“Go forth, and sin no more.”
WHAT IT IS
Also known as Confession, the sacrament of Penance consists of honestly stating one’s sins to God, desiring to be forgiven and to sin no longer. Following the Jewish tradition of Yom Kippur at the time of Jesus and the practice of the early Christians, this confession uses the intermediation of a priest.
- It begins with the believer stating: “Forgive me father, for I have sinned.”
- He or she then states their transgressions as completely as they can.
- The priest listens, gives advice and gives them Penance.
- Penance is chosen to match the person’s circumstances and the gravity of their sin.
- It usually consists of prayer, and is designed to orient the believer back to Christ.
- Because we don’t chose our Penance, it also develops obedience toward God.
- He or she then makes an Act of Contrition:
“O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.”
- The priest then gives the Formula of Absolution:
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and the resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Like Eucharist, the sacrament of Penance should be performed frequently in the life of the believer.
Sin is an offense against God, which ruptures our relationship with Him. Our Lord forgives these transgressions when they’re confessed in the sacrament of Penance. It’s also known as the Reconciliation because it reconciles the sinner to their Creator. The purpose of life is to love God with all your heart, soul and mind. Confession helps to get us back on track when we stumble.
Confession also gives closure to the sinner, letting him or her continue to grow in holiness. They may face other worldly repercussions for their sins, such as criminal punishment, but their relationship with God is restored. It is always God’s desire that we be saved.
WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS
The practice of recognizing and confessing sins had a long history in Jewish tradition long before the birth of Christ.
The role of a priest as intermediator has existed since the days of Moses:
“When anyone is guilty in any of these ways, he must confess in what way he has sinned and, as a penalty for the sin he has committed, he must bring to the Lord a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin.” Lv 5:5-6
The main holiday in Israel was the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, during which believers sought forgiveness for sins committed against God and against others. This is recounted throughout Lv 16.
God also sets rules for confessing sins in the next book of the Bible:
“When a man or woman commits any of the sins of mankind, acting unfaithfully against the LORD, and that person is guilty, then he shall confess his sins which he has committed, and he shall make restitution in full for his wrong and add to it one-fifth of it, and give it to him whom he has wronged.” Nm 5:6-7
This practice was also recounted by Nehemiah, who helped rebuild the Temple about 900 years after Moses:
On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners, then stood forward and confessed their sins and the guilty deeds of their father. When they had taken their places, they read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it they made confession and prostrated themselves before the Lord their God. Neh 9:1-3
Forgiveness of sins is raised to an entirely new level in the Gospel, because now humans have access to God himself in the person of Christ.
Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Mk 2:3-5
Power granted to the Church, which acts on behalf of Jesus, is also key to Penance. Our Lord grants this power twice in Matthew’s Gospel:
“I say to you that you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Mt 16:18-20
“If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back.But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Mt 18: 15-19
This term of “binding and loosing” means that the Church is empowered to liberate people from their sins (loosing) or declining to do so (binding).
Christ more explicitly delegates the authority to forgive sins to his Apostles after the Resurrection, as he prepares them to go forth and preach the Gospel:
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” Jn 20:21-23
Paul mentions this authority when writing to Christians in Corinth:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 2 Cor 5:18-20
He also mentions it to Timothy, this time noting that the power of being an apostolic authority can be assigned:
God wills everyone to be saved to come to knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for us all. This was the testimony at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. 1 Tm 2:4-7
This passage shows the absolute importance of Confession in the life of a Christian:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. 1 Jn 1:8-10
The practice of confessing sins outwardly was also established in the years immediately after Christ. People didn’t simply confess to God directly to receive forgiveness.
Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 1 Tm 6:12
Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. Jm 5:16
Sin is the root of all death and suffering. God began the long process of saving humanity from sin when he entered into a covenant with Abraham. He then forged the nation of Israel in gradual preparation for his Incarnation in Jesus.
Throughout this process, the Jews recognized their sins and we frequently reminded of them by the prophets. Like a human person, Israel suffered wounds and depredations because of its offenses against God:
- Solomon’s wickedness leads to the division of the Kingdom in 940 BC.
- The sacriledge of .. leads to their enslavement in Babylon
- The Temple is destroyed and the Ark is stolen. Now deprived of God’s presence, they must wait for his return.
- Even after the successful revolt against the Greek tyrants in 133 BC, the Jews are once again conquered, this time by the Romans in xx BC.
Israel suffered for its wickedness, just as God allows us to suffer because of our sins. The pain cleanses us of evil by increasing our dependence on God and reducing our esteem in the eyes of the world. The regular practice of Confession compels the believer to be aware of their sins, and therefore helps him or her to see the need for Christ in their life.
Jesus completes Salvation History, and priests who follow his tradition have more power than the Jewish priests. This results from the fact that Christian priests are ordained after the order of Melchizedek, a priest of God the Most High at the time of Abraham. Jewish priests, however, descended from the line of Aaron, and had their origins centuries later after the Golden Calf incident.
Christian priests, therefore, can hear and forgive sins against God. Jewish priests never had this authority, and only had power to atone for sins of impurity and between people.
The sacrament of Penance is also an improvement upon the Jewish practice because it can be administered at any time, not just annually on the Day of Atonement.
Another major element of Penance is the centrality of the Church in the life of the believer. Leviticus contains several mentions of individuals being “cut off” from the Chosen People because of their sins. Likewise, the early Church placed heavy emphasis on sins cutting people off. This passage is from an handbook of Christianity written around 90 AD:
Every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, break bread, and give thanksgiving after confessing your sins, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one that is at variance with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. Didache ch 14
This sense of community and Church cannot be ignored. The Church is the Body of Christ, so anyone who has sinned against God has also put himself or herself at odds with the community and the Church. The early Christians considered themselves to be a new chosen people. Sin cut people off from that community because it cut them off from God.
The most important principle is the idea that the institution of the Church, acting in the name of Christ, had authority to forgive sins. This doctrine was documented in the Scripture cited above, and was documented by Ignatius of Antioch in approximately 105 AD, shortly before his martyrdom in Rome:
To all them that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop. Letter to the Philadelphians Ch 8
Athanasius of Alexandria, who staunchly defended the divinity of Christ against the Arians and helped create the idea of the Holy Trinity, also believed in the power of priests to hear confessions and forgive sinners in the name of Christ:
As the man whom the priest baptizes is enlightened by the grace of the Holy Ghost, so does he who in penance confesses his sins, receive through the priest forgiveness in virtue of the grace of Christ. Letter against the Novationist Rigor
The way that Reconciliation is performed, however, has changed over the centuries. It was originally administered publicly, with believers often engaging in long and public penances for their sins. The current practice of confessing privately to a priest developed in the 600s among Irish monks, who recited all 150 Psalms every day and helped spread Christianity to England, France and Germany.
Honesty is essential for the sacrament of Penance. If someone withholds sins, they commit an even graver offense by rejecting God’s mercy. Just like an illness of the body, sin cannot be healed without an accurate diagnosis. That requires complete and sincere confession.
Telling our transgressions to another person also keeps us honest. When the priest asks, “do you have anything else to confess?” it forces the individual to be truthful and to examine their conscience for other offenses. Sharing with another person additionally helps overcome the sense of isolation and shame that results from sin.
A strict code of secrecy has governed Confession since its earliest days, prohibiting priests from disclosing anything said in the sacrament to anyone else — including their own superiors. Violators are permanently deprived of priestly rights.
NOTES: EZEKIEL 18:21 ON DOING PENANCE