By Bishop Michael Pfeifer, OMI
The Risen Christ gave to His Church through the Apostles God’s merciful forgiveness for our sins in what we call the great Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance.
The Sacrament of Penance has a two-fold meaning and purpose: It is for those who have broken away from God by mortal sin, and therefore stand in need of reconciliation in order to be restored to supernatural life. Then, it is for those who need or desire the healing power of grace in the daily struggle to lead a good Christian life.
To help us better understand both dimensions of the Sacrament, we all need to do more study, and there is need for good teaching about these dimensions of the Sacraments in our programs of religious education. The full dimensions of this tradition, perhaps, have not been appreciated and brought to the awareness of our people.
The recent teaching of the Catholic Church, going back to the Council of Trent, reminds us that in the Sacrament of Penance, primacy of place as regards the act of the penitent, belong to contrition. Perfect contrition, motivated by the love of God and accompanied by the resolve to seek sacramental absolution, has the power to effect reconciliation even before the reception of the Sacrament. The aversion from and detestation of sin is the beginning of the conversion process which culminates in the restoration of the grace of justification. The recognition of the evil one has committed, accompanied by the resolve to avoid the sin in the future and by insight into the circumstances and conditions which were part of the inducement to sin, help to set one on a road to recovery by which the treasure of baptismal grace is appreciated and lived in a new way. The Council of Trent affirmed that by Divine institution confession is an integral and necessary part of the Sacrament of Penance.
The satisfaction — the penance —imposed by the priest in the celebration of the Sacrament is intended not only to make amends towards the temporal punishment due to sin, but also to help the penitent grow in those virtues which will strengthen him or her against sin in the future.
These acts on the part of the penitent —contrition, confession, satisfaction —encounter the reconciling and healing grace of Jesus Christ in the absolution declared by the priest. The penitent at that time is restored to baptismal grace, where this has been lost by mortal sin.
But another important teaching of the Church highlights the medicinal aspect of the Sacrament of Penance — confession — in another way. For the reception of the Sacrament, valid matter includes venial sins. Even though these can be expiated in a variety of ways, their submission to the priest for sacramental absolution is a usage which Christian experience over the centuries recommends for moral and spiritual growth. This practice has frequently been called “devotional confession.” There is need to better understand this dimension of the Sacrament of Penance. This dimension of the Sacrament is a profound act of the virtue of humility which engages us in an honest assessment of one’s self in relationship to God and to others, to acknowledge one’s faults and one’s needs for grace and to lay open one’s heart to Christ and the Church in the Sacrament of Penance. Catholics have here the means to grow in a true sense of the self and to receive that grace which empowers them to grow in the image of God’s Son.
The medicinal dimension of this merciful Sacrament helps one to focus on one’s relationship with God and the acknowledgement of one’s sins in a spirit of humility and sincerity. This openness enables a person to drop the defenses and the obstacles to grace which are part of the daily experience of fallen human nature. This practice of humility leads the Christian to a gradual knowledge of one’s limitations. At the same time, the forgiveness of the loving God leads the Christian to seek to live the commandments to love God with one’s whole heart, and to love the neighbor as one’s self. Consequently, there is a natural connection in the subjective state of the penitent and in the objective reality of a life grounded in love which frequently leads a person to use the forum confession for seeking spiritual guidance and the grace to live a good life.