Sacrament of penance and its different forms

We know that a sacrament is an outward, visible sign - a meeting with Christ in which He gives, restores or increases His life of grace to us. When we celebrate the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation it must have some element of "outward-ness" and "external-ness." It is not a private affair between God and the individual, without any outward signs of the grace being bestowed.

This need for external signs can be seen more clearly if we consider some basic facts we have already discussed in this Lenten series. In Baptism we are washed clean, sanctified and justified "in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God" (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1425). We have "put on Christ" (Gal. 3:27). Baptism, then, is the beginning of our relationship with God and the Community of the Church. This new beginning and new life in Christ, however, is affected by the human condition, which makes us prone to commit sin. Sin is our refusal to love God and the Community of the Church in the way Christ showed us. In His infinite mercy, our Lord never ceases to call us back to him in true sorrow and repentance, resulting in conversion of heart. "Christ's call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians," (Catechism, no. 1428) and, through prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we seek this interior conversion of heart. There is also a need for an external sign because our sins also injure our relationship with the Church. That is why the Sacrament of Penance is never just a "private affair," that is, "just God and me."

God works through external signs in every sacrament. For example, the Sacrament of Baptism uses water as a sign of cleansing and the Sacrament of Confirmation uses the perfumed oil of Chrism as a sign of one being anointed with the Holy Spirit. The outward signs for the Sacrament of Penance include the person confessing and the ordained priest. The priest is a sign as well, both of the healing power of God reconciling us in Christ and of the Church community. Christ granted the authority to forgive sins to the apostles: "Amen, 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" (Mt 18:8). Their successors, the bishops, and the priests, who are the bishops' closest co-workers, continue to exercise this same ministry through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Reflecting on this passage, we truly rejoice that God gave us a way, through this visible sacrament, to acknowledge our offenses, "take responsibility for them and thereby open (our)selves again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible" (Catechism, 1455), and grow closer to our heavenly home.

We can celebrate the Sacrament in two different ways - individually with a priest or communally with a parish community which includes individual private Confessions. "… The Sacrament of Penance is always, by its very nature, a liturgical action, and therefore an ecclesial and public action" (Catechism, no. 1482).

The basic elements of the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance ordinarily include: a greeting and blessing from the priest; the reading of Scripture to assist the penitent in an examination of conscience; the confession, which acknowledges sins and makes them known to a priest; the imposition and acceptance of a penance; absolution from the priest; dismissal and blessing from the priest (cf. Catechism, no. 1480). When the Sacrament is celebrated communally, the community gathers to pray and sing hymns. Then, the Word of God is proclaimed through Sacred Scripture and a homily. As a whole, the community reflects on its sinfulness and there is a personal examination of conscience. Then there is time for individual confessions as well. The community will pray a prayer as penance, which reflects an outward sign of their reconciliation with God (Catechism, nos. 1480 and 1482).

There can be a communal celebration of reconciliation with general confession and general absolution, but only in cases of very grave necessity does the Church allow this. This is a practice acceptable only on rare occasions of grave necessity such as an imminent danger of death where there is not sufficient time for the priest or priests to hear each penitent's confession or where there are not enough confessors to hear individual confessions within a reasonable time so that the penitent would be deprived of the Sacrament (Catechism, nos. 1483 and 1484). Moreover, once the grave necessity ends, the person must then confess his/her grave or mortal sins to the priest.

These are ways in which we seek externally, sacramentally and sorrowfully, forgiveness and reconciliation with God and the Church. Other ways in which we express sorrow and seek forgiveness include the Penitential Rite at the Mass, reception of Communion, fasting and almsgiving.

However, we still must confess mortal sins, according to the kind and number, and express sorrow in and through the Sacrament of Penance. The Sacrament of Penance is not only for mortal sins, but also for venial sins. Receiving the Sacrament of Penance is always fruitful and purifying, even in the case of venial sins, and reintegrates us into the communion of the Church.

Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI said, "In the Sacrament of Penance, the Crucified and Risen Christ purifies us through his ministers with his infinite mercy, restores us to communion with the heavenly Father and with our brothers and makes us a gift of his love, his joy and his peace" (Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus, 15 April 2008). Brothers and sisters in Christ, may this sacrament unite us with God, Who desires to bestow the grace of wholeness, healing and forgiveness so that we may spend eternity with Him!

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009