The Sacrament of Reconciliation
Complete Bulletin Article Series (Ash Wednesday, 2022)
Fr. Doug Ebert
Lent is a blessed season where we celebrate God’s mercy as we acknowledge our sinfulness.
Years ago, going to confession was an assumed part of being Catholic. After the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, the sacrament of Penance became more commonly known as the sacrament of Reconciliation. The unexpected decrease in participation was not the intent of the Council and, with encouragement from Pope Francis, we are seeing a resurgence of participation in this sacrament. The word “penance” is directly connected to repentance, which essentially describes an intentional effort to turn away from our sins.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church names it a sacrament of conversion, penance, confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. The Act of Contrition prayer that is said by the penitent before absolution conceptually embraces all these words that involve the full process of repentance to which we are called.
Conversion is appropriately listed first: it represents an attitudinal change rather than some sort of a simple mechanical process or scorecard – it is a life-long growth process. Jesus taught us to call God our Father. As God’s children, we can find insightful understanding of the Divine-human relationship from our experiential understanding of parent-child relationships.
Loving parents seek an errant child’s honesty; they need the truth to help their children. Sometimes children lack the ability to discern the truth behind their behavior – such learning involves effective teaching, practice and growth. This growth complicates the parent-child relationship, and the process may become unpleasant, but this is the path toward loving growth. Making excuses or blaming others for sinful actions is seldom honest and inhibits contrition; this is where parental intervention helps children recognize that they are responsible for their behavior. Reconciliation is our opportunity to seek God’s help growing toward holiness as we recognize the sins of our life that God already knows.
Honest examination of our lives and our conscience is healthy and productive prayer. Such prayer invites God to shed light on our own motives and the self-induced issues that take us away from loving behavior. When we acknowledge sorrow for our sins, we are confessing. Prayerful analysis of what is going on in our lives is ideal preparation for the sacrament and absolution; it is a certain way to grow in holiness during those times before and after the sacrament.
The essential components of the Sacrament of Reconciliation are contrition, confession, absolution, and penance.
Contrition involves regretful recognition of our sinfulness. It helps us to incorporate a humble understanding of our nature and our share in the messiness of humanity caused by our sinfulness. This sorrow may start in fear of punishment, but contrition matures into fear of hurting a loving relationship. In contrition, sin’s antidote of love is empowered. This involves humble and honest self-evaluation; not by “beating yourself up” but discerning whether you are embracing self-sacrificial love or selfishness. We are all sinners, and humble recognition and healthy sorrow for our sins – contrition – helps us to confront and to confess our sins.
Confessing our sins as truthfully as we can helps us to grow in love. In the context of this sacrament, truth does not require extensive details. God, our loving Father, fully knows our circumstances; it is good to pray for God’s guidance about the stuff that only you and God know about before and after the sacrament in trust of God’s mercy. Such prayer can help us to better understand ourselves and each other as we harvest the grace of this sacrament between sacramental confessions.
Absolution is the ministry of Christ’s Church exercised by the priest. Before absolution, a penance is assigned to be performed afterwards. Sacramental Reconciliation with absolution is required for grave (mortal) sin. If sacramental confession is not possible, sincere sorrow and repentance will offer divine protection until the sacrament is available.
It is important to understand that venial sins are also forgiven in our Eucharistic participation and in our charity.
Penance is more than a prayer or action of reparation. The penance assigned by the priest represents the penitent’s sincere commitment to turn away from evil – to seek what is good as verbally expressed in the Act of Contrition prayer before absolution.
The precepts of the Church tell us that we should receive this sacrament at least once a year.
Contrition, confession, and penance help us to develop a disposition of reconciliation and forgiveness that better dispose us for our Eucharist and loving behavior. They are important tools to integrate into our regular prayer life. The forgiveness of loving behavior reflects Christ’s self-sacrificial love. In the words of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to ask God to forgive us as we forgive others. This is the disposition of repentance that keeps the Kingdom at hand. Prayerful reconciliation and sacramental reconciliation go hand-in-hand to keep us safe as we seek true conversion in our lives: to prefer God’s way over our way.
From the Letter of James 5:13-17 – “Is there anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church and they should pray over him and anoint [him] with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous man is very powerful.”
This passage is appropriate to any article about reconciliation. Sin is an illness—an infection we all share. Reconciliation is about healing, the forgiveness of not only the grave sins named in confession, but of all our sins.
There is wisdom in James’ words to “confess your sins to one another” – this leads to reconciliation as a disposition. While prudence requires discretion in confessing to each other, the idea is to admit that true righteousness is God. We admit our shortcomings when we apologize and when we accept apologies. It is too easy for us to blame or to make excuses in denial (or worse, in the “glory”) of our own faults. When we seek mercy and when we are merciful, we grow in love that diminishes anger and grudges.
The idea of communal penance services gained favor after the Second Vatican Council. This concept is sound, for sin involves selfishness in our relationship with God and each other. Sin is a communal problem, thus the concept of communal confession. Note that the practice of general absolution at these services without individual confession, reintroduced during the COVID pandemic, has again been curtailed.
The ordinary reception of this sacrament involves individual confession to a priest. While the confession of grave (mortal) sins is required, it is generally helpful to confess other sins that are troubling you. Making a list or attempting to confess every sin is counter-productive – this is better considered in prayer. Spending time in prayerful contemplation of our individual tendencies toward recurring sins, i.e., those things that get in the way of a more loving relationship with God and each other, is far more helpful than making a list of every sin.
Sin contradicts our call to love God above all things and to love our neighbor as our self. Loving our unseen God above all things is complicated; we are sinners in need of God’s help and faith is our gift. We seek this ability to love God above all things when we seek to love our neighbor as ourselves. Selfishness is a downhill road. A reconciling disposition is the path of conversion away from the destructive brake failure of grave sin.
The risk of grave (mortal) sin is greatly reduced in prayerful pursuit of God’s righteousness rather than self-righteousness. Examination of conscience is a good prayer, especially when joyful praise is involved. While our goal is to never sin, that is beyond our ability; we trust God to deliver us from evil. Repentance and penance help us to recognize both our human flaws and God’s abundant and loving mercy. Penance involves deliberate pursuit of a disposition toward self-giving love rather than selfishness. Loving our neighbor as our self involves practical turning away from sin. We are all safer when our actions stimulate others to turn away from sin. We owe this to each other.
As mentioned earlier, the Precepts of the Church call us to receive this sacrament at least once a year. Sacramental confession forgives sins and is required for grave sin; it offers us freedom to start anew in grace. It is important to prayerfully keep the three components of grave sin in perspective and read them as they are without addition or denial.
1. Mortal/grave sin is a sin of grave matter. Prayerfully consider this. You have a loving Father who understands your nature. Do not be presumptuous but be realistic and honest; when you examine your conscience, prayerfully dialog with God those issues you can’t confess to each other. Let God help you check your sins before they become grave.
2. Mortal sin is committed with full knowledge of the sinner. That means that you knew and clearly understood it was a mortal sin when you did it.
3. Mortal sin is committed with deliberate consent of the sinner. You desired this – you chose this turning toward grave sin (in contemporary legal language: “first degree”).
Salvation requires mortal sin to be reconciled. If sacramental confession is not possible, sincere sorrow and repentance will offer divine protection until the sacrament is available. God’s mercy is greater than our sins, but it needs to be sought. Pursuit of God’s mercy is repentance and Jesus will heal the contrite. We can turn around in penance, what a blessed gift we have in sacramental confession for confident forgiveness of grave sin!
Jesus came to save sinners, and sacramental reconciliation is a forgiving sign of our divine physician’s mercy that we are called to share with each other.
Now, an explanation of the mechanical sequence of individual sacramental confession:
• After the priest’s greeting and the sign of the Cross, tell the priest the length of time since your last confession. A good formula is simply: “Bless me, father, for I have sinned; my last confession was _____ ago.”
• Then tell the priest your sins, naming your grave sins first and how many times you committed grave sins as you can remember. For your other sins, rather than making lists, look for patterns of behavior or sinfulness that are most troubling your conscience and confess them. There is no need to confess every venial sin. If you have already confessed some specific sin, once is enough; accept God’s mercy and move on. This is also an appropriate time to ask the priest those questions about your sinfulness that are troubling you.
• The priest may offer some words of consolation or advice before assigning you a penance. If you don’t understand your penance or can’t do it, tell the priest. The priest is not interested in imposing burdens; he is called to give absolution.
• If you have not already participated in a communal act of contrition (common at penance services), the priest will then ask you to say an Act of Contrition. In these words, you express sorrow for your sins and pledge to seek God’s help as you try to turn away from your sinfulness and toward virtue.
• The priest will then absolve your sins and provide prayerful words of dismissal.
• After departing the confessional, your sins are forgiven, but you are expected to perform your
assigned penance expeditiously. This penance is a sign of follow-through on your act of contrition. Penance means intentionally turning back toward God.
It is worthwhile to explain some other issues or misconceptions that sometimes occur when considering the sacrament of Reconciliation.
There is no requirement or expectation that confession be done “face-to-face” even though this practice has become widespread, especially at communal penance services. Many parishes have confessionals or a designated area where a screen exists between the priest and the penitent (including St. John the Baptist).
The common practice of being “face-to-face” with the priest has erroneously led some to see this as an opportunity for more complicated spiritual direction, counseling, venting frustration about Church politics or teachings, lengthy explanations of another’s sins, or blaming another for your sins. There are opportunities for this sort of dialog with clergy, but this is not what the sacrament of Reconciliation is about! It is about the forgiveness of your sins. Questions specific to your sin are legitimate in the confessional, but lengthy explanations or delving into minutia are common escape mechanisms to avoid or deny personal guilt.
The priest is a sacramental representative of Jesus Christ using his ministry through the authority of the Church to forgive sins. The priest is not charged to be your judge; you are confessing your sins to our merciful God who already knows the truth – making excuses to the priest consumes precious time, and the line may be long. If the priest needs to understand something better, he will ask.
It is surprising how often people confess another’s sins. This may blind us to our individual need for God’s tender mercy. If your examination of conscience takes you to the sin of another, imitate God’s merciful love and ask God to help you to forgive them. You could pray that they may seek forgiveness – if you seek forgiveness and forgive, your example may be compelling. Confession is not a place to drag down another. If, on the other hand, you are confessing a personal need to blame or drag down another, then you are on track for a good confession!
The seal of confessional is a grave matter. It is not a place for people to communicate about another repentant or to identify who is next in line. Nothing said in the confessional, nothing, can be identified with the person making the confession by any priest at any time under any circumstances. For this reason, some priests prefer a screen to keep the penitent anonymous; but this is never required – anonymous or face-to-face confession is your choice.
In conclusion, it is my hope that we may all be reconciled with God and each other in peace-filled forgiveness during this penitential season of Lent. God is a merciful judge who wants to forgive and redeem us – but we need to desire God’s mercy in an attitude of repentance.
May we all praise God’s abundant and loving mercy!