Penance and Reconciliation

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. If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)

Understanding what sin is 

Sin is before all else an offense against God; it is a rupture of communion with him. At the same time it damages communion with the Church. For this reason conversion entails both God’s forgiveness and reconciliation with the Church, which are expressed and accomplished liturgically by the Sacrament of Reconciliation. (CCC1440)

Sin sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become like gods. Sin is thus the love of oneself even to contempt of God. In this proud self-exaltation, sin is diametrically opposed to the obedience of Jesus, which achieves our salvation. (CCC1850)

Sin is also an offense against reason, truth and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law. (CCC1849)

Understanding the Sacrament of Reconciliation 

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. It is called the sacrament of Penance, since it consecrates the Christian sinner’s personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance, and satisfaction. (CCC1423)

It is also called the sacrament of confession, since the disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is an essential element of this sacrament. In a profound sense it is also a confession of the holiness of God and of his mercy toward sinful man. It is called the sacrament of forgiveness, since by the priest’s sacramental absolution God grants the penitent pardon and peace. It is called the Sacrament of Reconciliation, because it imparts to the sinner the life of God. He who lives by God’s merciful love is ready to respond to the Lord’s call: “Go; first be reconciled to your brother.” (CCC1424)

Why do we need Reconciliation after Baptism?  

Jesus calls us to conversion. This call is an essential part of the proclamation of the kingdom: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.” In the Church’s preaching, this call is addressed first to those who do not yet know Christ and his Gospel. Baptism is the principal place for the first and fundamental conversion. It is by faith in the Gospel and by Baptism that one renounces evil and gains salvation, that is, the forgiveness of all sins and the gift of new life. (CCC1427)

But Christ’s call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians. This second conversion is a continuous 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 endeavor 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. (CCC1428)

The new life received in Baptism has not abolished the frailty and weakness of human nature, nor the inclination to sin called concupiscence, which remains in the baptized; 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. (CCC1426)

Christ instituted the Sacrament of Reconciliation for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the Sacrament of Reconciliation offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. (CCC1446)

The Elements of the Sacrament of Reconciliation

The Sacrament of Reconciliation comprises two equally essential elements: on the one hand, the acts of the man who undergoes conversion through the action of the Holy Spirit: namely, contrition, confession, and satisfaction (or penance). On the other hand, God’s action through the intervention of the Church, who through the bishops and priests forgive sins in the name of Jesus Christ (absolution). Thus the sinner is healed and re-established in ecclesial communion. (CCC1448)

Contrition is the sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again. When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, it is called “perfect contrition.” Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible. Contrition is called “imperfect contrition” if it is born of the consideration of sin’s ugliness or the fear of eternal damnation and the other penalties threatening the sinner. Such a stirring of conscience can initiate an interior process which, under the prompting of grace, will be brought to completion by sacramental absolution. By itself however, imperfect contrition cannot obtain the forgiveness of grave sins, but it disposes one to obtain forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. (CCC1451-1453)

The confession of sins frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an admission, man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible. Confession to a priest is an essential part of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. 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 Decalogue; for these sins sometimes wound the soul more grievously and are more dangerous than those which are committed openly. (CCC1455-1456)

Many sins wrong our neighbor and 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). 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 his sins. This satisfaction is also called penance. Penance can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear. Such penances help configure us to Christ, who alone expiated our sins once for all. They allow us to become coheirs with the risen Christ, provided we suffer with him. (CCC1459-1460)

The formula of absolution used in the Latin Church expresses the essential elements of this sacrament: the Father of mercies is the source of all forgiveness. He effects the reconciliation of sinners through the Passover of his Son and the gift of his Spirit, through the prayer and ministry of the Church. (CCC 1449) 

The Examination of Conscience

The reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation ought to be prepared for by an examination of conscience made in the light of the Word of God. the passages best suited to this can be found in the moral catechesis of the Gospels and the apostolic Letters, such as the Sermon on the Mount and the apostolic teachings. (CCC 1454)

The following self-examination may be helpful:

1. Have I put other gods before God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

2. Have I doubted God in my life?

3. Have I spent enough time in prayer?

4. Have I engaged in superstitious practices?

5. Have I taken the name of the Lord in vain?

6. Have I attended Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation?

7. Have I received Holy Communion in a state of grace?

8. Have I honored my father and mother?

9. Have I killed anyone in thought, word or action?

10. Have I hated or resented anyone?

11. Have I committed adultery or any sins of the flesh?

12. Have I been pure in thought, word and action?

13. Have I stolen?

14. Have I witnessed falsely against others?

15. Have I gossiped about others?

16. Have I coveted another person’s wife or husband?

17. Have I coveted another person’s possessions?

18. Have I been jealous or envious of others?

19. Have I been charitable and helpful when opportunity presents itself?

20. Have I wasted food, drink or other resources?

21. Have I been selfish or greedy?

22. Have I been honest and truthful?

The Act of Contrition is a Christian prayer that expresses sorrow for sins. It may be used in a liturgical service or it may be used privately. There are a few forms of acts of contrition in the Catholic Church. The one below may be used:

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you, and I detest all my sins because you are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to do penance and to amend my life. Amen.