Contrition, Confession, Absolution and Penance
Lent is one of the two major penitential seasons of the Church year, the other being Advent. Confession and penance are central to our Lenten practices. Confession is a mystery to many, feared, ridiculed, misunderstood and ignored by others. It is also deeply appreciated by those who approach the sacrament and experience God’s love, mercy and grace. Through the centuries the sacrament has undergone changes in how it has been celebrated. Because this sacrament was established and given to us by our Lord, it has always been an instrument of grace and forgiveness. This sacrament is known by different names, the Sacrament of Penance is the official name. It is also known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation but, for most of us it is simply, “confession.”
The sacrament consists of four parts: contrition, confession, absolution and satisfaction (penance). The goal of the sacrament is the bestowal of grace, the forgiveness of sins, and the reconciliation of the sinner to God and the community of the Church. The first step is contrition, sorrow for one’s sins. We need to be remorseful for having offended God. Breaking a rule is one thing, fear of punishment is another, but true contrition is when we recognize that we have displeased the One who loves us. When we look at our sinful actions, realizing that we have ruptured our relationship with God and brought displeasure to the One who so loves us, what is more appropriate than contrition? The next step is to acknowledge our guilt and our sins before God and his representative, the priest, in the confessional. Many wonder why we have to say aloud our sins to another person. The answer is simple, because we are instructed to by God. The biblical foundation for this Sacrament comes from James 5:16 “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” And John 20:22-23, “And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’” Here the priest is both the representative of the Lord and the Church for when we sin, our sins always inflict injury upon the Body of Christ. This is probably the hardest and most difficult part of the sacrament, to say aloud those actions we have actually done. It is one thing to list them mentally, it is another to have to say the words before another living human being. As we all know, thinking “I love you” is not the same as actually saying the words! It is the same with “I am sorry”. We say aloud our sins in confession not for the priest’s sake or even God’s sake but for our sake. When we confess our sins we do not tell the sins of others. Rather, we list our faults. We do not try to contextualize or make excuses. We need only to say the specific sin and own it as our own.
The next step of the sacrament is the conferral of absolution. Here God, through the priest, removes from our souls the sin and bestows the grace to heal the wound caused by our sinfulness. With the words of absolution we are restored and renewed by the supernatural gift of sanctifying grace. Having entered the confessional guilty, we are pardoned, acquitted, and leave free from the burden of sin and guilt. Yet there remains the wound of our sin, the injury inflicted by us to our relation with the Lord and to His Church, our sisters and brothers. Christ invites and enables us to participate in righting the wrong. We make satisfaction to help repair the damage done to our neighbor against whom we have sinned. We return the stolen goods, we apologize for our hurtful words. We pray a penance as an offering and as a means to grow in spiritual strength. And so, in these four steps: contrition, confession, absolution and satisfaction (penance), we are reconciled to the Lord and to His Body, the Church. All that is left for us to do is come to the throne of God’s grace! (Heb 4:16)
In pace Christi,