Penance requires courageous and sincere confession of sins

From Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Pænitentia (1984):

While reiterating everything that the church, inspired by God’s word, teaches about contrition, I particularly wish to emphasize here just one aspect of this doctrine. It is one that should be better known and considered. Conversion and contrition are often considered under the aspect of the undeniable demands which they involve and under the aspect of the mortification which they impose for the purpose of bringing about a radical change of life. But we all do well to recall and emphasize the fact that contrition and conversion are even more a drawing near to the holiness of God, a rediscovery of one’s true identity, which has been upset and disturbed by sin, a liberation in the very depth of self and thus a regaining of lost joy, the joy of being saved,188 which the majority of people in our time are no longer capable of experiencing.

We therefore understand why, from the earliest Christian times, in line with the apostles and with Christ, the church has included in the sacramental sign of penance the confession of sins. This latter takes on such importance that for centuries the usual name of the sacrament has been and still is that of confession. The confession of sins is required, first of all, because the sinner must be known by the person who in the sacrament exercises the role of judge. He has to evaluate both the seriousness of the sins and the repentance of the penitent; he also exercises the role of the healer and must acquaint himself with the condition of the sick person in order to treat and heal him. But the individual confession also has the value of a sign: a sign of the meeting of the sinner with the mediation of the church in the person of the minister, a sign of the person’s revealing of self as a sinner in the sight of God and the church, of facing his own sinful condition in the eyes of God. The confession of sins therefore cannot be reduced to a mere attempt at psychological self-liberation even though it corresponds to that legitimate and natural need, inherent in the human heart, to open oneself to another. It is a liturgical act, solemn in its dramatic nature, yet humble and sober in the grandeur of its meaning. It is the act of the prodigal son who returns to his Father and is welcomed by him with the kiss of peace. It is an act of honesty and courage. It is an act of entrusting oneself, beyond sin, to the mercy that forgives.188 Thus we understand why the confession of sins must ordinarily be individual not collective, just as sin is a deeply personal matter. But at the same time this confession in a way forces sin out of the secret of the heart and thus out of the area of pure individuality, emphasizing its social character as well, for through the minister of penance it is the ecclesial community, which has been wounded by sin, that welcomes anew the repentant and forgiven sinner.

187 Cf Ps 51(50):12.
188 I had occasion to speak of these fundamental aspects of penance at the general audiences of May 19, 1982: Insegnamenti V, 2 (1982), 1758ff; February 28, 1979: Insegnamenti II (1979), 475-478; March 21, 1984: Insegnamenti VII, 1 (1984) 720-722. See also the norms of the Code of Canon Law concerning the place for administering the sacrament and concerning confessionals (Canon 964, 2-3).

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Effective penance requires a clear, well-examined conscience and sincere contrition

From Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Pænitentia (1984):

The third conviction, which is one that I wish to emphasize, concerns the realities or parts which make up the sacramental sign of forgiveness and reconciliation. Some of these realities are acts of the penitent, of varying importance but each indispensable either for the validity, the completeness or the fruitfulness of the sign.

First of all, an indispensable condition is the rectitude and clarity of the penitent’s conscience. People cannot come to true and genuine repentance until they realize that sin is contrary to the ethical norm written in their in most being;183 until they admit that they have had a personal and responsible experience of this contrast; until they say not only that “sin exists” but also “I have sinned”; until they admit that sin has introduced a division into their consciences which then pervades their whole being and separates them from God and from their brothers and sisters. The sacramental sign of this clarity of conscience is the act traditionally called the examination of conscience, an act that must never be one of anxious psychological introspection, but a sincere and calm comparison with the interior moral law, with the evangelical norms proposed by the church, with Jesus Christ himself, who is our teacher and model of life, and with the heavenly Father, who calls us to goodness and perfection.184

But the essential act of penance, on the part of the penitent, is contrition, a clear and decisive rejection of the sin committed, together with a resolution not to commit it again,185 out of the love which one has for God and which is reborn with repentance. Understood in this way, contrition is therefore the beginning and the heart of conversion, of that evangelical metanoia which brings the person back to God like the prodigal son returning to his father, and which has in the sacrament of penance its visible sign and which perfects attrition. Hence “upon this contrition of heart depends the truth of penance.”186

183 Even the pagans recognized the existence of “divine” moral laws which have “always” existed and which are written in the depths of the human heart, cf Sophocles (Antigone, w. 450-460) and Aristotle (Rhetor., Book I, Chap. 15, 1375 a-b).
184 On the role of conscience cf what I said at the general audience of March 14, 1984, 3: Insegnamenti VII, 1 (1984), 683.
185 Cf Council of Trent, Session XIV, De Sacramento Pœnitentiæ, Chap. 4 De Contritione: Conciliorum Œcumenicorum Decreta, ed. cit., 705 (Denzinger, Heinrich, and Adolf Schönmetzer, Enchiridion symbolorum definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum [DS] 1676-1677). Of course, in order to approach the sacrament of penance it is sufficient to have attrition, or imperfect repentance, due more to fear than to love. But in the sphere of the sacrament, the penitent, under the action of the grace that he receives, ex attrito fit contritus, since penance really operates in the person who is well disposed to conversion in love: cf Council of Trent, ibid., ed. cit., 705 (DS 1678).
186 Ordo Pænitentiæ, 6c.

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The tribunal of Confession dispenses both penance and healing

From Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Pænitentia (1984):

The second conviction concerns the function of the sacrament of penance for those who have recourse to it. According to the most ancient traditional idea, the sacrament is a kind of judicial action; but this takes place before a tribunal of mercy rather than of strict and rigorous justice, which is comparable to human tribunals only by analogy namely insofar as sinners reveal their sins and their condition as creatures subject to sin; they commit themselves to renouncing and combating sin; accept the punishment (sacramental penance) which the confessor imposes on them and receive absolution from him.

But as it reflects on the function of this sacrament, the church’s consciousness discerns in it, over and above the character of judgment in the sense just mentioned, a healing of a medicinal character. And this is linked to the fact that the Gospel frequently presents Christ as healer,179 while his redemptive work is often called, from Christian antiquity, medicina salutis. “I wish to heal, not accuse,” St. Augustine said, referring to the exercise of the pastoral activity regarding penance,180 and it is thanks to the medicine of confession that the experience of sin does not degenerate into despair.181 The Rite of Penance alludes to this healing aspect of the sacrament,182 to which modern man is perhaps more sensitive, seeing as he does in sin the element of error but even more the element of weakness and human frailty.

Whether as a tribunal of mercy or a place of spiritual healing, under both aspects the sacrament requires a knowledge of the sinner’s heart in order to be able to judge and absolve, to cure and heal. Precisely for this reason the sacrament involves on the part of the penitent a sincere and complete confession of sins. This therefore has a raison d’être not only inspired by ascetical purposes (as an exercise of humility and mortification), but one that is inherent in the very nature of the sacrament.

179 Cf Lk 5:31f: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” concluding: “I have . . . come to call . . . sinners to repentance”; Lk 9:2: “And he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal.” The image of Christ the physician takes on new and striking elements if we compare it with the figure of the Servant of Yahweh, of whom the Book of Isaiah prophesies that “he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” and that “with his stripes we are healed” (Is 53:4f).
180 St. Augustine, Sermo 82, 8: Patrologiæ Cursus completus, Series Latina [PL] 38, 511.
181 Ibid., Sermo 352, 3, 8:9: PL 39, 1558f.
182 Cf Ordo Pænitentiæ, 6c.

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The Sacrament of Penance remains the source of remission of mortal sin

From Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Pænitentia (1984):

The truths mentioned above, powerfully and clearly confirmed by the synod and contained in the propositions, can be summarized in the following convictions of faith, to which are connected all the other affirmations of the Catholic doctrine on the sacrament of penance.

The first conviction is that for a Christian the sacrament of penance is the primary way of obtaining forgiveness and the remission of serious sin committed after baptism. Certainly the Savior and his salvific action are not so bound to a sacramental sign as to be unable in any period or area of the history of salvation to work outside and above the sacraments. But in the school of faith we learn that the same Savior desired and provided that the simple and precious sacraments of faith would ordinarily be the effective means through which his redemptive power passes and operates. It would therefore be foolish, as well as presumptuous, to wish arbitrarily to disregard the means of grace and salvation which the Lord has provided and, in the specific case, to claim to receive forgiveness while doing without the sacrament which was instituted by Christ precisely for forgiveness. The renewal of the rites carried out after the council does not sanction any illusion or alteration in this direction. According to the church’s intention, it was and is meant to stir up in each one of us a new impulse toward the renewal of our interior attitude; toward a deeper understanding of the nature of the sacrament of penance; toward a reception of the sacrament which is more filled with faith, not anxious but trusting; toward a more frequent celebration of the sacrament which is seen to be completely filled with the Lord’s merciful love.

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The confessor’s ministry of forgiveness requires fidelity and diligence

From Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Pænitentia (1984):

Just as at the altar where he celebrates the eucharist and just as in each one of the sacraments, so the priest, as the minister of penance, acts “in persona Christi.” The Christ whom he makes present and who accomplishes the mystery of the forgiveness of sins is the Christ who appears as the brother of man,163 the merciful high priest, faithful and compassionate,164 the shepherd intent on finding the lost sheep,165 the physician who heals and comforts,166 the one master who teaches the truth and reveals the ways of God,167 the judge of the living and the dead,168 who judges according to the truth and not according to appearances.169

This is undoubtedly the most difficult and sensitive, the most exhausting and demanding ministry of the priest, but also one of the most beautiful and consoling. Precisely for this reason and with awareness also of the strong recommendation of the synod, I will never grow weary of exhorting my brothers, the bishops and priests, to the faithful and diligent performance of ministry.170 Before the consciences of the faithful, who open up to him with a mixture of fear and trust, the confessor is called to a lofty task which is one of service and penance and human reconciliation. It is a task of learning the weaknesses and falls of those faithful people, assessing their desire for renewal and their efforts to achieve it, discerning the action of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, imparting to them a forgiveness which God alone can grant, “celebrating” their reconciliation with the Father, portrayed in the parable of the prodigal son, reinstating these redeemed sinners in the ecclesial community with their brothers and sisters, and paternally admonishing these penitents with a firm, encouraging and friendly “Do not sin again.”171

163 Cf Mt 12:49f; Mk 3:33f; Lk 8:20f; Rom 8:29: “the firstborn among many brethren.”
164 Cf Heb 2:17; 4:15.
165 Cf Mt 18:12f; Lk 15:4-6.
166 Cf Lk 5:31f.
167 Cf Mt 22:16.
168 Cf Acts 10:42.
169 Cf Jn 8:16.
170 Cf the address to the penitentiaries of the Roman patriarchal basilicas and to the priest confessors at the closing of the Jubilee of the Redemption (July 9, 1984): L’Osservatore Romano, July 9-10, 1984.
171 Jn 8:11.

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In Christ, God confers the power to forgive sins upon the priests of His Church

From Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Pænitentia (1984):

The books of the Old and New Testament provide us with the first and fundamental fact concerning the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness. In the Psalms and in the preaching of the prophets, the name merciful is perhaps the one most often given to the Lord, in contrast to the persistent cliche whereby the God of the Old Testament is presented above all as severe and vengeful. Thus in the Psalms there is a long sapiential passage drawing from the Exodus tradition, which recalls God’s kindly action in the midst of his people. This action, though represented in an anthropomorphic way, is perhaps one of the most eloquent Old Testament proclamations of the divine mercy. Suffice it to quote the verse: “Yet he, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity and did not destroy them; he restrained his anger often, and did not stir up all his wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and comes not again.”157

In the fullness of time the Son of God, coming as the lamb who takes away and bears upon himself the sin of the world158 appears as the one who has the power both to judge159 and to forgive sins,160 and who has come not to condemn but to forgive and save.161

Now this power to “forgive sins” Jesus confers through the Holy Spirit upon ordinary men, themselves subject to the snare of sin, namely his apostles: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.”162 This is one of the most awe-inspiring innovations of the Gospel! He confers this power on the apostles also as something which they can transmit-as the church has understood it from the beginning-to their successors, charged by the same apostles with the mission and responsibility of continuing their work as proclaimers of the Gospel and ministers of Christ’s redemptive work.

Here there is seen in all its grandeur the figure of the minister of the sacrament of penance who by very ancient custom is called the confessor.

157 Ps 78(77):38f.
158 Cf Jn 1:29; Is 53:7-12.
159 Cf Jn 5:27.
160 Cf Mt 9:2-7; Lk 5:18-25; 7:47-49; Mk 2:3-12.
161 Cf Jn 3:17.
162 Jn 20:22; Mt 18:18; cf also, as regards Peter, Mt 16:19. Blessed Isaac of Stella in one of his talks emphasizes the full communion of Christ with the church in the forgiveness of sins: “The church can forgive nothing without Christ and Christ does not wish to forgive anything without the church. The church can forgive nothing except to a penitent, that is to say, to a person whom Christ has touched with his grace: Christ does not wish to consider anything forgiven in a person who despises the church”: Sermo 11 (“In Dominica II Post Epiphaniam,” 1): Patrologiae Cursus completus, Series Latina 194, 1729.

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Misunderstanding of penance and reconciliation undermines the Sacrament

From Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Pænitentia (1984):

In all its phases and at all its levels the synod considered with the greatest attention that sacramental sign which represents and at the same time accomplishes penance and reconciliation. This sacrament in itself certainly does not contain all possible ideas of conversion and reconciliation. From the very beginning, in fact, the church has recognized and used many and varying forms of penance. Some are liturgical or paraliturgical and include the penitential act in the Mass, services of atonement and pilgrimages; others are of an ascetical character, such as fasting. But of all such acts none is more significant, more divinely efficacious or more lofty and at the same time easily accessible as a rite than the sacrament of penance.

From its preparatory stage and then in the numerous interventions during the sessions, in the group meetings and in the final propositions, the synod took into account the statement frequently made with varying nuances and emphases, namely: The sacrament of penance is in crisis. The synod took note of this crisis. It recommended a more profound catechesis, but it also recommended a no less profound analysis of a theological, historical, psychological, sociological and juridical character of penance in general and of the sacrament of penance in particular. In all of this the synod’s intention was to clarify the reasons for the crisis and to open the way to a positive solution for the good of humanity. Meanwhile, from the synod itself the church has received a clear confirmation of its faith regarding the sacrament which gives to every Christian and to the whole community of believers the certainty of forgiveness through the power of the redeeming blood of Christ.

It is good to renew and reaffirm this faith at a moment when it might be weakening, losing something of its completeness or entering into an area of shadow and silence, threatened as it is by the negative elements of the above-mentioned crisis. For the sacrament of confession is indeed being undermined, on the one hand by the obscuring of the mortal and religious conscience, the lessening of a sense of sin, the distortion of the concept of repentance and the lack of effort to live an authentically Christian life. And on the other hand, it is being undermined by the sometimes widespread idea that one can obtain forgiveness directly from God, even in a habitual way, without approaching the sacrament of reconciliation. A further negative influence is the routine of a sacramental practice sometimes lacking in fervor and real spontaneity, deriving perhaps from a mistaken and distorted idea of the effects of the sacrament.

It is therefore appropriate to recall the principal aspects of this great sacrament.

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Penance, most distinctly among the Sacraments, leads to reconciliation

From Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Pænitentia (1984):

The sacrament of orders is intended to give to the church the pastors who, besides being teachers and guides, are called to be witnesses and workers of unity, builders of the family of God, and defenders and preservers of the communion of this family against the sources of division and dispersion.

The sacrament of matrimony, the exaltation of human love under the action of grace, is a sign of the love of Christ for the church. But it is also a sign of the victory which Christ grants to couples in resisting the forces which deform and destroy love, in order that the family born from this sacrament may be a sign also of the reconciled and reconciling church for a world reconciled in all its structures and institutions.

Finally, the anointing of the sick in the trial of illness and old age and especially at the Christian’s final hour is a sign of definitive conversion to the Lord and of total acceptance of suffering and death as a penance for sins. And in this is accomplished supreme reconciliation with the Father.

However, among the sacraments there is one which, though it has often been called the sacrament of confession because of the accusation of sins which takes place in it, can more appropriately be considered by antonomasia* the sacrament of penance, as it is in fact called. And thus it is the sacrament of conversion and reconciliation. The recent synod particularly concerned itself with this sacrament because of its importance with regard to reconciliation.

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* Or synecdoche. — Ed.

Reconciliation is especially important when approaching the Eucharist

From Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Pænitentia (1984):

The definition which St. Augustine gives of the eucharist as “sacramentum pietatis, signum unitatis, vinculum caritatis155 clearly illustrates the effects of personal sanctification (pietas) and community reconciliation (unitas and caritas) which derive from the very essence of the eucharistic mystery as an unbloody renewal of the sacrifice of the cross, the source of salvation and of reconciliation for all people.

However, it must be remembered that the church, guided by faith in this great sacrament, teaches that no Christian who is conscious of grave sin can receive the eucharist before having obtained God’s forgiveness. This we read in the instruction Eucharisticum Mysterium which, duly approved by Paul VI, fully confirms the teaching of the Council of Trent: “The eucharist is to be offered to the faithful also ‘as a remedy, which frees us from daily faults and preserves us from mortal sin’ and they are to be shown the fitting way of using the penitential parts of the liturgy of the Mass. The person who wishes to receive holy communion is to be reminded of the precept: Let a man examine himself” (1 Cor 11:28). And the church’s custom shows that such an examination is necessary, because no one who is conscious of being in mortal sin, however contrite he may believe himself to be, is to approach the holy eucharist without having first made a sacramental confession. If this person finds himself in need and has no means of going to confession, he should first make an act of perfect contrition.156

155 St. Augustine, In Ioannis Evangelium Tractatus, 26, 13: Corpus Christianorum, Latin series 36, 266.
156 Sacred Congregation of Rites, Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery Eucharisticum Mysterium (May 25, 1967), 35: Acta Apostolicæ Sedis 59 (1967), 560f.

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The sacraments are signs of penance and reconciliation

From Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Pænitentia (1984):

The second divinely instituted means which the church offers for the pastoral activity of penance and reconciliation is constituted by the sacraments.

In the mysterious dynamism of the sacraments, so rich in symbolism and content, one can discern one aspect which is not always emphasized: Each sacrament, over and above its own proper grace, is also a sign of penance and reconciliation. Therefore in each of them it is possible to relive these dimensions of the spirit.

Baptism is of course a salvific washing which, as St Peter says, is effective “not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience.”151 It is death, burial and resurrection with the dead, buried and risen Christ.152 It is a gift of the Holy Spirit through Christ.153 But this essential and original constituent of Christian baptism, far from eliminating the penitential element already present in the baptism which Jesus himself received from John “to fulfill all righteousness,”154 in fact enriches it. In other words, it is a fact of conversion and of reintegration into the right order of relationships with God, of reconciliation with God, with the elimination of the original stain and the consequent introduction into the great family of the reconciled.

Confirmation likewise, as a ratification of baptism and together with baptism a sacrament of initiation, in conferring the fullness of the Holy Spirit and in bringing the Christian life to maturity, signifies and accomplishes thereby a greater conversion of the heart and brings about a more intimate and effective membership of the same assembly of the reconciled, which is the church of Christ.

151 1 Pt 3:21.
152 Cf Rom 6:3f; Col 2:12.
153 Cf Mt 3:11; Lk 3:16; Jn 1:33; Acts 1:5; 11:16.
154 Cf Mt 3:15.

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