Our Catechism teaches that “Penance is the sacrament by which the sins we commit after baptism are forgiven”. This Sacrament along with the sacrament of Anointing of the sick are called Sacraments of Healing. Why the word “Healing”? To be healed is to be cured of something, of an ailment, to repair damage done. When a person is sick, he goes to the doctor who looks at him and gives him treatment and drugs to make him feel better. If he has headache and he tells the doctor it is pile, will he be cured? No, because he has told lies, he has not made known his true illness as such, he cannot be helped. He will therefore continue to be ill and the illness may get worse. “The Lord Jesus Christ, physician of our souls and bodies, who forgave the sins of the paralytic and restored him to bodily health, has willed that his Church continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, his work of healing and salvation even among her own members. This is the purpose of the sacraments of healing-Penance and Anointing of the Sick”(cf CCC.1421). The Sacraments of Healing, Reconciliation and Anointing of the sick, are to help us, to cure us, to repair whatever damage has been done to our soul and make us well again in the company of Jesus through the restoration of the grace of God in us.
The Sacrament of Penance
The sacrament of Penance, also called sacrament of Reconciliation, forgives our sins and restores us to the Father. The Vatican II document on Sacred Liturgy, No. 5 says-“God who `wills that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth`-(1 Tim.2:4)- `who in many times and various ways spoke of old to the father through the prophets`-(Heb 1:1), when the fullness of time had come, sent his son – the Word made flesh, anointed by the Holy Spirit, to preach the Gospel to the poor, to heal the contrite of heart, to be a bodily and spiritual medicine …” (Is. 61:1; Luke. 4:18). This extract clearly shows Christ as our sacrament of Reconciliation with the Father. The Father gave us his son (anointed by the Holy Spirit, to save us and heal us); the Son gave us the Church (which he founded, leaving with the Church the means of salvation and healing) and the Church in turn gives to us these means (the Sacraments) which is received and administered only in the Church and by the Church
The teachings of the Church on Reconciliation:
In the Church, through the sacraments of Christian initiation (i.e. Baptism, confirmation and Holy Eucharist), we receive the new life of Christ. But as human beings with concupiscence, we are subject to suffering, illness and death. The new life as a child of God can be weakened and even lost by sin. The Biblical images of sin center on “hardheartedness”, that is, a failure to love. All sin has social consequence (i.e. affects the secular life) as well as alienates us from God, from one another and self. If mortal sin, it kills our relationship with God and if venial, debars us from growing spiritually and weakens our foundation.
The sacrament of reconciliation entails contrition, confession of sin, penance and absolution; and those who approach this sacrament obtain pardon from God`s mercy for the offence committed against him and his mystical body – the Church. With this pardon, comes reconciliation with God and the Church that they have wounded by their sin. This reconciliation would be rooted in interior penance, a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return to God with all our heart, a turning away from evil and sin – NOT in an outward work of wearing sackcloth or sprinkling ashes or fasting but in the conversion of heart, in visible signs, gestures and works of penance.
Without an interior conversion, such penance remains false. True conversion of heart is accomplished in daily life by frequent gestures of reconciliation, of concern for the poor, by the exercise and defense of justice and right, by the admission of faults to one’s brethren, by positive response to fraternal correction, by examination of conscience, by endurance of persecution, by fasting, prayer and almsgiving etc. The sacrament of penance can be looked at from many angles and it is for this reason that it is called many names:
i. Sacrament of Conversion: Jesus invites us to “Repent” (Mk 1:15). This is a shift from sin to grace, a conscious choice to making effort to replace a bad habit with a good behaviour.
ii. Sacrament of Penance: to make “satistfaction” for sins committed. It is an expression of sorrow, to make up for a damage or wrong done.
iii. Sacrament of Confession because the sinner discloses or confesses his sins to a priest. The sinner ACCUSES himself for the wrong done. It is also a ‘confession’ [an admission] of the holiness of God and of his mercy to a sinful soul.
iv. Sacrament of Forgiveness because by the priest’s sacramental absolution (Jn 20:23), God grants the penitent ‘pardon’ and peace. God is merciful and forgives sins: Is.1:18b; 43:25; Jn.1:29. v. Sacrament of Reconciliation: Sin separates us from God and the Christian community, our relationship is weakened. By this sacrament the sinner is reconciled [returned] and reunites with God and of course the body of Christ (Church). Looking at the story of the Prodigal Son [Luke. 15] we will observe that all these procedures are present.
Steps towards Reconciliation
1st Step – Preparation of self – Examination of conscience – Admission of fault. – True sorrow for offence committed. – A firm purpose of amendment – Desire to go and confess.
2nd Step – Confession – Pray, inviting the Holy Spirit to enlighten you and help you remember all your sins – Approach the Priest. – Accuse yourself before the Priest.
3rd step Penance/Restitution – Attentively, listen to the counseling and advice of the Priest – Pay attention to the penance given – Be ready to do the Penance well and make restitution. Restitution is undoing the wrong done; e.g. returning what was stolen or repairing the damage done to a person’s name or character. The Penance given and our disposition to do it well, is a sign of both our repentance and our resolution not to offend God again. To make a good confession therefore, three things are required of the penitent:
(i) Contrition, which is sorrow for one’s sins;
(ii) Confession, that is examining one’s conscience and telling one’s sins to the priest; and
(iii) Penance, which is that desire to make up for one’s sins and amend one’s life. Together the three are called the “acts of the penitent.” A penitent is the person who, being sorry for his/her sins, goes to confession. Therefore, a good confession should be humble, sincere and complete. It is humble when we accuse ourselves of our sins with a deep sorrow for having offended the Lord while imploring his loving mercy. It is sincere when we tell all of our sins honestly and truthfully, without exaggerating or excusing them and it is complete when we confess all of our mortal sins, including the number of times we have committed them.
The 2 types of Contrition:
1. Perfect Contrition : when we are sorry because we have hurt God and the people we love
2 Imperfect Contrition : when we are sorry because we are caught in our wrong doing and afraid of the punishment our wrong doing deserves. We should always pray to God for the grace of perfect contrition.
What is sin and what sins need to be confessed in the Sacrament of Penance?
Sin is an offense against God that ruptures our communion with Him and with His Church. Sin is far more than “breaking the rules,” but it is a failure to love God and to love others, which causes real damage in all our relationships.
There are 2 types of sin:
• Original sin – inherited from Adam and Eve; and
• Actual sin – our own personal sins, sins committed by our own will. Actual sin could be Mortal or Venial. Venial sins are sins in which love is less grievously wounded (venial or “easily forgiven”). “One commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law. Venial sin weakens charity; it impedes the soul’s progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good; it merits temporal punishment. Deliberate and un-repented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin. Mortal sins on the other hand, are sins that are totally incompatible with love for God and others. (mortal sins, in which genuine love is “dead”). A sin is mortal when the action is grave matter; when it is committed with full knowledge and with deliberate consent. Grave matter means it is a sinful act, and very serious, against God’s commandment. Full knowledge means that you are aware that God or the Church he founded considers the act sinful, even if you do not totally understand why it is sinful. Deliberate consent means your personal choice to do the wrong, not being forced to do it. The Church says that all grave or mortal sins must be confessed as soon as possible. The consequences of a mortal sin are the loss of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it leads to eternal death of hell; this is why it is so important for mortal sins to be confessed to a priest as soon as possible. The Church therefore recommends that we receive the Sacrament of Penance frequently, as soon as possible after we commit a mortal sin. If we are seeking to grow in holiness, the regular practice of confession at least once a month is recommended. Effects of the Sacrament of Penance Only an ordained priest who has the faculty or a bishop celebrates this sacrament. The effects of this sacrament are:
• It brings us to life again after we were dead through mortal sin (Lk. 15:24).
• It reconciles us with God in loving friendship and restores us to his grace.
• It is normally followed by peace, joy, serenity and spiritual consolation.
• It also reconciles us with the Church, repairing or restoring the damage our sins have done to our communion with others. Know that a priest can never reveal the sins a person confessed. This is known as the “Seal of confession”.
Where is it in the Bible?
God forgives sin – Mk. 2:7, Luke 5:21 Christ has power to forgive sin – Mt 9:6, Mk 2:10, Luke 5:24, Col 3:13 Confession instituted by Christ – Jn. 20:22-23 Power to forgive delegated by Christ – Jn. 20:23, 2 Cor. 5:18 For further readings confer
• Catechism of the Catholic Church nos. 980-987, 1114-1134 and 1420- 1498,
• Code of Canon Law nos.959-988
• Africa: Our way to new life Book.
• Rev. Sr. Mary Judith Madueke EHJ, Director of Religious Education, Archdiocese of Lagos.