Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 26, 2004
Reconciliation: 'Go in Peace'
A pastoral letter on the sacrament of Penance by Archbishop Collins
December 1 2003
I: The Sacramental Mercy of Jesus in the Gospels
Once, when Jesus was at supper with people who were confident of their righteousness, a woman who was known to be a public sinner heard that Jesus was nearby, and came in and wept, and anointed his feet. She knew that he, the sinless one, would have mercy on her, and did not hesitate to approach him.
When the righteous complained, Jesus said: "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little." And he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this, who even forgives sins?" And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace" (Luke 7:47-50).
In the Gospels, we frequently find an encounter between a sinner and Jesus. To the paralyzed man Jesus says: "Take heart, my son, your sins are forgiven" (Matthew 9:2; see Luke 5:17-26). When he is alone with the woman caught in adultery, after her accusers have gone away, and there is no one left to condemn her, Jesus says: "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again" (John 8:11).
Jesus, who begins his public ministry with the stern call "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17), is nonetheless known as one who gently reaches out to sinners. The righteous say: "This man receives sinners, and eats with them." (Luke 15:2) Jesus says, "There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (Luke 15:10). In his parables, Jesus holds up as an example the tax collector who says "God, be merciful to me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13), and in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) he shows us the journey from sin, through repentance, to absolution by our loving Father.
In the many such passages in the Gospels we are reminded of how easily we turn from the love of God and neighbour, but also how we need to repent and return to God. For this to happen, we may need a challenge that will break through our willfulness, and Jesus often issues such a challenge, as did John the Baptist and the prophets before him. But we also see how the individual sinner experiences an internal conversion, through the gentle action of God's grace, which draws the sinner to the source of life, as sunlight brings new life to the fields.
In the Gospel, there are two movements in the experience of forgiveness, an internal and an external one. The prodigal son, reflecting on his life, makes a personal decision to return to his father, and the sinners of the Gospel decide to draw near to Jesus. That is the internal response to God's grace. It is sorrow for sin, leading to conversion.
But there is a further movement, an external human action, as the sinner experiences in a direct, tangible way the reality of divine forgiveness. The father runs down the road, and embraces the son. Jesus says to the sinner: "Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace." At that moment, the sinner experiences absolution, and is forgiven.
The absolution is sacramental, that is, it is a tangible experience of the action of God. In Jesus, the fundamental "sacrament", God has entered our world. "The Word became flesh, and dwelt amongst us" (John 1:14). God has allowed us to experience his divine presence in a way adapted to our humanity. This is a wondrous gift. In Jesus - Immanuel, God-with-us - God speaks, and heals, and gives life, and forgives. The sinners of the Gospel who experienced the inward action of God's grace that led them to contrition and conversion also experienced the sacramental gift of absolution when they approached Jesus and heard his words: "Your sins are forgiven."
In God's merciful providence this gracious gift of sacramental forgiveness is not restricted to those few sinners who were able to reach out to Jesus in Galilee 2,000 years ago. After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples and said: "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this he breathed on them and said to them, "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 20:21-23). Jesus continues throughout history to give life to his disciples in the community of faith, and through the sacrament of Reconciliation allows them to share in the sacramental experience of forgiveness that we see in the Gospels.
II: The Context of Sacramental Forgiveness of Sins
In the sacrament of Reconciliation Jesus allows his disciples down through the ages to experience the human encounter with divine forgiveness enjoyed by the few people whom he personally forgave during his time on earth. To appreciate this sacrament of divine mercy it is important, however, to situate it in the context of non-sacramental forgiveness.
God is not limited to the sacraments, and we can experience forgiveness in other ways, which form a kind of frame for the sacrament of Reconciliation. Whenever we are conscious of having sinned, we should immediately ask God to forgive us, and if we have harmed another we should seek forgiveness from that person and, if possible, try to undo any harm we may have caused.
It is spiritually valuable to make an examination of conscience at some point in each day, perhaps in the evening. Start with a prayer of trust in God, such as the Our Father. Spend some time thanking God for the blessings he has given during the day. Then briefly but honestly review the day and note any ways in which you have sinned against God or neighbour.
It is helpful to use a framework such as the Ten Commandments, the seven root sins (pride, anger, envy, greed, laziness, lust, gluttony), the seven root virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, charity) or anything else that you find spiritually useful. A valuable scriptural examination of conscience, most appropriate as a reading at communal Penance celebrations, may be found in Colossians 3:5-17. After humbly acknowledging the sins of the day, ask God's forgiveness, and pray for the grace to live more faithfully the next day. End with prayers of trust and thankfulness.
Throughout the day, it is good regularly to express awareness of God's mercy, perhaps through prayers such as the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner." It is also good to do this when facing temptation, or when aware of having sinned.
In Christian tradition, three helps in breaking the power of sin over us are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Jesus instructs us concerning them in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-18). The importance of constant prayer is obvious, and one aspect of prayer can be the forgiveness of sins. An important way in which we can be purified of our imperfections is through the celebration of the great prayer which is the Holy Eucharist, although if we are conscious of serious sin we should receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before receiving Holy Communion, heeding the admonition of St. Paul not to receive the Eucharist unworthily (1 Corinthians 11:27).
In fasting we grow in the disciple's virtue of discipline, realizing that for us humans it is easier to say no to immoral appetites if we have become accustomed to being able to say no to our legitimate appetites. Fasting helps us to realize our frailty and our dependence upon God. It helps us to become more free. Fasting is not the same as giving up sin; in fasting, we abstain for a spiritual reason from something that in itself is not wrong.
During Lent, we often think of giving up something such as candy; but it might be more fruitful to give up something else which in fact can take over our lives, such as time spent on the computer or watching television.
Almsgiving is the third pathway to spiritual renewal. When we give of our time, talent or treasure, we become accustomed to replacing the selfish heart of sin with the spirit of generosity.
Both vice and virtue are habits. Just as repetition of sinful actions can gradually cause us to be more and more firmly ensnared in the ropes of sinfulness, so also the repetition of virtuous actions helps us more freely to serve God and neighbour. The ropes that bind us gradually drop away.
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are things that we do, as are an examination of conscience and an act of sorrow within the heart. God invites our active participation in the process of repentance and forgiveness. He certainly does so when we celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation. Look to the Gospels: Jesus always invites a response, and expects the disciple to act. We need to be conscious, however, that it is always God's grace that moves us to repentance.
The non-sacramental ways of repentance are good in themselves, and can help us to be freed of less serious sins, and to prepare for the experience of sacramental forgiveness. Sometimes people say: "Why confess to a priest? I don't need any sacrament of reconciliation: I ask God for forgiveness in my heart." Certainly, like the sinners of the Gospel, we should do that. We should do it every day, and certainly after having sinned.
But we should also be profoundly grateful that in the sacrament of Reconciliation Jesus allows us, like the sinners in the Gospels, to experience the sacramental forgiveness of our sins in a direct, human, and personal encounter with the mercy of God.
III: The Sacrament of Confession
For many years "Confession" has been the most common name for the sacrament through which Jesus allows us to experience anew the human encounters with divine mercy found in the Gospel. The confession of sins is undoubtedly the most prominent element of the sacrament from the perspective of the one receiving it. Like the prodigal son, we say: "Father, I have sinned."
When we confess our sins we experience many spiritual benefits. Confession invites us to engage in an honest assessment of our behaviour which can lead, even from a human point of view, to deeper self understanding and to improvement, as we reflect on how we can avoid in the future the sins we recognize in the past.
Confession is good psychologically. In our secular society people value the opportunity to unburden themselves to a counsellor of the dark secrets that weigh them down. As a familiar proverb states, "Confession is good for soul." If we are to deal with the things that burden us, we need to articulate what they are, so that we are not caught up in a fog of anxiety.
When we confess our sins we grow in humility. Pride makes it humanly difficult to confess our sins honestly, and we are always eager to minimize and excuse our failings. But when we let go, and admit the reality of our sinfulness, in the context of the greater reality of God's loving mercy, then we can truly be free.
Confession of sins is also "confession" in another sense: the "confession," or acknowledgement, of God's greatness. In his famous book, The Confessions, St. Augustine both honestly admits his sins (which is our usual sense of the word "confession") and proclaims, or "confesses," the wonders of God's grace. There is nothing morbid about confessing our sins in the sacrament. As we confess, we marvel at the mercy of God. The sacrament can be an occasion for deep joy.
We are so often critical of others, and can see their faults with withering accuracy. But when we regularly say "Bless me, father, for I have sinned," and then humbly confess our sins, we can grow in compassion for others, and be slower to judge. This is especially true when we are critical of a person who never seems to be able to improve. When, in confession after confession, we sadly acknowledge our continuing struggle with some habitual sin, then we cannot be so quick to demand immediate perfection in those around us.
We are all on a journey of purification, if we will humbly be open to God's grace. It is good to remember the saying: "Be patient; God isn't finished with me yet." Regular confession can help us to become more compassionate.
If, as is normal, we find that we do confess the same types of sins from one confession to the next, we should not be discouraged, and give up on the sacrament. Each of us has a unique pattern of personal weakness, and over the course of life God gradually transforms us. Regular confession helps to keep us humble, and that is the doorway to repentance and salvation.
By confessing our sins we can help the priest to give us spiritual counsel and encouragement, and perhaps the advice we need to deal with some particularly troubling sin.
When we regularly confess our sins we keep in touch with reality, and that is always spiritually healthy. Receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation is an experience of spiritual healing similar to physical healing, in that when we seek healing from a doctor it is essential that we accurately describe our physical condition. It is dangerous when a person who feels a painful symptom says nothing about it to the doctor.
It is better to bring to the light even the most deadly disease, for only then can it be cured. Sin flourishes in darkness, and shrivels in the light. In the sacrament of Reconciliation, the priest acts in the person of Christ the healer, and we need to assist him in his ministry by making him aware of the reality of our sins.
Confession is not absolutely essential to the sacrament. The fundamental reality of the sacrament is, after all, the divine gift of absolution. In situations such as a sinking ship, or a crashing airplane, or an imminent battle, a priest may give "general absolution" without individual confession. There are a few other emergency situations in which the local bishop can authorize general absolution, when he judges that conditions are such that individual confession cannot be reasonably expected. The penitents who are absolved in this way should confess their sins as soon as it is possible, and must do so before receiving general absolution again.
The judgment concerning whether or not the conditions for general absolution are present belongs to the bishop, not to the priest, and only the bishop can authorize this exceptional exercise of the sacrament. If, because of unforeseen circumstances, and because it is impossible to contact the bishop, the priest celebrates general absolution, he must inform the bishop afterwards.
But these are extreme cases. The confession of sins is so important that the normal way of celebrating the sacrament is to approach a priest for individual confession and absolution, or to participate in a communal celebration of the sacrament in which all join together in listening to the word of God, meditating on an examination of conscience, singing hymns of repentance, listening to a homily, and perhaps joining in a common expression of sorrow, followed by individual confession and absolution.
A communal celebration with individual confession and absolution is an excellent way to experience the sacrament, as it stresses the communal context of all sin, and the communal dimension of reconciliation. But the individual celebration also acknowledges that dimension, since the one who absolves is always a priest or bishop, the celebrant of the Eucharist, sacrament of the unity of the Body of Christ.
One advantage of individual celebration, as distinct from communal, is that it often may afford more time for the penitent to confess and to receive some spiritual direction from the confessor.
IV: Conscience and the Repentant Heart
Alone and starving, the prodigal son realized that he had done wrong, and resolved to return to his father. (Luke 15: 17-18) He was sorry for his sin. He will ultimately be absolved by his father, who will embrace him joyfully, but sorrow for sin, or contrition, is the first step on the road to forgiveness.
Sorrow for sin based on something less than love (such as fear of punishment by God) is called "imperfect contrition" or "attrition," and that seems, at first at least, to be the situation of the prodigal son. He is sorry because he is hungry. Sorrow for sin based upon love of God is called "perfect contrition," and we may see that in the attitude of the tax collector who prays: "God, be merciful to me, a sinner" (Luke 18: 9-14).
We need to start with at least imperfect contrition, and pray that by God's grace it may be transformed into perfect contrition, the deep repentance based on love. In our lives, as in the Gospel, the first step is an internal awareness of sin, and a desire for forgiveness.
To be sorry, we need to know that we have done wrong, and so we need to examine our consciences. Conscience is our moral navigation system. When we reflect beforehand on the morality of an action, we rely on conscience, as we do also after the fact, when we assess our behaviour. It is good every day to make a brief examination of conscience, reviewing the day that has passed and asking God's forgiveness for any sins. We should certainly examine our consciences as we prepare to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation.
We all know that we should follow our conscience. Sometimes people think that means that we should simply do what we feel is right. That is not really true. We also need to be sure that our conscience is well formed, and will give us accurate guidance, since for many reasons people can feel something is right when, in fact, it is wrong. Each of us has a deep tendency to be lost in illusion and rationalization. For a classic scriptural presentation of this sad reality, read Genesis 3.
To get us from where we are to where we want to go, a navigator must be sure both that the navigation instruments are functioning properly, and that they are supplied with accurate information about our present location, and the path to our destination. It is the same with conscience, our moral navigation system.
Our conscience, as an instrument, can be too lax or too scrupulous. In this sense it is something like a smoke detector. We want it to ring the alarm (which, for conscience, is a feeling of guilt) when we are in danger. We do not want it to be so sensitive that it rings when we burn the toast. The equivalent morally would be a scrupulous conscience, which causes us to feel guilty when, in fact, we have not done anything wrong. On the other hand, we do not want a smoke detector that remains silent when the house is burning down. That would be a lax conscience, in which we commit a serious sin, but feel no guilt.
To be sure that the instrument of our conscience is properly adjusted we need the advice of others, such as a friend, spiritual director or confessor. In fact, that is one of the benefits of confessing our sins. The confessor can assist us, and might perhaps say "I think you are being a little scrupulous about that," or "Perhaps you are somewhat lax, and should take that more seriously."
Just as a navigator needs to enter accurate information into a navigation system, so too we need to inform our conscience with accurate information concerning the will of God, as found in Sacred Scripture, in the living faith of the Church, and in the natural insight into our purpose on earth which can be derived from our human reason.
V: Sin and Temptation
Each of us regularly experiences impulses to do what we know to be wrong. Although the lifelong struggle with temptation to sin can be discouraging, it is good to recall that it has many spiritual benefits. Each time we are tempted, and resist the temptation, we grow stronger, and more resistant to that temptation in the future. Our temptations can help us realize more personally our dependence on God, and lead us to pray more fervently. Indeed, in the Lord's Prayer we do pray: "Lead us not into temptation." That does not mean that God is out to lead us astray, and that we pray that he not do that. Rather, it is a way of beseeching God to help us when we are put to the test, so that our temptations may not overcome us.
Our temptations teach us humility, especially since they are one thing that we clearly cannot make go away by our own efforts. We know that God will never allow us to be tempted beyond our strength, and that he will help us in the daily battle to resist temptation. Temptations, and all kinds of inclinations to evil, can be like the thorn in the flesh of which St. Paul speaks: "A thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect on weakness.' I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell within me" (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
Three traditional sources of temptation are the world, the flesh and the devil. The world around us can entice us to sin, especially since we are living in a society that rejects the values of the kingdom of God. It is hard to swim in a polluted sea and not be affected, and yet we know that God is with us, and we simply need to recognize reality and take precautions to repel temptations to sin that come from the world around us.
The flesh constantly wars against the spirit, and each of us is swept along by our passions in directions which we realize to be wrong. The flesh is often taken to mean sexual temptation, and that is surely a struggle for anyone who is alive. But the flesh also represents the other passions that come from within our fallen humanity, such as the inclination to anger, to unbridled power, to dominance of others, and to all kinds of self-indulgence.
We can be tempted by the devil. The encounter described in Genesis 3 happens every day. The human is enticed into thinking that an evil action is in fact good. Illusion is at the heart of temptation. Eve wants the fruit of the tree, and we can see a gradual pattern of rationalization as she speaks of it as good to eat (not a very noble consideration), and beautiful to behold (now she convinces herself that her earthly desire is really something sublime), and wonderful for the knowledge it gives (by now she is deep into illusion, and a fleshly desire has been covered over with a noble rationalization). Then she eats, and gives to Adam, who also eats.
So often we are really tempted by base desires, but need to convince ourselves that this is not so, and so, like Eve, we concoct all kinds of spurious reasons to convince ourselves that we are acting rightly. The devil tempts us, but does not control us. We can always reject the enticements of any tempter, diabolical or human.
Temptation is not sin. For it to become sin, we need to consent with our will, and give in to the temptation. If someone hurts me, and I feel anger within me, that is not a sin. If I choose to indulge in that anger, or to hurt the other person in some way, then I have committed a sin, but not before. Many people suffer needlessly because they confuse temptation (which we constantly experience from the world, the flesh and the devil) with sin (which requires a conscious and free consent of the will to the temptation).
Here are some practical suggestions for dealing with temptation: 1) Pray to God. Perhaps say the Jesus prayer, or some other short prayer (such as "Lord, help me"). 2) Avoid occasions of sin. If I know through personal experience that a certain situation is likely to be filled with temptations, I should avoid that situation. One of the best strategies when dealing with temptation is flight. 3) Have a "Plan B" ready. If I cannot avoid being in a situation where I may be tempted, I need to prepare ahead of time a clear idea of another activity I can engage in that will take me away from the temptation. 4) Brush temptations away like mosquitoes. If we concentrate on our temptations, beyond a proper vigilance, then they can fill our minds. Instead, patiently brush them away.
VI: Mercy and Justice
The more we become conscious of our sins, the more we give thanks for the mercy of God that we experience in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Our personal encounter with divine mercy should then lead us to be merciful to others.
Mercy has to be set within the context of justice. When we sin we always offend against divine justice, for we are misusing the human gifts entrusted to us by God. This is not just. Many sins also involve injustice against others: lying, adultery, stealing, slander - in fact, almost every sin is an act of injustice. There is a wrong that needs to be righted.
We cannot ignore the demands of justice, though for many reasons it is often hard to set right the evil caused by a sin. One step towards that is certainly stopping the evil action. Beyond that, it may be possible to undo some of the harm. This might include an apology to a person who has been hurt. If property has been stolen, perhaps it can be returned. If not, some kind of donation to charity can, at least in a general sense, help to re-establish the balance of justice. If the sin involves destruction of another person's name, then it may be difficult to set right the wrong, but some effort can be attempted.
There is a story told of a person who spread gossip about another and was asked as a penance to release the feathers of a pillow to the winds, and then to try to catch them - so difficult is it to undo the harm done by the tongue. Often there is simply no way in which an action of the repentant sinner can undo the harm that has been inflicted. That is one reason why justice is limited, and why mercy, more profound though less logical than justice, is ultimately at the heart of the Christian experience.
A more basic reason can be stated this way: who among us would stand if God insisted on justice in his dealings with us? In the parable of the prodigal son, the righteous brother who stayed at home and did not sin sees the return of his sinful sibling within the perspective of justice. He is undeniably correct in his summary of his brother's sins, and if justice alone were the governing norm, then his brother would have no hope. But the Father is working within the context of mercy, not strict justice. He does not even say, "I told you so" to his repentant son. He does not pause to answer the unanswerable arguments of justice. He runs down the road to embrace his sinful son.
Another place where Our Lord speaks of the interplay of justice and mercy is in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-35). The master, in justice, could rightly demand that the servant be punished, for he had no way of repaying his debt. But instead, he shows mercy and forgives the debt. The servant then goes out and demands that in justice a fellow servant repay him in full. He has a right to do that, but the master punishes him, since he who had received mercy did not show mercy to others.
Many people's lives are consumed by the corrosion of anger arising from injustices suffered in the past. This, of course, can happen on a national as well as a personal level, as our never-ending cycle of wars shows us. There has to come a point when the cycle is broken if international or inner peace is to be attained.
In such situations, especially in personal relationships, a definitive and satisfying righting of the wrong may not be possible. Perhaps the wrongdoer is dead, or is not likely to change. We are very limited in our ability to change others. If for no other reason than that an evildoer should not be granted the power to dominate the rest of another person's life, the only way forward can be to try to let go of the justifiable grievance. There is a point at which the over-riding power of mercy can bring life where the strict fulfillment of justice cannot.
When we confess our sins, and regularly experience the mercy of God through sacramental absolution, it should change the way we relate to those around us. We Christians need to imitate our heavenly Father, and take note of the unusual divine title that is used in the first words of the prayer through which we are absolved of our own sins in the sacrament of Reconciliation: "God, the Father of mercies."
VII: Reconciliation in the Context of the Other Sacraments
It is helpful to consider the sacrament of Reconciliation within the context of the other sacraments. Baptism is, among other things, the gateway to all of the sacraments. In our Baptism we become temples of the Holy Spirit, and, indeed, as disciples we need to have a vivid realization of the indwelling presence of the Blessed Trinity. Throughout our life, we need to resist sin; but the most important thing is to let our life in every way, in word, thought, or deed, be in harmony with the Lord who dwells within us. When we sin in any way, great or small, we turn away from the Lord who sanctified us on the day of our Baptism. One effect of Baptism is the forgiveness of sins. But we can be baptized only once, as Baptism fundamentally configures us to Christ. The sacrament of Reconciliation is, in a certain sense, an extension of Baptism over the course of life, allowing us to experience again and again baptismal purification from sin.
In Confirmation our Baptism is completed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, an experience of Pentecost in our lives. Like the early disciples, who set out into the hostile world after Pentecost, the confirmed Christian sets out to witness through a life of holiness to the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. The words of the Confirmation rite challenge those being confirmed to reflect in their lives the goodness of Christ. In order to do that, they need regularly to be freed through the sacrament of Reconciliation from the sins which darken the light of Christ within them.
The Eucharist completes Christian initiation, and is the central sacrament in our lives. Through the Eucharist we are able to be connected to the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, through which our sins are forgiven. Indeed, at the heart of the Eucharist is the transformation of the wine into the blood of the new and everlasting covenant, for the forgiveness of sins. We come together as the family of faith in the celebration of the Eucharist, and the liturgy is filled with appeals to God to free us from the sin that separates us both from God and from the body of Christ which is the Church.
Just before we receive Holy Communion the priest prays: "In your mercy, Lord, keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ." Sin is the sign of disunity, of disintegration, as the Eucharist is the effective sign of unity. Because of that, our less serious failings can be forgiven through the Eucharistic celebration itself. But if we are conscious of serious sin, we should be absolved through the sacrament of Reconciliation before receiving Communion, for the reception of Communion is a sign of being at peace with God and with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
People sometimes ask: why confess our sins to a priest? The basic reason for that is that a bishop or priest celebrates the Eucharist, sacrament of unity, and so is also the proper instrument of grace for the restoration to unity which is found in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Ordination transforms the one ordained, who is now configured in a particular way to Christ, our great High Priest, and is sent to preach the word and celebrate the sacraments through which Jesus continues to be present in the lives of his people. The priest or bishop receives a mission of reconciliation, which is expressed most powerfully when he acts as the minister of the sacrament of Reconciliation.
Love means being ready to say you are sorry, and the love in Christian marriage grows ever stronger when both spouses fervently receive the sacrament of Reconciliation, and so are able to bring before the mercy of God the selfishness that can destroy their relationship. It has been said that the family that prays together stays together, and it is certainly true that the family in which the sacrament of Reconciliation is treasured by all will be immeasurably strengthened. If each member of the family is able humbly to confess sinfulness, how much more will all in the family be able to forgive one another, and grow in that humility which is a foundation for any real relationship.
As we grow weak, the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick brings the comfort of God into our suffering. A key element of that comfort is the healing from our sins. In some ways, this sacrament is a kind of parallel to the sacrament of Reconciliation.
In the sacraments God walks with us on our journey of life. The two sacraments which are most frequently received are the Eucharist, which unites us to our Risen Lord and to one another, and the sacrament of Reconciliation, which frees us from all that destroys that unity by allowing us to experience the mercy of God.
VIII: How to Celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation
The spiritually fruitful celebration of the sacrament of Reconciliation depends upon the active engagement of the recipient. Each day we should ask God's forgiveness for our sins, and for the grace to be more faithful disciples. When we approach the sacrament itself, we should spend extended time in prayer, and engage in an honest examination of conscience, rooted in trust in the mercy of God. At the end of this letter you will find some suggestions for an examination of conscience, including the detailed model found in the official Rite of Penance.
There are some practical matters to consider. Because confessing sins can be difficult, some people find it easier when they are anonymous. Others find it valuable to face the priest openly, especially if they wish to discuss their spiritual life with him. Whenever the sacrament is celebrated, there should be the possibility of either option. The decision is up to the penitent.
We are free to choose any priest, although obviously the limited number of priests in any area may restrict the choice. That is why people often appreciate Penance celebrations, when several priests are available. From the perspective of the sacrament, it does not really matter who the confessor is, since he is simply the human instrument for the action of Christ the Priest.
But a penitent may wish to seek out a particular priest who, by experience, is found to be able to offer valuable spiritual guidance. For the same reason, some find it helpful to choose a regular confessor, who can over time become more and more familiar with the struggles of the penitent, and become a spiritual guide. At this point, the sacrament of Reconciliation and spiritual direction begin to merge.
The penitent begins with the words: "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." That is a good opening indeed, acknowledging personal responsibility for sin, something so often evaded in our society. Often the penitent will immediately continue, but it is good to give time for the priest to actually respond to the opening request for a blessing and prayer. I often say: "May the Lord bless you and help you to make a good confession."
The Rite of Penance allows for the reading of a brief Scripture passage relating to repentance. This, of course, is always part of a communal Penance celebration. In practice, it is rarely done in the individual celebration of the sacrament, but it is a good idea. The penitent may find it helpful to meditate upon a passage before beginning the celebration of the sacrament, or afterwards. At the end of this letter some relevant biblical passages are listed.
The penitent then says roughly how long it has been since the last confession. Penitents who have been away from the sacrament might feel embarrassed at admitting how long it has been, but they need not fear. It is always a great joy when someone comes to Reconciliation, no matter how long ago the sacrament was last received. Knowing the length of time since the last confession does help the confessor to give more helpful spiritual advice, and it establishes the necessary context for the sins. Our life is too big to handle all at once. We should break it up into sections, by regularly celebrating the sacrament, and entrusting the past to God, while we enter into the next portion of life's journey refreshed by his gracious mercy.
The penitent then begins to confess. There is no rigid procedure for this. The idea is to confess any serious sin, and any others as well, and to do so in a way that indicates the true spiritual state of the penitent. The confession is an articulation of the examination of conscience, and the more honest it is, the better. God already knows the sins, and does not need the confession. The priest can spiritually assist the penitent if the confession is full and candid, and needs to have a clear sense of the sins in order to exercise his office.
As the representative of Jesus, the confessor to some extent fulfills the role of judge, but mostly of healer, and in both of those roles it is important for him to have an accurate sense of the spiritual state of the penitent. The main beneficiary of a thorough and insightful confession, however, is the penitent. We should strive to improve our confessions over time, becoming more conscious of the reality of our sinfulness, and so ever more grateful for God's mercy.
It is good to use some kind of framework, such as the seven deadly sins (pride, anger, envy, greed, laziness, lust, gluttony), or the Beatitudes, or the Ten Commandments. This allows for a broad sense of spiritual reality. These frameworks outline, either negatively or positively, the roots of the Christian life, the basic moral themes. But our life is made up of particular actions, which might be considered to be the branches and twigs of life. For a confession to be fruitful, it is good to be attentive to both roots and branches.
So, for example, taking the first and deadliest sin, a penitent might say something like this: "In the last several weeks I have had a real struggle with pride, which has always been a problem for me. This has shown itself in the fact that I have lied three or four times a week, because I am too proud to admit that I am wrong, and so lie to cover up." The more full and honest we make our confessions, the more we can be receptive to the life-giving grace of this wonderful sacrament.
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 that 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." Some other forms of an Act of Contrition are found at the end of this letter.
Then the priest becomes simply an instrument of God's grace as he absolves the penitent. He extends his right hand over the penitent, and proclaims the words of absolution, making the sign of the cross. We should be attentive to these words, as they speak to us 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 amongst 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, like the sinners in the Gospels, to experience the direct act of divine forgiveness, made present here and now through the words of the priest, who acts in the person of Christ. 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, and freed from sin, as at the moment of our Baptism.
Sometimes the priest will conclude with this beautiful prayer: "May the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all the saints, whatever good you do and suffering you endure, heal your sins, help you to grow in holiness, and reward you with eternal life. Go in peace."
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 that divine mercy we slowly become more humble, more compassionate, more supple instruments of God's grace in our baptismal mission of discipleship.
Thomas Christopher Collins
Archbishop of Edmonton
December 1, 2003
IX: Scriptural Passages relating to Repentance
The seven penitential psalms express beautifully the meaning of repentance: Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143. Psalm 51 is the most important of these psalms, and expresses the whole experience of repentance and forgiveness. Psalm 32 is a good help in being honest in our confession of sin.
Genesis 3 deals with the dynamics of temptation. 1 John 1:5-2:6 gives a profound sense of the challenge of living in the light and resisting the force of spiritual darkness.
The official Rite of Penance suggests these passages for meditation: Isaiah 53:4-6; Ezekiel 11:19-20; Matthew 6:14-15; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 6:31-38; Luke 15:1-7; John 20:19-23; Romans 5:8-9; Ephesians 5:1-2; Colossians 1:12-14; and Colossians 3:8-10, 12-17 (this is an excellent scriptural examination of conscience).
X: Sample Acts of Contrition and Examination of Conscience
There are many ways of expressing sorrow for sin before receiving absolution, and any one will do. A form suggested in the Rite of Penance is this:
My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Our Saviour Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In his name, my God, have mercy. Amen.
A short form is:
O my God, I am sorry for my sins, and with your help I will try not to sin again. Amen
The Jesus Prayer is a good Act of Contrition: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
The penitent is always free to express sorrow spontaneously in some other words.
The examination of conscience before the sacrament can take the form of the seven root sins (pride, anger, envy, greed, laziness, lust, gluttony), or the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11. Actually, it is valuable to read the whole Sermon on the Mount as an examination of conscience: Matthew 5-7). The Ten Commandments can also be used this way: Exodus 20:1-17. Or read Colossians 3:8-17.
The Rite of Penance itself suggests a more extensive examination of conscience, which may be helpful as well:
What is my attitude to the sacrament of Penance? Do I sincerely want to be set free from sin, to turn again to God, to begin a new life, to enter into a deeper friendship with God? Or do I look on it as a burden, to be undertaken as seldom as possible?
Did I forget to mention, or deliberately conceal, any grave sins in past confessions?
Did I perform the penance I was given? Did I make reparation for any injury to others? Have I tried to put into practice my resolution to lead a better life in keeping with the Gospel?
I: The Lord says: "You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart."
Is my heart set on God, so that I really love him above all things and am faithful to his commandments, as a son loves his father? Or am I more concerned about the things of this world? Have I a right intention in what I do?
God speaks to us in his Son. Is my faith in God firm and secure? Am I wholehearted in accepting the Church's teaching? Have I been careful to grow in my understanding of the faith, to hear God's word, to listen to instructions on the faith, to avoid dangers to faith? Have I always been strong and fearless in professing my faith in God and the Church? Have I been willing to be known as a Christian in private and public life?
Have I prayed morning and evening? When I pray, do I really raise my mind and heart to God or is it a matter of words only? Do I offer God my difficulties, my joys and my sorrows? Do I turn to God in time of temptation?
Do I love and have reverence for God's name? Have I offended him in blasphemy, swearing falsely, or taking his name in vain? Have I shown disrespect for the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints?
Do I keep Sundays and feast days holy by taking a full part, with attention and devotion, in the liturgy, and especially in the Mass? Have I fulfilled the precept of annual confession and of Communion during the Easter season?
Are there false gods that I worship by giving them greater attention and deeper trust than I give to God: money, superstition, spiritism or other occult practices?
II: The Lord says: "Love one another as I have loved you."
Have I a genuine love for my neighbours? Or do I use them for my own ends, or do to them what I would not want done to myself? Have I given grave scandal by my words and actions?
In my family life, have I contributed to the well-being and happiness of the rest of the family by patience and genuine love? Have I been obedient to parents, showing then proper respect and giving them help in their spiritual and material needs? Have I been careful in giving a Christian upbringing to my children, and to help them by good example and by exercising authority as a parent? Have I been faithful to my husband/wife in my heart and in my relations with others?
Do I share my possessions with the less fortunate? Do I do my best to help the victims of oppression, misfortune and poverty? Or do I look down on my neighbour, especially the poor, the sick, the elderly, strangers and people of other races?
Does my life reflect the mission I received in Confirmation? Do I share in the apostolic and charitable works of the Church and in the life of my parish? Have I helped to meet the needs of the Church and of the world and prayed for them: for unity in the Church, for the spread of the Gospel among the nations, for peace and justice, etc.
Am I concerned with the good and prosperity of the human community in which I live, or do I spend my life caring only for myself? Do I share to the best of my ability in the work of promoting justice, morality, harmony and love in human relations? Have I done my duty as a citizen? Have I paid my taxes?
In my work or profession am I just, hard-working, honest, serving society out of love for others? Have I paid a fair wage to my employees? Have I been faithful to my promises and contracts?
Have I obeyed legitimate authority and given it due respect?
If I am in a position of responsibility
or authority, do I use this for my own advantage or for the good of others, in a spirit of service?
Have I been truthful and fair, or have I injured others by deceit, calumny, detraction, rash judgment or violation of a secret?
Have I done violence to others by damage to life or limb, reputation, honour or material possessions? Have I involved them in loss? Have I been responsible in advising an abortion or procuring one? Have I kept up hatred for others? Am I estranged from others through quarrels, enmity, insults, anger? Have I been guilty of refusing to testify to the innocence of another because of selfishness?
Have I stolen the property of others? Have I desired it inordinately? Have I damaged it? Have I made restitution of other people's property and made good their loss?
If I have been injured, have I been ready to make peace for the love of Christ and to forgive, or do I harbour hatred and the desire for revenge?
III: Christ our Lord says: "Be perfect as your Father is perfect."
Where is my life really leading me? Is the hope of eternal life my inspiration? Have I tried to grow in the life of the Spirit through prayer, reading the word of God and meditating on it, receiving the sacraments, self-denial? Have I been anxious to control my vices, my bad inclinations and passions, e.g. envy, love of food and drink? Have I been proud and boastful, thinking myself better in the sight of God and despising others as less important than myself? Have I imposed my own will on others, without respecting their freedom and rights?
What use have I made of time, of health and strength, of the gifts God gave me to be used like the talents in the Gospel? Do I use them to become more perfect every day? Or have I been lazy and too much given to leisure?
Have I been patient in accepting the sorrows and disappointments of life? How have I performed mortification so as to "fill up what is wanting to the sufferings of Christ"? Have I kept the precept of fasting and abstinence?
Have I kept my senses and my whole body pure and chaste as a temple of the Holy Spirit consecrated for resurrection and glory, and as a sign of God's faithful love for men and women, a sign that is seen most perfectly in the sacrament of matrimony? Have I dishonoured my body by fornication, impurity, unworthy conversation or thoughts, evil desires or actions? Have I given in to sensuality? Have I indulged in reading, conversation, shows or entertainments that offend against Christian and human decency? Have I encouraged others to sin by my own failure to maintain these standards? Have I been faithful to the moral law in my married life?
Have I gone against my own conscience out of fear or hypocrisy?
Have I always tried to act in the true freedom of the children of God according to the law of the Spirit, or am I a slave of the forces within me?