After Lent begins in three weeks, parishes will offer more opportunities to receive the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. But let’s face it — it’s not easy to admit our sins, and it’s even harder to confess them to someone else.
Over the years, many people have said to me, “I don’t confess to a priest; I just go directly to God.” Yet a comment like this leads me to wonder: Do you actually examine your conscience, sit down quietly, confess your sins to God, ask for forgiveness and make a resolution to avoid those sins in the future?
As difficult as it can be, the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is one of the most unique and powerful ways of asking ourselves how we have acted toward our families, friends and all those around us; how well we have loved God; and how well we have lived our Catholic faith.
What is the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation?
In every relationship, there comes a time when something goes wrong, and one person or group offends the other and the relationship is damaged. When this happens, some process of healing is needed to restore the relationship. Sometimes, it takes a simple apology, while in other cases, a more significant process or action is required to demonstrate good will and repair the harm done.
The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, commonly called confession, is one of the ways we can repair our relationship with Jesus Christ and the Church. It is in the sacrament that we meet the Lord, who wants to grant us forgiveness and grace to live a renewed life in him.
There are four primary actions in the sacrament, all of which contribute in some way to healing the relationship with Christ and the Church, which is broken by sin. Those four actions are confession of sin; expression of contrition or sorrow for sin; doing penance that expresses one’s desire to avoid sin in the future; and absolution from sin.
How it’s done
The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, like all other sacraments, requires several things in order for the effects of the sacrament to take place. It has gone through many stylistic changes throughout the centuries — as have all the sacraments. First, the individual seeking forgiveness must willingly come forward and truly desire to make amends with the Lord and the community, that is, the Mystical Body of Christ.
The individual must gather with a priest who stands as the face of Jesus Christ who offers mercy and pardon. Then, the action of confession begins with admitting and naming one’s sin and acknowledging the judgment of God over their actions. For many people, this is very difficult; however, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1455) points out that even on a strictly human level, confessing one’s sins can be a freeing experience of unburdening oneself from the secret burdens we all carry in our hearts. The expectation is that confession of sin be integral and thorough. The priest can be of assistance in guiding each person through an examination of conscience.
Next is contrition, which is one’s expression of sorrow for sin. Simply approaching the sacrament can signify contrition at some level, but the Catechism tells us that contrition “occupies first place” in the word of the sacrament. (CCC 1451) Therefore, an Act of Contrition usually follows the confession of sin, in which the sinner expresses the desire for a right relationship with God and to do God’s will. Contrition happens when we understand the nature of our relationship with God as a call to discipleship and an awareness of the ways in which we have not fully lived up to that call. Thus, the sinner who desires God’s friendship recognizes that overcoming sin and resisting the temptation to sin again comes only with God’s help.
The action of penance follows as a way in which the sinner expresses their firm resolve to amend their relationship with God and the Church. Simply, it’s an action of satisfaction that demonstrates the intention to heal the harm that’s been done by sin. This is the true meaning of “reconciliation.” When one person harms another, the process of reconciliation in a relationship is more than saying, “I’m sorry.” Rather, reconciliation entails making restitution for the wrong committed. It’s a gesture in and of itself that is healing. In the celebration of the sacrament, the individual is offered a suggested penance as a means of making this satisfaction. Sometimes, that penance can be broad reaching, like an act of charity. Or it may be to spend time in prayer or devotion, because prayer can help each one of us reorient our lives toward the presence of Christ.
Finally, absolution is offered by the priest acting in persona Christi, “in the person of Christ.” The real power of the sacrament is this incarnational moment as the healing power of Christ is given from a real face and a real voice in the person of the priest. One can always pray to God in asking for and finding forgiveness, but in the sacramental celebration, the gift of forgiveness is offered in a concrete, compassionate and merciful way.
How it’s lived
The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is a recommitment to the Lord and an essential part of our ongoing conversion. Regular participation in the sacrament should lead us to live better, more joyful, lives because the grace received in the sacrament is the strength we need to avoid sin in the future.
In conclusion, the process of seeking, receiving and celebrating God’s mercy and forgiveness is meant to be a source of joy. While it’s difficult for everyone, Pope Francis reminds us that it need not be something to fear because the Lord is always there waiting for us with open arms and eager to bestow upon us his healing love. (Evangelii Gaudium 3)