The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation
by Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.
All through His Public Ministry, the Message of Our Blessed Lord was one of
Repentance: "Unless you shall do Penance, you shall all likewise Perish" -
The Practice of Penance that Our Lord was Preaching, as necessary for
Salvation, is the Exercise of the Supernatural Virtue of Penance, or as it is
perhaps better known, Penitence, or Repentance. This
Virtue disposes the Sinner to Hatred of his own Sin, because it
Offends God, Who is
Infinitely (∞) Good, and includes a Firm Resolve to avoid
The Nature of this Virtue, is more clearly Understood in Regard-to Grave Sin,
where the Sinner has Turned-away from God in Choosing in a Definitive Way, some
Passing Pleasure or Satisfaction, in Opposition
to Godís Will. Repentance involves a Conversion, a Turning-away from the
Forbidden Fruit, and Turning-back to God. Even in Venial
Sin, where one has not Turned his back on God, Repentance inclines
the Sinner to Detest his Failures in Lesser
Matters, because they Offend God, and includes a Resolve to Strive to avoid the Wrong
Action done, or the Wrong Pleasure sought.
Sacrament of the New Law
Because of the Importance of Repentance in Godís Plan of Salvation
(it is a Necessary Condition for the Forgiveness of Sin), and Knowing the
Weaknesses of Human Nature, Our Blessed Lord not only Preached the Need-for
Repentance, but Raised it to the Dignity of a
Sacrament of the New Law. To this Penitential Rite, He gave Special
Healing and Strengthening Graces, and a Peace of
Soul, Flowing-from the Certainty of Forgiveness.
"Whose Sins you shall Forgive", He said to His
Apostles, "they are Forgiven them; and whose Sins you shall Retain, they are Retained" - (John 20:23).
By these Words, Jesus conferred-on them and their Successors, the Power of Forgiving
Sin in His Name, a Power not given to Angels,
whose Nature is Superior to ours, nor even to His Blessed Mother, the most
Perfect and Exalted Person in all Creation.
By the above Words, Christ conferred-on the Apostles a Power greater-than any Power conferred-on the Wonder Workers
of the Old Testament. And He conferred it, as Pope John Paul II stated, "as something which
they can Transmit - as the Church has understood from the beginning - to their Successors, charged by the same Apostles with the Mission and Responsibility
of continuing their Work ... as Ministers of Christís Redemptive Work" -
Exhortation - Reconciliation and Penance).
Only God Can Forgive Sin
Lord said to the Paralytic "Son, your Sins are Forgiven you", the Scribes
were murmuring among themselves "Who can Forgive Sin, but only God?" - (Mark 2:5). They were Correct in their Statement
that only God can Forgive Sin; but
they were Wrong in not Believing that Christ was God.
Their Statement is just as true today as it was then, even though Christ said to the Apostles "whose
Sins you shall Forgive they are Forgiven them". He Conferred-on them the Power to
Forgive Sin, but to Forgive Sin
in His Name. In this Sacrament, Christ Operates
through the Priest, Pronouncing the Words of Absolution.
has taken His Place, at the Right Hand of His Father in
Heaven, He still Exercises His Priestly Power among us, for the sake of
our Salvation. He comes through the Medium of the External
Sacramental Rites of the Church, to Act Personally with
His Hidden Power, to apply to Souls, the Fruits
won by His Passion and Death. In this
Sacrament of Penance, then, Christ Perpetuates, through the
Church, His Work of Reconciling Sinners
with God, by Remitting their Sins.
The Three Elements of Penance
We can better understand why the name by which this Sacrament is most commonly known, is the
Sacrament of Penance, when we see the Nature of the Virtue of Penance. That
Virtue, as Understood in Theology, involves Three (3) Things:
1) Sorrow for Sin,
2) Acknowledgement of Guilt (at least before
3) Adequate Satisfaction.
When Jesus Elevated the Practice of Repentance to the
Dignity of a Sacrament, He retained those Three
(3) Elements. Yet, by His Words, He specified that
Confession - or Acknowledgement of Guilt - be made 'Outwardly' before a Human Minister, rather than
'Inwardly' before God alone, and that Satisfaction be done as Prescribed by that Minister. Otherwise, why would
Christ have Expressly Granted that Power to His Apostles?
Saint Thomas Aquinas, in speaking of the Integral Parts of Penance, in relation to this
Sacrament, refers to the Three (3) Parts mentioned above, in this manner:
"The First Requisite on the part of the Penitent is the Will to Atone, and this is done by CONTRITION; the Second is that he
Submit to the Judgment of the Priest standing in Godís Place, and this is done by CONFESSION; and the Third is that he Atone according to the Decision
of Godís Minister, and this is done by SATISFACTION" (STIII, 90,2).
We will consider in detail each of these Three (3) Ingredients of the Sacrament of
Contrition, which the Council of Trent has defined as "a Sorrow and Detestation of Sin
Committed, with a Purpose of Sinning no more", is the most Essential Part of the Sacrament of Penance.
There can be no valid Confession without it. The Actual 'Confessing' of Oneís
Sins can at times be Excused, e.g. because of Inability-to-Speak, or Lack-of-Privacy in a Sick Room, etc., but never can there be a
Valid Reason for not being Sorry for Oneís Sins.
We are all familiar with the Distinction between Perfect Contrition and Imperfect
Contrition, both of which are Supernatural
Sorrow, Enlightened by Faith.
The First is Grief of Soul, because One has
Offended God, Who is
Infinitely (∞) Good, and a Firm Resolve to Cease
The Second is Sorrow for Oneís Sins, because
of the Fear of Punishment due to them.
In most of us there is a Combination of Both; but as One Grows in Grace, Love
of God grows, with a Greater Sorrow for having Offended
Him. While we should Strive-for Perfect Contrition,
because of the Added Fruitfulness of the Sacrament, Imperfect
Contrition (along with the Sacrament), would be Sufficient for Remitting
Grave Sin. Apart from the Sacrament of Penance, however, Imperfect
Contrition would not be Sufficient for Removing the Guilt and Punishment
for Mortal Sin.
While it is True that Perfect Contrition can Remove the
Guilt and Punishment of Grave Sin, even apart from the
Sacrament of Penance, that Contrition must include a Resolve to get to Confession
at the First Opportunity. One very common Act of Contrition, expresses clearly the Mind of the
Church in this regard: "I firmly Resolve, with the Help of thy Grace, to Confess my Sins, to do Penance, and to Amend
my Life". However, even with this Perfect Contrition, One who has
Fallen into Grave Sin, may not (except for special circumstances) receive
Holy Communion, until after receiving Absolution in the
Sacrament of Penance.
The Penitent must strive to have True Contrition for Each and Every One of his
Grave Sins, insofar as he can. It is not possible to have True Sorrow for
One (1) Mortal Sin, and not for Another. If, for example, out of
Five (5) Grave Sins, One has Sorrow for only
Four (4) of them, None (0) of them are Forgiven.
Too, this Sorrow must not be confused with a Mere Wish to overcome Sin, but
must include a Firm Purpose of Amendment. We can hardly be said to be Sorry for Offending
someone, if we do not intend to take steps to avoid Offending him in the Future. Nor are
Tears always an indication of True Sorrow, for one might be Unhappy or Emotionally Upset because he/she is
making a Mess of his/her Life, rather than because God is
(Resides in the Essence of the Soul)
(A Unity (1) of Body and Soul)
Supernatural Grace/Infused Virtues and Gifts of the Holy Spirit
Man is born a Rational Creature, with Body and Soul,
into the Natural Order.
God first elevates Man to the Supernatural Order via
the Sacrament of Baptism, which infuses Sanctifying Grace into the
Essence of the Soul. The other Six (6) Sacraments
can then elevate the Soul even Higher.
The Supernatural Order is the Ensemble of Effects exceeding the Powers of the Created
Universe and Gratuitously produced directly by God for the purpose of raising the Rational Creature
above its Natural Sphere to a God-like Life and Destiny.
Mortal Sin destroys/kills Man's entire
Supernatural Order/Life. Man is no-longer a Temple of God.
God is gone & resides no-longer in the Soul.
Only God can raise the Soul back-to-life from the
Dead, via the Sacrament of Penance.
Mortal Sin causes One to Lose not only Sanctifying
Grace, but all the Supernatural Merits stored-up for all the Good
Works done in his entire Previous Lifetime. The question may be asked: After receiving Sacramental Absolution
for Grave Sin, does One regain the Merits for the Good Works previously performed?
Does he return to an Equal Degree of Grace to what he had before the Fall? Saint
Thomas Aquinas answers that after Sacramental Absolution, one can end up with a Lesser Degree of
Grace and Merits, or the Same Degree, or a Greater Degree than before the
Fall, depending on the Sincerity of his Sorrow, and the Intensity of the Fervor of
Love, with which he turns back to God (STIII,89,2).
In this way, God can bring Good out-of Evil;
for at times after a Serious Fall, One will turn-back to God with a Greater
Humility, a Greater Resolve to serve God, and to make Amends for his
Sinfulness, than he had before the Fall. For One, Sincerely Trying to Lead a Good
Life, therefore, his very Falls can become Stepping Stones to Spiritual Growth.
It is, thanks to the Medicine of this Sacrament, says Saint Augustine, that the
Experience of Sin does not Degenerate into Despair.
As we saw with Grave Sins, either All are Forgiven, or None. With
Venial Sins, however, this is not True. We may obtain Remission for some, while
others remain in the Soul, owing to a Hidden Attachment to something
Venially Sinful. For this Reason, some Spiritual Writers recommend that the Penitent
single-out One (1) or Two (2) Predominate Failings,
and Concentrate his Prayers and Efforts at correcting them. As a Rule, our Contrition
is no better than our Purpose of Amendment; and it is not Possible to Concentrate-on the Correction of a Number of Things, at the Same Time. It is
True that Venial Sin can be Remitted, apart from the Sacrament
of Penance, by an Act of Charity, or by some other Virtuous Act performed
out of Love for God. However, when Remitted in
the Sacrament of Penance, additional Sacramental Graces are given to
Help overcome Sin, and the Penitent enjoys a
Greater Peace of Mind, from the certainty of being Forgiven.
We have already seen the Necessity of Contrition for every Mortal Sin for the
Valid Reception of this Sacrament, and the fact that in certain Rare Situations, the
Confession of them could be Omitted. Outside of those Extraordinary Circumstances, however, all Mortal Sins
committed since Baptism, and not yet Absolved in the
Sacrament of Penance, must be Confessed as to their Number, Kind and Circumstances that change their Nature.
This is what Theologians refer to as 'Necessary Matter' for the Sacrament, while Venial
Sins are referred to as 'Sufficient Matter', i.e. Sufficient for Absolution.
If, for example, One is Guilty of Three (3) Grave
Sins, and Confesses Two (2) of them, but not the
Third - for Fear or Shame, none of them
are Forgiven. If on the other hand, in Confessing, One omits to
Confess a Grave Sin, because it was Forgotten - yet would have been
Confessed with Sorrow, if remembered - the Forgotten Sin is
Pardoned, but should be mentioned at the next Confession.
It is not at all certain that One is without Grave Sin, who Fails to
Confess some deed, Gravely Forbidden by the Official Teaching of the Church
(e.g. Contraception), simply because his/her Conscience
"allows" it. To such a One, Pope John Paul II answered in a General Audience (8/17/83):
"Ask yourself if your Conscience is telling you the Truth, or something False; and seek Untiringly to know the Truth. If we
were not to make this Necessary Clarification, Man would Risk to find in his Conscience, a Force which is Destructive of his True Humanity, rather than
that Holy Place where God reveals to him, His True Good".
While an Examination of Conscience is an Important Preparation for the Sacrament of
Penance, no Hard and Fast Rule can be given for the Length of Time to be devoted to it. For those who are in the Habit of Examining their
Conscience Regularly, it need not be a Lengthy Affair. Many of our Readers recall the former Catechism that Instructed
us to Confess all Mortal Sins, and as many Venial Sins as we may wish to mention.
We should Strive-to have Sorrow for all our Venial Sins, but it is Probable
that we will have Truer Contrition if we Confess just the Predominant Ones, with a
Firm Determination to Strive-to Correct them; for, as we said, it is not Possible to Concentrate-on Correcting many
Faults at the same-time.
In order to increase the 'Fervor' of our Contrition, we should dwell-on the Goodness
of the God we have Offended, and Who
Suffered so much on our behalf, as well as on the Ways we have Offended
Him. When we speak of the 'Fervor' of Contrition, however, we are referring not
to the Feelings or Emotions, but to the Determination-of the
Will to avoid what Offends God.
In our Last Issue we distinguished between Venial Sins of Human Frailty, and those
that are Fully Deliberate. These latter should receive our First Attention, for there
will be little Spiritual Growth as-long-as they are Ignored.
Too, in order that Oneís Confession be not Superficial, but a Revealing-of Oneís Inner Self, there
should be a Humble Confessing of Oneís Failing in their Root-Causes. For example,
One might simply mention telling Lies, but Fail-to mention the Deep Pride
that caused him to build-up his Ego by Lies of Exaggeration, or that made him
Guilty of Lies of Excuse, to avoid Humiliation.
Those who Neglect this Sacrament, gradually grow Insensitive to the little
Failures of each day, that Offend God and
Interfere-with the Growth of Grace. And, because of this Neglect, they little-by-little
become Insensitive to Greater Violations of Godís Law. For those Catholics who
Neglect this Sacrament, believing they can obtain
Pardon directly from God, Pope John Paul stated:
"It would be Foolish, as well as Presumptuous, to Wish Arbitrarily to Disregard the means of Grace and Salvation which the
Lord provided, and, in the Specific Case, to claim to Receive Forgiveness while doing without the Sacrament which was Instituted by Christ, Precisely
for Forgiveness" (ibid).
For each Sin that Man Commits, he incurs both Guilt
before God, for every Sin Offends
Him, and a Debt of Punishment to Satisfy
Divine Justice. Even after the Guilt of Sin (Mortal or Venial) has been removed,
most often some Debt of Temporal Punishment remains, because of the Imperfection of our
Contrition, and the Incompleteness of our Turning-away from Sin. For this Reason,
True Repentance brings us not only to Detest Sin, and Stop
Sinning, but to make Reparation for it.
Consequently, the Penance imposed in this Sacrament is not a Price one Pays
for Pardon, for no Human Price could ever Repair for even the Slightest Offense
against a God of Infinite (∞)
Holiness and Majesty. Rather, the prescribed Penance -
when fulfilled - is Offered to the Father by Our Savior,
Who Unites it with His Own Infinite (∞)
Satisfaction, thus giving the Sacramental Penance a Special Efficacy in remitting the
Temporal Punishment due to Sin.
The Cleansing Power of the Blood of Christ
The Second Vatican Council stressed that Christ is Present, and Confers Grace in
all the Sacraments of the Church - (Const. Lit. 7). Those who
Confess regularly - in order to Guard-against Routine Confessions - should strive-for
a Lively Awareness in this Sacrament of the Presence of Our Divine Savior,
Who has been Offended by our Sins, and
Who shed His Blood that the Guilt of our
Sins be Washed-away.
One who is aware of this Divine Presence, will not approach this Sacrament without
Humble Reflection and a Contrite Heart. Saint
Catherine of Siena was filled with Gratitude and Wonder, as she spoke of the Mercy of Christ
in this Sacrament: "Do not despise the Blood of Christ", she exclaimed,
"which has Bathed us, in order to Cleanse the Face of our Souls from the Leprosy of Sin".
Christ atoned-for the Whole of Mankind by Shedding His Blood on
Calvary. It is the Purpose of the Sacrament of Penance to Apply-to us the
Inexhaustible Merits of His Satisfaction. No matter how Great, no matter
how many the Sins, the Absolution of the Priest can bring Full
Remission of Sin, for the Penitent properly-disposed. This is because the
Efficacy of the Precious Blood is Infinitely Greater than the Malice of Men and
Fallen Angels combined. When Applied-to the Soul of
the Penitent, it Purifies from Guilt, lessens the
Debt of Punishment, and Restores Grace - if it has been
Lost, or Increases it, if it is already-present in the Soul; and it does this in Proportion-to the
Penitentís Union with Christ, to the Fervor and
Sincerity of his Repentance.
As to the Fruits of this Sacrament, they can hardly be summed up better than
did Pope Pius XII in his Encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ:
"We heartily recommend the Pious Custom introduced by the Church, through the Inspiration of the Holy Spirit, of Frequent
Confession. It gives us a more thorough Knowledge of ourselves, stimulates Christian Humility, helps us to Uproot our Evil Habits, Wages War on
Spiritual Negligence and Tepidity, Purifies our Consciences, Strengthens our Wills, encourages Spiritual Direction and, by virtue of the Sacrament
itself, increases Grace".