Catechesis on theSacrament of Penance and Reconciliation
by Fr. Peter Ryan, SJ
Executive Director, Secretariat of Doctrine
United States Conference of Catholic
"For God so
loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him
might not perish but might have eternal life" (Jn 3:16). By reflecting on that
familiar passage, we can begin to grasp the significance of the Sacrament of
Penance and Reconciliation.
God's Plan of Salvation Through Jesus
the context of God's decision to send his Son. Seeing his beloved human race
fall into sin, which leads to death and eternal loss, and knowing that human
beings were utterly incapable of saving themselves, the Triune God responded
with a merciful plan of salvation.
God first paved the way to salvation
through the law and the prophets of the Old Testament. As the Fourth
Eucharistic Prayer puts it: "And when through disobedience [man] had lost your
friendship, / you did not abandon him to the domain of death. / For you came in
mercy to the aid of all, / so that those who seek might find you. Time and
again you offered them covenants / and through the prophets / taught them to
look forward to salvation" (The Roman
Missal, Third Typical Edition [Washington DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 2011], 657).
Then, when the time was fulfilled,
the astounding gift was given. The second Person of the Trinity, the Eternal
Word, entered his own creation. Through the power of the Holy Spirit he took on
flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and became one of us. Again, we read in
the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer: "And you so loved the world, Father most holy, /
that in the fullness of time / you sent your Only Begotten Son to be our
Savior. / Made incarnate by the Holy Spirit / and born of the Virgin Mary, / he
shared our human nature / in all things but sin" (Roman Missal, 657). Thus, the Son, while remaining divine, became
man—a perfectly obedient man—in Jesus Christ in order to fulfill the mission
entrusted to him by the Father.
A familiar Christmas hymn
wonderfully expresses the Lord's humility in coming as he did to offer himself
for our salvation:
Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
Now let's recall the life Jesus lived among us. He preached the Kingdom
of God and bore witness to it with great compassion and powerful signs. He
urged his hearers to repent and believe the Good News of salvation. By
remaining true to the Father's will through terrible suffering and even death
itself, he won our salvation. For Jesus' death was overcome by his
resurrection: "God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death,
because it was impossible for him to be held by it" (Acts 2:24). Now ascended
into heaven, he blesses us through the sacraments of the Church and sustains us
with the Father's gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus empowers us to remain faithful
through the trials of this life so that we will be able to enter his completed Kingdom
and share in divine intimacy and joyful resurrection life forever.
We Can Receive the Gift of Salvation Only If
We Cooperate with God's Grace
the Holy Spirit, the newly bold St. Peter announced God's plan of salvation in
the very first Christian sermon on Pentecost Sunday. His hearers' hearts were
moved, so they asked, "What are we to do, my brothers?" And Peter replied,
"Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the
forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit." He
exhorted them, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation" (Acts 2:37-38,
40). Peter's words apply to us and to people of every age. He is teaching that
our eternal salvation depends on how we respond to God's gracious offer.
God arranged this merciful plan of
salvation because he "so loved the world." The Father so loved the world that
he sent his only Son, despite knowing all he would have to endure. The Son, who
is God incarnate, so loved the world that he laid down his life to save us. And
the Holy Spirit, who is also divine, loves us so much that he transforms us
from within and abides with us.
In short, the Triune God does not
want us to perish but to have eternal life, so he graciously offers us the gift
of salvation. But salvation is not automatic. It is possible to miss out. Indeed,
the same Lord who pours out his blood on the Cross for us so that we can be
saved makes it clear that some will miss out: "Many, I tell you, will attempt
to enter but will not be strong enough" (Lk 13:24). He indicates that among the
lost will be some who, despite considering themselves upright, failed to
minister to his needs in the least of his brothers and sisters (see Mt
25:41-46). Jesus even says that many who claim to have acted in his name failed
to do the Father's will and thus will be unable to enter the Kingdom (see Mt
The gift of salvation is just that—a
gift. Yet it requires our free cooperation. Just as God freely offers us the
gift of salvation, so we must freely respond. As C.S. Lewis explains through
the senior devil Screwtape, "Merely
to override a human will . . . would be for Him useless. He
cannot ravish. He can only woo." The Lord's desire is
to elicit our free, loving response of faith to his loving initiative.
The Gift of Baptism Is
the First Stage of Our Cooperation
to repent, believe, and be baptized is the beginning of our loving response. Of
course, most of us were baptized as infants and could do little more than sleep
or yawn or perhaps cry as someone else pronounced baptismal vows on our behalf.
But now we are able to respond, and we must endorse those vows by committing
ourselves to live holy Christian lives.
Baptism is meant to be a complete
break from sin. We participate in the Death of Christ so that we may also share
his resurrection life. St. Paul explains: "We who were baptized into Christ
Jesus were baptized into his death" (Rom 6:3). And Paul adds: "We were indeed
buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised
from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.
For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall
also be united with him in the resurrection" (Rom 6:4-5).
Paul goes on to urge us to remain
true to our baptismal commitment. He explains that our sinful selves were
"crucified with [Christ]" (Rom 6:6) and that we must think of ourselves as
being "dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus" (Rom 6:11).
The Gift of Forgiveness After Baptism: Cooperation
Through Penance and Reconciliation
should mark an end of sin for us, but let's face it. We are weak and do not
always stay true to our baptismal promises. We do not always hold fast to
grace. We do not always say no to sin. Yet God's love for us is so deep that he
makes provision even for the sins we commit after we are baptized.
The Lord does not do this by turning
a blind eye to sin as an indulgent parent might do, for the Holy One demands
holiness. Peter makes this clear in an exhortation: "As he who called you is
holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written,
'Be holy because I [am] holy'" (1 Pt 1:15-16). But the Lord doesn't just demand holiness. He empowers us to be holy by making forgiveness available to us
through the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation and by giving us the Holy
What cooperation is required of us
to receive the forgiveness Jesus offers? We must humbly admit our sins and turn
to the Lord. St. John beautifully explains: "If we say, 'We are without sin,'
we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.If we acknowledge our
sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from
every wrongdoing" (1 Jn 1:8-9).
It is, of course, best to avoid sin
entirely. But our loving Savior understands our weakness and has made wonderful
provision for it. Again, John says: "My children, I am writing this to you so
that you may not commit sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with
the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. He is expiation for our sins, and
not for our sins only but for those of the whole world" (1 Jn 2:1-2).
To receive the Lord's forgiveness,
we must go to a priest and confess our grave sins in kind and number, as the
Council of Trent teaches. This means that we must honestly tell the priest,
without including needless details, any mortal, or deadly, sins we have
committed and how often we have committed them. Of course, the Lord does not
ask the impossible. Rather, he asks for a pure heart. Those who cannot recall
all of their mortal sins need only tell what they do remember as well as they
Questions About the Sacrament of Penance
ever wondered why it is necessary to identify one's sins, since God already
knows them? Part of the answer is that the inspired Word of God urges us to do
so: "Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be
healed" (Jas 5:16). But there are also other reasons. If we fail to do this and
ask God's forgiveness only in a general way or only in our own hearts, it is
easy for us to rationalize. It is easy for us to convince ourselves that some
sins are really not sins after all.
The requirement to reflect
specifically on our thoughts, words, and deeds in light of the revealed truth
about sin helps us avoid such rationalization. True enough, even thinking about
telling our sins to another human being can seem intimidating and unpleasant. But
priests are sinners, too, and they generally strive to embody the Lord's
kindness. Often one's experience in the confessional is surprisingly easy and
Even if the experience of confessing
is unpleasant, the blessings we receive are completely out of proportion to
that unpleasantness. For God's gift to us when we sincerely confess our grave
sins is to wipe them away, restore us to life, and open to us the doors of his Kingdom.
Paul's words apply here: "I consider that the sufferings of this present time
are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us" (Rom 8:18). For,
as Paul also says, the Father "delivered us from the power of darkness and
transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption,
the forgiveness of sins" (Col 1:13-14).
Have you ever wondered why it is
necessary to go to a priest? It is important to bear in mind that when people
commit mortal sins, they alienate themselves from Christ. They deliberately do
what they know in their hearts to be gravely wrong and incompatible with true
friendship with him. Although mortal sinners who have not renounced the faith
do still believe, their faith is dead. They are still members of the Body of
Christ, but by their grave sins they have turned themselves into dead members. Before
they can receive Holy Communion, they need to be reintroduced into Christ's
life, as he so deeply desires. Just as they received that life when a minister
representing Christ and his Church baptized them, so too do they receive the
restoration of that life when a minister ordained to act in the person of
Christ and his Church absolves their sins.
The point is beautifully illustrated
in the very institution of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation:
On the evening of that first day of the
week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the
Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, "Peace be with
you." When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The
disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. [Jesus] said to them again, "Peace
be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." And when he had said
this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the holy Spirit. Whose
sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained."
Jesus clearly entrusts
his gift of forgiveness to his Church. And the Church's priests, acting in the
person of Jesus, are prepared to forgive any sins whatsoever in the Sacrament
of Penance and Reconciliation when they are sincerely confessed by a penitent
with a firm purpose of amendment.
"What about venial sins?" you might
ask. Unlike mortal sins, venial sins do not take away the sanctifying grace we
receive at Baptism. They do not make us dead members of Christ. And no amount
of venial sins can ever add up to a single mortal sin. Nevertheless, someone
who sins venially finds it far easier to sin mortally. For example, a boy who
disobeys his parents' directive not to spend time with a delinquent friend
commits a venial sin, but he may then find himself tempted to participate in
activities he knows to be gravely wrong.
It is good to confess venial sins. Of
course, venial sins can also be forgiven in other ways, including through the
devout reception of the Eucharist. Still, conscientious Catholics who have no
mortal sins find in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation the grace they
need to keep sin out of their lives and to grow in holiness. It is very helpful
to develop the habit of frequent confession, and going once a month is by no
means too often. As the Catechism of the
Catholic Church puts it, "Without being strictly necessary, confession of
everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the
Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our
conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ
and progress in the life of the Spirit" (Catechism
of the Catholic Church [CCC], 2nd ed. [Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice
Vaticana (LEV)– USCCB, 2000], no. 1458).
False Peace to Receive the Sacrament of Mercy
Jesus loves every single person who ever
lived and will not willingly lose anyone. So, at great cost to himself, he
makes salvation available to everyone. But he never imposes it on anyone. Rather,
he instituted the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation to offer us
opportunities to freely turn back to him when we have foolishly turned away.
can easily convince ourselves, even as we stray from the Lord, that all is well,
for we naturally want to be at peace with ourselves. And to admit that all is
not well causes great interior turmoil. So, we rationalize. This means settling
for a false peace. The prophet Jeremiah warns against this when he rebukes
those who say "'Peace, peace,' . . . though there is no peace" (Jer 6:14). The
worst thing is to be in mortal sin and, because you don't want to experience
interior turmoil, to try to convince yourself that you're not really in
trouble. That's like having cancer and not wanting to go to the doctor, because
you don't want to hear bad news.
prophets, Apostles, and saints throughout the ages, filled with the Holy Spirit
and love of neighbor, have mercifully shaken up those who are trapped in false
peace. Those models of holiness knew that the eternal salvation of their
hearers is at stake. False peace will eventually be unmasked, and the saints
know that it is far better for the mask to be removed now—when we are able to
receive the forgiveness Jesus so graciously offers in this sacrament of mercy—than
when it is too late. When the veil of false peace is finally lifted from those
who are lost, they have no peace at all. But we can find true peace now in the
Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. That peace reaches deeper than any
suffering and comes to full fruition in the joyful resurrection life of the
has a wonderful personal touch that he uses to encourage people to turn to him.
For he is really interested in people—really interested in you and me. He does
all he can to appeal to our hearts when we are lost. He even associates with
sinners. When challenged about this, he says that it is the sick who need a
doctor, and he urges his critics to understand that God wants heartfelt mercy
and not just external performances: "Go and learn the meaning of the words,'I desire mercy, not sacrifice'" (Mt 9:13).
also appeals to the hearts of his hearers through parables. To encourage those
who have strayed to return, he tells the story of the loving shepherd in search
of his lost sheep. On finding it, the shepherd "sets it on his shoulders with
great joy" (Lk: 15:5) and even gathers his friends together to rejoice with
him. It's hard to imagine a greater encouragement for the lost than Jesus'
concluding words in this parable: "I tell you, in just the same way there will
be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine
righteous people who have no need of repentance" (Lk 15:7).
words and deeds reflect the teaching we just considered. When, for example, the
diminutive Zacchaeus climbs a tree in order to see Jesus, the Lord encourages
him to repent by honoring him. He says, "Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for
today I must stay at your house" (Lk 19:5). When Zacchaeus responds with joy
and repents, Jesus explains that "the Son of Man has come to seek and to save
what was lost" (Lk 19:10).
moments of grace are not limited to the events recounted in the Gospel. Even
now Jesus offers his grace. Even now he reaches out to the lost. Even now he
desires to bring forgiveness and joy to the repentant sinner. Since so much is
at stake, and our Lord's tender love for us is so deep, we have every reason to
search deeply into our own hearts and see what we should bring to the Lord in
the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.
is essential to ask ourselves: "Is it possible that I'm in mortal sin and won't
be able to enter into the Kingdom the way I am?" If we have rationalized our
sins and become blind to them, we need only turn to the Lord and sincerely ask
him to reveal them to us. Jesus will show us what we need to see about our life
with great gentleness and compassion. He wants to help us out of such a
dreadful situation and lead us to everlasting life.
after such an examination of conscience, we avail ourselves of the great Sacrament
of Penance and Reconciliation, we can be confident that our merciful Lord will
forgive our sins and restore us to life. He will give us the grace we need to
change whatever we need to change so that we can stay in friendship with him. He
will set us on the joyful path to his Kingdom, where we will drink in his
goodness and kindness forever.
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