Teaching Aid - Fr. Daniel Merz

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Exploring the Forms and Options of the Sacrament ofPenance and Reconciliation

by Rev. Daniel Merz
Associate Director, Divine Worship
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Life is about relationships. We relate to family, friends, and strangers (including ourselves); we relate to animals, plants, and the inanimate world around us; we relate to God, the angels, and the saints. Whenever these relationships fall short of what they should and could be, we instinctively sense that something is not right, and we do well to examine our conscience to see if our thoughts, words, and actions, or lack thereof, have contributed to the discord. And if we realize that they have, then there is the natural desire to respond in some way. "I'm sorry," we say; "Excuse me;" "Please, forgive me," etc. As creatures who express ourselves through a physical body in time and space, we desire ways to express and ritualize our relationships with God, with the Church, with individuals, and with the world. And we desire to ritualize the reconciliation of those relationships, too.

The primary sacrament of forgiveness is Baptism, which both washes clean of sin and also creates a new relationship with God and the Church by incorporating the baptized into the Body of Christ. Ideally, we would never damage that state of purity following Baptism . . . but, of course, we do. The Sacrament of Penance is often called Second Baptism, as the secondary sacrament of forgiveness, which acts to restore what was lost. The way we celebrate this sacrament is illustrative of the Church's understanding of Jesus, of herself, of the world around, and of sin.

From the New Testament, it is clear that Jesus believed he had the power to forgive sins. Even more stunning, though, was the fact that Jesus clearly wanted to communicate this power to his disciples. As the Sacrament of Penance grew and developed within the Church, there came an interesting criticism from some of the pagans in the ancient world. They reproached the Christians, saying, "You cause human beings to sin by promising them forgiveness if they do penance. That is laxism, and not education!" (see St. Augustine, Serm. 352, 9). For the Christian, however, living a moral life is not a matter of education alone. Knowledge by itself can never overcome sin or achieve goodness. Human nature is not just ignorant but fallen or damaged, which is why we need a remedy beyond what this world alone can provide. Sometimes, perhaps oftentimes, we have full knowledge of the evil that we do . . . and we do it anyway. Education will never be enough. The Sacrament of Penance is not a school lesson for how to imitate Christ; it is a divine encounter for being transformed into Christ!

As with every sacrament, Penance includes both a human and a divine working. In the divine working of the sacrament, we understand that the lifeblood of Christ was poured out on the Cross for the forgiveness of sins and is now poured out eternally and gloriously before the Father in heaven, also for the forgiveness of sins: "[Christ] entered once for all into the sanctuary . . . with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For . . . the blood of Christ . . . [will] cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God" (Heb 9:12-14). In the Sacrament of Penance, the Holy Spirit connects the penitent to this glorious outpouring of Christ's Divine Mercy, and the more we open ourselves to this mercy, the more our lives are not simply forgiven but transformed. The human working of the sacrament seeks to foster and facilitate the "opening" of every penitent to the transformative effect of Divine Mercy.

In the reform of Penance called for by the Second Vatican Council, the sacrament emphasizes the process of conversion of every penitent, and, in fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the theology of the Sacrament of Penance from the viewpoint of conversion. In this perspective, the sacrament can be used as a means of spiritual growth, focusing on the continual surrender of the faithful away from relying on his or her own strength toward reliance on the mercy and compassion of God. The Sacrament of Penance is the continual reminder of why we believe in grace over education and, more to the point, why we need a Savior. Every time a Christian sins, even repeatedly, it is not a time for despair, which focuses on the self and one's failures, but of hope, which remembers the need to look to God for strength and sanctification. Penance is a continual reminder to take our eyes off ourselves and our failures and turn them humbly and trustingly back to God. When we fall and sin, it is easy to become discouraged and to spiral into self-hatred for our failures—which is exactly where the Devil wants to keep us. Our best practice after sinning is to take responsibility for our action and turn immediately to the Lord, saying with trust, "This is why I need you."

The process of conversion is impeded by a variety of things, first of all: sin. As St. Paul writes in Romans 7:15, 20-21, sometimes we can barely be held accountable, so enmeshed is our will in sin: "What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate. . . . Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand."St. Paul goes on, not to despair, but to rejoice that in his weakness, salvation comes to him and to all of us from God in Christ Jesus. In Christ, the power of sin is overcome, and the Sacrament of Penance is a communication of this triumphant grace.

Beyond the culpable sins that we all commit, the Church also realizes that there are many imperfections and tendencies to evil that we find in ourselves. Tradition has often described sin as missing the mark. No matter how hard we try or how pure our intent, we still fall short of the perfection to which Jesus calls us ("Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect" [Mt 5:48]). But every time we approach the sacrament with true repentance and with open heart, the transformative encounter with the Paschal Mystery works upon us, healing us and preparing us for the final transformation of resurrection, when "there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order [will have] passed away" (Rev 21:4).

In the rest of this article, the elements of the Sacrament of Penance will be examined in some detail, with a view toward helping all who celebrate it to do so more fully.

The Divine Element in the Sacrament

The divine element in the sacrament is paramount. Our theology says that the work of the sacrament is always first of all the work of God. God offers the grace of conversion; God makes the call to repentance; and God enables the transformation of our lives. The sacrament is one of the best ways we have to act out symbolically our response to God and to the grace of conversion he offers. Other ways to respond include fasting, prayer, charity to others, pilgrimage, and days or seasons for penance (e.g., Lent). But the highest of these, without doubt, is the ritualization of our interior penance through the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.

The Ecclesial Element in the Sacrament

The ecclesial element in the sacrament goes hand in hand with the divine element, because the Body of Christ is the Church. The sacrament opens the door for the interior action of God within us, but it also needs to be understood as a symbolic representation of our relationship with the Church. The Church, too, is wounded by our sin. This is why it is never enough to ask forgiveness only from God and the one wronged, because my sin wounds the entire Body of Christ: "If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy" (1 Cor 12:26).The Sacrament of Penance, then, has the power to reconcile us not only to God but also to the Church. This was clearly expressed when Jesus handed over the power of binding and loosing to his Church in the Apostles. On a very practical level, it is important for each of us to confess to a priest, not because God can't forgive us directly, but because we also need forgiveness from one who can represent the whole of the Church, who was wounded by my sin.

Essential Elements for the Penitent in the Celebration of the Sacrament

On the penitent's part, there are three essential elements: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. The most important element is contrition. This means that one needs to take personal responsibility for one's sin and truly repent of that sin. There is a distinction made in theology between perfect and imperfect contrition (the latter of which is called "attrition"). Perfect contrition repents of sin because of love for God and his people. Imperfect contrition is motivated from less lofty motives, such as fear of punishment or a perceived need to conform. The main concern of the Church, however, is not in this kind of analysis but in fostering a spirit of contrition in anyone who comes seeking healing and forgiveness.

The second important element for the penitent is confession. It is typically Roman Catholic to insist on external disclosure of one's sins to the Church, based on the Incarnation and on Jesus' teaching ("Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed" [Jas 5:16]). Especially because of our understanding of the Incarnation, we believe it is necessary not only to confess mentally or mindfully but to confess aloud. The act of articulating oneself is not only good and holy, it changes things and makes them more real, in a sense. The Church teaches that all serious/mortal sins should be confessed, and that at least once annually. But we also believe that it is praiseworthy and fosters conversion to confess also minor and everyday kinds of faults known as venial sins. In effect, when we confess our sins, we are confessing God's grace in our lives to which we failed to respond adequately. Even the confession of our sins is ultimately about the Lord.

The final element that is important for the penitent is satisfaction. This must be done for an integral celebration of the sacrament. The point is not to "make up for" the sin committed. That would betray a false understanding that we can overcome sin by our work alone. Rather, the satisfaction (or "penance," as it is commonly called) is better understood as an expression of our desire to make amends on the human level to the extent that we can. It is a sign of our sincere repentance and of our desire to work for justice. This element gives the sacrament its name. The grace that comes to us in the celebration of the sacrament will find more fertile soil when we cultivate our lives through acts of penance. The penances we do work to open us more and more fully to the healing action of God's forgiveness and peace.

Essential Elements for the Church in the Celebration of the Sacrament

The essential elements on the Church's part are absolution and reconciliation. Only God can forgive sins, not human beings. This is why the absolution formula has always been proclaimed "in the name of Jesus Christ" or "in the name of the Holy Trinity." In fact, the Church is simply applying the forgiveness that Christ accomplished once for all. In applying this forgiveness, the Church also effects the reconciliation of the penitent by the working of the Holy Spirit to the Church of God in Christ. There is a simultaneous, twofold action whereby the Church communicates God's forgiveness and proclaims reconciliation.

The Forms and Options of the Sacrament

The Rite is divided into five sections:

1.Reception of the Penitent

2.Reading of the Word of God (optional)

3.Confession of Sins and Acceptance of Satisfaction

4.Prayer of the Penitent and Absolution

5.Proclamation of Praise of God and Dismissal

The Rite begins with the priest welcoming "warmly" and greeting "with kindness" the penitent, who in turn responds with the Sign of the Cross. The priest then encourages the penitent with a few words to trust in God (some sample words of this encouragement are provided). Here the Church acknowledges that it is not easy to confess one's sins and so calls upon the priest to be kindly, the penitent to invoke the Cross as our sure sign of hope, and the priest to give further encouragement that God is with him or her.

The reading of the Word of God is most often used with a communal penitential service, which includes individual confession, but it may occur with the Rite for individual penitents. Its importance lies in the presentation of God's call to conversion and the offer of his healing and forgiving love. Perhaps, more commonly with individual confession, the priest will include some reference to Scripture in his opening words of encouragement.

In the confession of sins, the penitent may use a formula such as, "I confess to almighty God . . . , " or, "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned . . . " If it is helpful, the penitent may reveal their state in life (e.g., single, married, religious) and other details that could help the priest both understand the confession better and provide appropriate counsel in response. The priest may also help the penitent examine his or her conscience in order to make a good confession. Following the confession and any appropriate advice, the priest proposes an act of penance for the penitent to accept.

The penitent is then asked to express sorrow and may do so with a formula prayer or in his or her own words. The priest offers the prayer of absolution, which recalls how Christ's Death and Resurrection reconcile the world and how the gift of the Holy Spirit brings that forgiveness still today. The prayer ends with the declaration of the Church that the penitent is absolved.

The Rite closes with a dialogue of praise and the dismissal. The priest exclaims, "Give thanks to the Lord for he is good." And the penitent responds, "His mercy endures for ever." The priest then draws from a number of options to dismiss the reconciled penitent in the joy of forgiveness.

In the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance, the Church desires that the penitent know that he or she is not alone before the judgment of God but has the backing and support of the entire Church in his or her effort to respond to the love-relationship that God continues to offer, even after sin.

Copyright © 2014, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.