By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio – articles – email ) | Apr 17, 2023
During His first appearance to the assembly of the apostles after His Resurrection, Jesus institutes the Sacrament of Penance: “He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” (Jn. 20:22-23) The Sacrament of Penance helps us face reality and change the world.
Facing reality is often uncomfortable. We reveal our lifestyle habits to our doctors. We report the intimate details of our finances to the IRS. But we are more nervous about confessing our sins to a priest even though fewer details are required. A good Confession is precise and usually brief. We only admit the nature and number of our sins, express sorrow, and promise to sin no more.
Forgiveness is the foundation of the sacred ministry of Jesus and His sacraments. During the Last Supper, Jesus took a cup and said, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt. 26:27-28) As we make a good Confession, we take responsibility for our actions and seek forgiveness for our sins against God and man.
We should not reduce Confession to a mere “self-help process.” We do not measure our actions against the wearisome cultural demands. We measure our choices by the Ten Commandments that are, at once, inclusive and divisive: A culture either rallies around virtue or rallies around vice. Jesus warns us of the tension: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Mt. 10:34) Our repentance brings about the reconciliation of God and man—and peace of soul—on God’s terms.
Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (Jn. 14:15) We are accountable for sins when we recognize that we have freely consented to evil choices. Our sinful choices are either venial or mortal. A worthy examination of conscience faces the reality of specific sins (not vague feelings) and calls us to conversion.
Venial sin tarnishes and weakens the soul. “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.” (1 Jn. 5:17) Typical venial sins include impatient acts, minor grudges, light gossip, uncharitable comments, impure glances, rudeness, wasting time or even hyperactivity when we should be relaxing (a variant of sloth), and various types of disobedience that violate the Fourth Commandment.
Mortal sin kills the soul and deprives us of the graces for salvation. Jesus teaches: “Out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.” (Mark 7:21-23) These sins maim and even kill souls.
“Imperfect contrition” is fear of God’s just punishments. Such sorrow is holy but falls short of full spiritual maturity. “Perfect contrition” is sorrow because we have offended God, “Who are all good and deserving of all my love” (Act of Contrition). It goes beyond servile fear. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.” (1 Jn. 4:16-18) A child often fears punishment. As he matures, his remorse comes to perfection, and he regrets letting his beloved parents down.
St. Thomas Aquinas explains that imperfect contrition alone is insufficient to attain forgiveness for mortal sins. God forgives grievous sins with perfect contrition, even outside Confession. But we are never quite sure whether our sorrow crosses the threshold. (God knows, and that’s why Jesus says, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned.”—Lk. 6:37) The graces of the Sacrament of Penance raise imperfect contrition to perfection and provide the confidence of God’s pardon and peace.
Every good Confession includes, to the best of one’s ability, all mortal sins—nature and number—leaving the details to God. Deliberate concealment invalidates the Confession. But if a penitent forgets a mortal sin in good faith, the absolution forgives all sin. Still the penitent should confess the forgotten transgression without drama next time.
A mob hitman once explained that he received absolution from a priest in Confession for the murder of twenty people. The priest didn’t need to know the bloody details, just his repentance, confession, and resolve to avoid sin. Confession is not cheap. The Sacrament may have saved the mobster from the fires of hell but not the electric chair or Purgatory.
The priest assigns a penance that is usually brief and practical. The same mob hitman joked that the priest merely required the recitation of a rosary for his penance. A single Hail Mary would do. Assigned penances have a symbolic value that reminds us that God requires continuing acts of reparation for our sins (and restitution as necessary). An insufficient penitential life continues into Purgatory, the mysterious “spiritual finishing school.”
The priest represents Jesus. The Church binds the priest with the inviolable Seal of Confession that protects the identity of penitents—even mobsters—under the threat of excommunication.
After confessing sins, the penitent responds with an Act of Contrition (of which there are several forms), and the Confession concludes with the all-important prayer of absolution by the priest. The Church requires these words for validity: “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The absolution from the lips of even the most unworthy priests forgives the greatest sins and clears the path to heaven.
There is an often-repeated story about GK Chesterton, who responded to a letter from a British newspaper. The editors asked, “What’s wrong with the world today?” Chesterton responded: “Dear Sir, I am. Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”
Repentance—ratified and elevated by the Sacrament of Penance—allows us to enter heavenly glory. Face reality. Go to Confession. Change the world.
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