloquently with the sinner: "Be not ashamed to approach (the priest) because you have sinned, nay rather, for this very reason approach. No one says: Because I have an ulcer, I will not go near a physician or take medicine; on the contrary, it is just this that makes it needful to call in physicians and apply remedies. We (priests) know well how to pardon, because we ourselves are liable to sin. This is why God did not give us angels to be our doctors, nor send down Gabriel to rule the flock, but from the fold itself he chooses the shepherds, from among the sheep He appoints the leader, in order that he may be inclined to pardon his followers and, keeping in mind his own fault, may not set himself in hardness against the members of the flock" (Homily "On Frequent Assembly" in P.G., LXIII, 463).

Absolution and penance

The sacrament has many powerful reminders of how God has shown us how His mercy and forgiveness is without limit, and this has been proven throughout our salvation history. At the end of our confession, the priest traces the sign of the cross in the air and says to the penitent, "I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." This is to remind us that Jesus forgave all of the sinners of the world who participated in His crucifixion, when He said: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (Lk 23:34) A short while later, He forgave the good thief: "Amen, I say to you, this day you shall be with me in paradise." (Lk 23:43) Thus, the symbol of the cross becomes for each Christian, the sign of the unwavering forgiveness of God.

As stated previously, the absolution given by the priest to a penitent who confesses his sins with the proper dispositions remits both the guilt and the eternal punishment (of mortal sin). There remains, however, some indebtedness to Divine Justice which must be cancelled. In order to have it cancelled here, the penitent receives from his confessor what is usually called his "penance", usually in the form of certain prayers which he is to say, or of certain actions which he is to perform, such as visits to a church, the Stations of the Cross, etc. Giving alms, fasting, and prayer are the chief means of satisfaction, but other penitential works may also added.

In theological language, this penance is called satisfaction and is defined by St. Thomas as: "The payment of the temporal punishment due on account of the offence committed against God by sin" (Summa Theologicæ Supplement.12.3). It is an act of justice whereby the injury done to the honour of God is required, insofar at least as the sinner is able to make reparation; it is also a preventive remedy, meant to hinder the further commission of sin.

Seal of confession

Regarding the sins revealed to him in sacramental confession, the priest is bound to inviolable secrecy. From this obligation he cannot be excused either to save his own life or good name, to save the life of another, to further the ends of human justice, or to avert any public calamity. No law can compel him to divulge the sins confessed to him, or any oath which he takes – eg., as a witness in court. He cannot reveal them either directly – i.e., by repeating them in so many words – or indirectly – i.e., by any sign or action, or by giving information based on what he knows through confession. The only possible release from the obligation of secrecy is the permission to speak of the sins given freely and formally by the penitent himself. Without such permission, the violation of the seal of confession would not only be a grievous sin, but also a sacrilege.

Misrepresentations of the sacrament

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. 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 eg., 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.

Here is a simple examination of conscience based on the Ten Commandments, given to help those who frequent the sacrament very seldom or for those who are going for the first time. One also may simply ask the priest for help in making a good, sincere confession.

Examination of Conscience

Jesus crucified

1. You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.

Do I truly put God first in my life? Are there other elements of my life – money, possessions, habits, relationships, career, hobbies, desires – that are more important to me than my relationship with God? Do I truly put my faith in God – not merely faith that He exists, but faith that He is truly taking care of me? Do I ever doubt God’s existence or His love for others or myself? Do I believe that God speaks, acts, governs and sanctifies through the Church? Do I doubt what God has revealed through the Church? Do I neglect it, or refuse it? Do I give God the proper worship? How is my prayer life? Do I engage in works of charity and justice? How am I living up to my baptismal promises to reject sin and to refuse to be mastered by the glamour of evil? Am I engaged in any superstitious beliefs which weaken my faith in God?

2. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.

Do I have reverence for God’s name? Do I ever speak His name in anger? If I make an oath by God’s name, am I truly living up to what I swore to do in His name? Since I am a child of God, how am I living up to my name? Am I faithful to all my promises? Am I a person of my word?

3. Remember the Sabbath day, to make it holy.

Am I faithful to Sunday Mass? Do I participate in the liturgy with my full heart? Am I truly in communion with the Church when I worship? Am I conscious of any ways in which I have broken communion by engaging in serious sin? Have I truly repented of all of my sins before approaching the altar for the Eucharist? Have I availed myself of the sacrament of Reconciliation regularly in conjunction with my reception of the Eucharist? When worshipping, am I judgmental or critical of others in the assembly – the priest, musicians, lectors, others in the pews? Do I regularly take Sabbath-time for prayer, reflection, rest and recreation, or am I constantly pursuing a goal other than that of my salvation and the salvation of others?

4. Honour your father and mother.

For those with living parents: Do I regularly call or visit my parents? Do I give thanks for the good things they have given and forgive the wrongs they have done? If they are elderly, ill in body, mind or spirit, or suffering from any other circumstance, do I give them aid, comfort and support? When I disagree with them, do I still respect them? Do I seek to settle any disagreements in a civil, just manner?

For those whose parents are deceased: Do I honour the memory of my parents? Do I help that memory to live on, especially to the next generation? Am I living the virtues they have taught me? Have I forgiven wrongs they have done to me? Have I forgiven myself for any conflicts which were left unresolved at the time of their death?

For all: Do I encourage others to honour their parents, especially in times of family conflict? Do I honor the parents of my friends, showing them due respect and honour? Do I contribute to a culture which promotes the family and parental respect?

5. You shall not kill.

Have I let my anger reach the point of vengeance and hatred where I desire not merely justice, but that harm be done to another person? Have I contributed – by any act of omission or commission, direct or indirect, formal or informal cooperation – to the destruction of innocent human life? Have any of my thoughts, words, deeds, things I have done or things I have failed to do, contributed to a culture of death rather than of life? Have I failed to respond to any need in my community to help promote a culture of life?

6. You shall not commit adultery.

For married persons: Am I faithful to my spouse, not just in sexual relations, but in everything? Are there other people or activities in my life which take away time and attention due to my spouse? Do I respect my spouse as an equal partner, not an object to an end? Am I attentive and responsive to the needs of my spouse? Do I contribute to an effective communication in my marriage? Do I contribute to a sound prayer life and spiritual foundation in my marriage? Do I live my marriage as a sacrament, a sacred covenant whose purpose is to image the covenant between Jesus and the Church and to contribute to the salvation of each spouse?

For unmarried persons: Am I living a chaste life, respecting God’s gift of sexuality and its true purpose and place in his creation? Do I engage in any kind of sexual activity which is contrary to God’s purpose of sexuality? If I sense a possible call to marriage in the future, am I preparing myself now to be a good spouse, cultivating virtues which will serve well in marriage? Do I contribute to a culture which promotes the proper understanding of marriage?

7. You shall not steal.

Have I taken anything that does not belong to me, no matter how small? Have I accepted anything under false pretences – through another’s mistake or some other circumstance – something to which I am not truly entitled? Do I contribute to the needs of the poor? (Heed the words of St. John Chrysostom: "Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.")

8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

Have I told lies in general, or particularly about anyone? Have I participated in gossip?

9. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.

Am I inordinately attracted to another person’s spouse? If so, have I engaged in any speech or behaviour which could lead to an inappropriate end? Have the same circumstances applied to any person who, for various reasons, is an inappropriate subject for my romantic/sexual interest? Do I entertain fantasies involving inappropriate sexual behaviour? Do I view pornographic materials or other titillating media, distorting my appreciation of the true nature of sexuality?

10. You shall not covet your neighbour’s goods.

Am I inordinately attached to material objects, including money? Am I envious of another’s possessions – material or otherwise – instead of being thankful for what God has provided for me?

A formula for Confession

After examining your conscience and telling God of your sorrow, go into the confessional. You may kneel at the screen or sit to talk face-to-face with the priest.

Begin your confession with the sign of the cross, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. My last confession was ............ weeks (months, years) ago."

The priest may read a passage from holy Scripture. Say the sins that you remember. Start with the one(s) that is most difficult to say. (In order to make a good confession the faithful must confess all mortal sins, according to kind and number.) After confessing all the sins you remember since your last good confession, you may conclude by saying, "I am sorry for these and all the sins of my past life."

Listen to the words of the priest. He will assign you some penance. Doing the penance will diminish the temporal punishment due to sins that have already been forgiven. When invited, express some prayer of sorrow or Act of Contrition.

Listen to the words of absolution, the sacramental forgiveness of the Church through the ordained priest. As you listen to the words of forgiveness you may make the sign of the cross with the priest.

Give thanks to God for forgiving you again. If you recall some serious sin you forgot to tell, rest assured that it has been forgiven with the others, but be sure to confess it in your next Confession.

Do your assigned Penance and resolve to return to the Sacrament of Reconciliation often. We Catholics are fortunate to have the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is the ordinary way for us to have our sins forgiven. This sacrament is a powerful help to get rid of our weaknesses, grow in holiness and lead a balanced and virtuous life.

Act of Contrition

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You. I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. But most of all because I have offended You, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of Your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance and to amend my life. Amen.

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