Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 14, 2003
How to go to Confession (II)
Forgiveness is an act of God not the result of doing our penance
By ARCHBISHOP THOMAS COLLINS
When all the sins have been confessed, it is good for the penitent to say something like: "For these sins, and for any sins I may have forgotten, I am truly sorry." This helps the priest to know that the penitent has finished.
It is also a reminder that Confession is not a memory test, but an honest effort to acknowledge our need for God's mercy, to learn about how we can be more faithful, and to grow in humility so we will be receptive to the grace of the sacrament. Any sin forgotten is forgiven, but we should mention it at our next Confession.
In order to be free to confess all sins honestly, and experience new life through the sacrament, the penitent must have total confidence that nothing confessed will ever be revealed by the priest to anyone for any reason. This is the famous "seal of Confession," and it is absolute.
The priest at this point will give some spiritual advice. If there is time, it may be possible for this element of the sacrament to become more extensive.
The priest then imposes a penance. Obviously, the forgiveness of sins is an act of God, and not something dependent on our penance. The penance, however, is an important element in the sacrament, as it allows the penitent to respond more fully to the grace of forgiveness.
Throughout our history, God invites us frail creatures to participate in some small way at least in his saving action. Penance is a way of doing that. It also is a response to the fact that when we are forgiven, while we are totally at peace with God, we also experience the effects of sin, such as a weakened will to do good. The penance can help to mitigate those effects.
In ancient times, the penances were severe, but now (since they are, in any case, only a token) they are usually a matter of saying a few prayers, or doing something that will help the penitent to grow spiritually.
The priest will usually ask the penitent, just before receiving absolution, to make an Act of Contrition. There are many forms, and any one will do. The simplest form would be something like this: "O my God, I am sorry for my sins, and with your help I will try not to sin again."
Then the priest becomes simply an instrument of God's grace as he absolves the penitent. We should be attentive to the words of absolution, as they speak of the profound meaning of this sacrament:
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself, and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. As with every sacrament, we experience the action of the Holy Trinity. The reference to the Father of mercies brings to mind the loving Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. We are reminded that the forgiveness of sins is brought about because of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. We recall, as well, the Gospel passage where the risen Jesus says: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:22-23).
Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace. In God's providence the experience of a sacramental encounter with the merciful Jesus is not limited to the few whom he forgave when he walked among us but, as in the other sacraments, is continued through the Church, the family of faith on a journey through time. Every disciple has the opportunity to receive the fruits of absolution, pardon and peace. These are treasures of grace, so much needed by us all.
And I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. These are the words of absolution, which allow each penitent to experience the direct act of divine forgiveness once experienced in Galilee, made present here and now through the words of the priest. As with Baptism (to which this sacrament is so closely related) the sacramental action occurs in the name of the Holy Trinity. We are absolved, freed from sin, as at the moment of our Baptism.
We now set out on the next portion of our journey of faith, at one with God, and blessed with a deeper understanding of our frailty and need for his grace. The struggle continues, for we still face the many temptations of life, and will need again and again to return to receive the mercy of God. But through the sacramental experience of divine mercy we slowly become more humble, more compassionate, more supple instruments of God's grace in our baptismal mission of discipleship.
Every disciple has the opportunity to receive the fruits of absolution, pardon and peace.
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