On the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confessions)

I thought we could have a little instruction on the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation. This is a Sacrament we tend to have received repeatedly over much of our lives, and we imagine that we know everything about it. So, let’s learn something new, from the Catechism itself. Let’s begin with an early statement: that of conversion to Christ, which is not a one-time event at the beginning of our journey of faith, but a constant requirement (the Catechism calls this ongoing conversion a ‘second conversion’). Even the greatest of Saints went to Confession regularly, some like the Holy Father John Paul II and Teresa of Calcutta went weekly.

“It is called the sacrament of conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus’ call to conversion, the first step in returning to the Father from whom one has strayed by sin.”

“Christ’s call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians. This second conversion is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church who, ‘clasping sinners to her bosom, (is) at once holy and always in need of purification, (and) follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.’ This endeavour of conversion is not just a human work. It is the movement of a ‘contrite heart,’ drawn and moved by grace to respond to the merciful love of God who loved us first.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1423, 1428

The greater one’s nearness to the Holy One, the nearer also is one’s conviction of personal sin. It may seem to us sometimes that some people are beyond the ability to sin, but they would tell us differently. As I say often enough, Christianity (like Judaism) is a purity religion – to approach God, or to be present as He approaches near to us requires us to be without blemish, or as without blemish as possible. This means not only that we must go to regular confession, but have an even more regular (and daily) examination of conscience.

“Conversion to Christ, the new birth of Baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Body and Blood of Christ received as food have made us ‘holy and without blemish,’ just as the Church herself, the Bride of Christ, is ‘holy and without blemish.’ Nevertheless the new life received in Christian initiation has not abolished the frailty and weakness of human nature, nor the inclination to sin that tradition calls concupiscence, which remains in the baptised such that with the help of the grace of Christ they may prove themselves in the struggle of Christian life. This is the struggle of conversion directed toward holiness and eternal life to which the Lord never ceases to call us.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1426

Holiness – being set apart or separated for God – is not then reserved to a few. It is demanded of all of us by Christ when he requires in the Sermon on the Mount (Gospel of S. Matthew, 5-7) that we be perfect, as the Father is Himself perfect. One of the enduring images of our relationship with God the Father is the parable of the Prodigal Son, as described here:

“The process of conversion and repentance was described by Jesus in the parable of the prodigal son, the centre of which is the merciful father: the fascination of illusory freedom, the abandonment of the father’s house; the extreme misery in which the son finds himself after squandering his fortune; his deep humiliation at finding himself obliged to feed swine, and still worse, at wanting to feed on the husks the pigs ate; his reflection on all he has lost; his repentance and decision to declare himself guilty before his father; the journey back; the father’s generous welcome; the father’s joy – all these are characteristic of the process of conversion. The beautiful robe, the ring, and the festive banquet are symbols of that new life – pure worthy, and joyful – of anyone who returns to God and to the bosom of His family, which is the Church. Only the heart of Christ Who knows the depths of His Father’s love could reveal to us the abyss of His mercy in so simple and beautiful a way.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1439

Something we rarely consider is the effect of sin on the Church. We readily ask God for forgiveness, but sin also hurts the Church, and one of ways of making things better is sacramental Confession, with the priest as the agent, representing both God and the Church. This indeed was instituted by Christ Himself, as described in the Gospels:

“In imparting to His apostles His own power to forgive sins the Lord also gives them the authority to reconcile sinners with the Church. This ecclesial dimension of their task is expressed most notably in Christ’s solemn words to Simon Peter: ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of the Apostles united to its head. The words bind and loose mean: whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into His. Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1444-1445

The very basis of sacramental Confession is the contrition of the penitent – the sincere regret for sin committed, coupled with the desire to never again commit those sins. This means the absence of any dishonesty in the confession of sin – if we reveal all, even what we may forget is forgiven. And if we conceal even one, nothing is forgiven.

“Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance: ‘All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession, even if they are most secret and have been committed against the last two precepts of the Ten Commandments; for these sins sometimes wound the soul more grievously and are more dangerous than those which are committed openly.” When Christ’s faithful strive to confess all the sins that they can remember, they undoubtedly place all of them before the divine mercy for pardon. But those who fail to do so and knowingly withhold some, place nothing before the divine goodness for remission through the mediation of the priest, ‘for if the sick person is too ashamed to show his wound to the doctor, the medicine cannot heal what it does not know.'”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1456

We may have secret sins but we must still disclose them, and this is assisted by what is called the Seal of the Sacrament – that is, whatever is said in the box stays in the box. The Church asks us to make sacramental Confession at least once a year, but we tend to recommend that people come as often as necessary. The old precept of Confession before Holy Communion continues to exist, although most Catholics tend to ignore it these days. Keep in mind what I said earlier of Christianity being a purity religion, to facilitate nearness to God. As Moses said in Deuteronomy, there is no other nation on earth whose god has approached as near to it as God has approached to His chosen people. Do remember also that forgiveness for sin does not necessarily mean that punishment is always cancelled. Satisfaction must be made for sin also…

“Many sins wrong our neighbour. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbour. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must ‘make satisfaction for’ or ‘expiate’ his sins. This satisfaction is also called ‘penance.'”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1459

This doesn’t mean only the token prayer the priest requires at the end of Confession, but a life of penance as well, a life of sacrifice and devotion. Many great Saints of the Church have not only lived lives of penance on their own account, but have attempted to make satisfaction for the sins of other people. Take for example, in recent history, the Saints associated with the apparitions of our Lady at Lourdes and Fátima. The Blessed Virgin actually requested both S. Bernadette and the little shepherds of Fátima to suffer for sinners. The effect of the Sacrament is palpable, as many of us have experienced it and know.

“This Sacrament reconciles us with the Church. Sin damages or even breaks fraternal communion. the sacrament of Penance repairs or restores it. In this sense it does not simply heal the one restored to ecclesial communion, but has also a revitalising effect on the life of the Church which suffered from the sin of one of her members. Re-established or strengthened in the communion of saints, the sinner is made stronger by the exchange of spiritual goods among all the living members of the Body of Christ, whether still on pilgrimage or already in the heavenly homeland…”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1469

I think that’s a decent enough summary of one of the most important of the Sacraments of the Church, a Sacrament that maintains a healthy relationship between Christ and each individual member of His Church. Confessions are presently heard at the church on Saturday mornings for an hour from 11.00, and for about a half-hour before every Sunday Mass.