As Catholics, we have no doubt that Christ instituted the
sacrament of Penance on Easter Sunday night. St. John describes the event in
In the evening of that same day,
the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the
disciples were for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them. He said
to them, Peace be with you, and showed them His hands and His side. The
disciples were filled with joy when they saw the Lord and He said to them
again, Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you. After
saying this He breathed on them and said, Receive the Holy Spirit. For those
whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven, for those whose sins you retain,
they are retained (John 20:19-23).
As we examine this narrative in the gospels, we notice a
number of striking features. It was Christs first appearance to the assembled
disciples since His resurrection from the dead. To quiet their fears, Jesus
told the frightened apostles, Peace be with you. In doing this, He gave what
He was about to institute its first name, the sacrament of peace. It was to
reconcile a sinner and therefore restore peace between man and an offended God.
Its effect was also to remove guilt from a sinful soul and therefore give peace
within a mans heart. Why? Because the most fundamental cause of all
disturbance of soul and the absence of peace is the sense of guilt. The final
effect of this sacrament was to restore harmony in a society injured or
destroyed by enmity, greed, and injustice, and therefore produce peace between
people in the community in which they live.
Moreover, Jesus told the apostles He was sending them as the
Father had sent Him. The Father had sent the Son as the merciful Savior of
sinners. In fact, that is what the name Jesus
means, the One who saves. Saves from sin. In like manner, the apostles and
their successors, the bishops and priests of the Catholic church, are being sent among sinful people as ministers
of Gods mercy to bring them the threefold peace which is lost by sin.
As Christ spoke to the apostles, He breathed on them and
said, Receive the Holy Spirit. It is by divine power that priests are
empowered to forgive sins. Even as sin estranges a soul from God, so its
forgiveness restores the souls friendship with God which is holiness.
Teaching of the Church
In the course of her history, the Catholic Church has many
times been required to defend and explain her faith in the sacrament of
Penance. However, as with so many other revealed truths, the most elaborate
doctrinal exposition of the sacrament of Penance was made by the Council
of Trent. Its principal defined dogmas cover every aspect of this sacrament of
- Penance is truly and properly a sacrament
instituted by Christ our Lord to reconcile the faithful with God Himself as
often as they fall into sin after baptism.
- Christs words to the apostles, Whose sins
you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain,
they are retained have, from the beginning, been understood by the Church to
refer to the power of remitting and of retaining sins in the sacrament of
- In the sacrament of Penance, three acts are
required of the penitent, namely, contrition, confession, and satisfaction.
- To receive forgiveness in this sacrament it
is sufficient to be sorry because a person realizes the seriousness of his sins
and fears the loss of eternal happiness and the pains of eternal damnation, and
resolves to lead a better life.
- Sacramental confession was
instituted by divine law and is necessary for salvation by the same divine law.
Moreover, the Churchs teaching on confessing ones sins secretly to a priest
alone is not of human origin, but goes back to the beginning to the command of
- According to divine law, it
is necessary to confess each and every mortal sin, even secret sins against the
last two commandments of God. Moreover, it is necessary to confess the
circumstances which change the nature of a sin.
- Sacramental absolution by
the priest is a judicial act and not merely a declaring that a persons sins
are forgiven. Thus the confession by the penitent is necessary so that the
priest can give him absolution.
- Priests are the only ones
who can give absolution.
- God does not always remit all the punishment at the same time that he
remits our sins.
- Satisfaction for the temporal punishment due to sins can be made
to God by the trials sent by God and patiently endured, by the penances imposed
by the priest in confession, by penances voluntarily undertaken such as fasts,
prayers, almsgiving, and other works of piety.
- The satisfaction by which penitents atone for their sins through
Jesus Christ is a true worship of God.
- Even after the eternal punishment is taken away by sacramental
absolution, temporal punishment normally remains to be expiated.
Confession of Sins
It may be surprising that Christs institution of the sacrament
of Penance was not seriously challenged until the late Middle Ages.
Typical of the Churchs tradition are the liturgical texts
for the ordination of bishops. One formula of episcopal ordination dating from
the latter half of the fourth century, offers this prayer to God.
Grant him O Lord Almighty, by Thy
Christ, the fullness of Thy Spirit, that he may have the power to pardon sin,
in accordance with Thy command, that he may loose every bond which binds the
sinner by reason of that power which Thou hast granted to Thy apostles
(Apostolic Constitutions, 8,5,7).
Equally typical was the Churchs belief that in order to
obtain remission of sins, a person had to confess to the bishop or priest. In
the mid-fifth century, an abuse had crept in which took papal intervention to
stop. Pope Leo I, writing to a group of bishops in Italy, says:
I have recently learned that some
are presuming to act against a rule set down from apostolic times. I decree
that the practice they have brazenly introduced be completely stopped. I refer
to the fact that penitents are told they must publicly recite each one of their
sins, which they had previously set down in writing. It is sufficient that the
sins which burden a persons conscience should be secretly confessed only to
priests (Letter to the Bishops of Campania, 168,2).
Confession of sins was therefore presumed. The pope was
simply correcting a rigorist interpretation of what he called an apostolic
practice, namely the private confession of ones sins to a priest.
By early fifteenth century, partly due to the lax morality
of some of the clergy, the idea arose that an immoral priest or bishop could
not give absolution. In fact, a general council of the Church had to be called
to decide that internal sorrow for sin was not sufficient to be reconciled with
God. Moreover, the council declared in order to be saved, a Christian has the
obligation, over and above heartfelt contrition, of confessing to a priest when
a qualified one is available, and only to a priest, not to lay person or
persons, no matter how good and devout the latter may be (Council of
Constance, February 22, 1418).
A century later the Council of Trent defined in great
detail, as we have seen, the necessity of what has come to be called auricular
confession of sins in the sacrament of Penance.
The new Code of Canon Law restates this doctrine in clear
Individual and integral confession
and absolution constitute the sole ordinary means by which a member of the
faithful who is conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and with the
Church (Canon 960).
Since the first Code of Canon Law was published in 1917,
questions had been raised about the validity of general absolution. On several
occasions, the Holy See had been asked under what conditions sacramental
absolution could be given to many at the same time. The cases applied to
situations where there was either no priest or a priest could not stay long
enough to hear the confessions of all the penitents. Such too would be the case
of absolving soldiers when a battle was imminent or in progress. The same would
hold true for civilians and soldiers in danger of death during a hostile
invasion. Romes decisions on such cases prompted the provision in the new Code
of Canon Law which states that, General absolution, without prior individual
confession cannot be given to a number of penitents together unless:
- danger of death threatens and there is not time for the priest
or priests to hear the confessions of the individual penitents,
- there exists a grave necessity
so that without fault of
their own the penitents are deprived of the sacramental grace of Holy Communion
for a lengthy period of time. A sufficient necessity is not, however,
considered to exist when confessors cannot be available merely because of a
great gathering of penitents, such as can occur on some major feast day or
pilgrimage (Canon 961).
There is one more condition which the Church sets down for
valid general absolution. For a member of Christs faithful, says the Code,
to benefit validly from a sacramental absolution given to a number of people
simultaneously, it is required not only that he or she be properly disposed,
but be also at the same time personally resolved to confess in due time each of
the grave sins which cannot for the moment be thus confessed (Canon 962). Accordingly,
Christs precept of making a personal confession of mortal sins remains even
when for exceptional reasons, general absolution had been received.
The Code of Canon Law also repeats what by now is a
centuries-old prescription regarding first confession. It occurs in conjunction
with the precept on first Holy Communion.
It is primarily the duty of priests
and of those who take their place, as it is the duty of the parish priest, to
ensure that children who have reached the use of reason are properly prepared
and, having made their sacramental confession, are nourished by this divine
food as soon as possible (Canon 914).
Absolutely speaking, by divine law, the sacrament of Penance
must be received before a person in mortal sin may receive Holy Communion. By
ecclesiastical law, All the faithful who have reached the age of discretion
are bound faithfully to confess their grave sins at least once a year (Canon 989).
However, the faithful are recommended to confess also their
venial sins (Canon 988). In fact, one of the true developments of doctrine in
modern times has been the growing realization of the great value of frequent
confession, even when no mortal sins are to be confessed. It is true that
venial sins can be forgiven in other ways, but frequent sacramental confession
has values that have been proved by long experience.
By it genuine self-knowledge is
increased, Christian humility grows, bad habits are corrected, spiritual
neglect and tepidity are resisted, the conscience is purified, the will
strengthened, a voluntary self-control is attained, and grace is increased in
virtue of the sacrament itself (Pope Pius XII, The Mystical Body of Christ, 88).
Those who have cultivated the habit of receiving the
sacrament of Penance often, on a regular basis, testify to the truth of this
teaching of the Church. It is all the more necessary in a world that has become
so oblivious of the evil of offending an all-loving God.
Copyright © 2002 Inter Mirifica
Pocket Catholic Catechism