What Catholics Believe - Chapter Eighteen

Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation: God is Rich in Mercy

At World Youth Day 2002 in Canada, Venerable Pope John Paul II proclaimed, “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father's love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.” We all sin and have been sinned against. We are hurt and we hurt those we love most. We try to act out of love, righteousness and holiness, and yet we act out of anger, fear and selfishness. G.K. Chesterton once famously answered the question, “What is wrong with the world?” in two words: “I am.”

During this time of Lent, a season when we are called in a particular way to turn back to God, repent of our sins and be recipients of His immense love and mercy, it seems all the more appropriate to reflect on the sacrament of penance / reconciliation.

Jesus sent his twelve apostles to proclaim the Kingdom and to call people to repentance and conversion, and the Risen Christ transmitted His own power of reconciliation to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive, are forgiven them” (John 20: 22-23). The Church today continues to preach the Gospel, invite people to conversion, and administer the sacrament of the remission of sins.

The key elements of confession given to us by the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults are:

  • The acts of the penitent (the person making the Confession) are contrition, confession and satisfaction. The act of the priest is absolution.
  • Perfect contrition arises from love of God; imperfect contrition results from other motives.
  • The penitent, after an examination of conscience, needs to confess all mortal sins. Though it is not necessary to confess venial sins, the Church strongly recommends it because it can lead to self-examination, healing and spiritual growth.
  • The priest gives a penance to repair the harm due to sin and to restore the penitent’s commitment to be a disciple of Christ.
  • The sacrament of penance reconciles us with God and His Church, gives us peace of mind and spiritual consolation, remits the eternal punishment due to mortal sin, and empowers us to face spiritual challenges.

To understand more deeply the sacrament of penance, we must understand the sacrament of baptism, which is the first and chief sacrament of forgiveness of sins because it unites us with Christ, who died for our sins and rose for our justification. John 3:5 states that "unless a man be born again by water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Baptism cleanses the soul and sanctifies it with grace of the Holy Spirit. By baptism’s water of rebirth, original sin is forgiven and cleansed away and replaced with the grace of God.

Some of us watch movies like “The Lord of the Rings” and wish that we lived in a time when we could take up arms and fight the evil that seeks to destroy men. We go to school or work, eat, sleep and even worship unaware of the battle between the culture of life and culture of death that surrounds us. I urge you, as baptized sons and daughters of God, to recognize that 1) our baptismal call to holiness is a call to engage in this battle; 2) this battle is one that requires the help of God’s grace; 3) conversion of the culture starts with conversion of our own souls; and 4) conversion of our souls occurs with the graces given to us in the sacrament of penance.

As your hearts yearn to fight the forces of darkness that seek to take away your peace, hope and joy, the Church invites you with these words…“God the Father of mercies, through the death and 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!