Penance: The Sacrament of Forgiveness and Peace
by Father John A. Hardon, S.J.
During his first visit to the United States, Pope John Paul II pleaded with the Bishops to do something about the drastic drop in confessions in many American dioceses.
In the face of a widespread phenomenon of our time, namely that many of our people who are among the great numbers who receive Communion make little use of Confession, we must emphasize Christ’s basic call to conversion.
We must also stress that the personal encounter with the forgiving Jesus in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a divine means which keeps alive in our hearts and in our communities, a consciousness of sin in its perennial and tragic reality, and which actually brings forth, by the action of Jesus and the power of His Spirit, fruits of conversion in justice and holiness of life(Address to the Bishops of the Episcopal Conference of the United States, October 5, 1979).
Underlying this phenomenal decline in confessions is an error of factual history that must be corrected. Some nominally Catholic writers are saying that Christ did not institute the Sacrament of Penance, or at least, did not require the confession of sins to a priest to receive sacramental absolution.
Books and articles are being published which claim that confession of sins to a priest is a late innovation in the Catholic Church. General absolution is becoming habitual in some places, and nineteen centuries of Catholic history are being ignored as though they did not exist.
But there is a deeper reason for this widespread phenomenon, which I do not hesitate to say is plaguing the Catholic faith in our day. The deeper reason is the so-called Fundamental Option theory. Condemned by the Holy See in 1975, I consider it a root cause of the breakdown of Catholicism in many countries of the Western world. According to this theory, there can be no serious sins such as murder or adultery, because the actions are gravely wrong. But no mortal sin, the loss of sanctifying grace, is committed unless a person subjectively rejects God. This subverts the whole moral order of Christianity, which believes that the essence of mortal sin is the deliberate choice of some creature which is known to be gravely forbidden by God.
When you read the majority decision of our Supreme Court in 1973, legalizing abortion, you begin to realize how devastating is the heresy of Fundamental Optionism. Behind the Supreme Court decision was a Catholic judge who justified the murder of innocent, unborn children.
Institution of Sacramental Confession
Jesus Christ instituted the Sacrament of Confession on Easter Sunday night. As Saint John describes the event, “the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them. He said to them ‘Peace be with you,’ and showed them His hands and His side. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw the Lord. And He said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent Me, so I am sending you.’ After saying this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven. For those whose sins you retain, they are retained'” (John 20:19-23).
As the Catholic Church explains these words, Christ gave the Apostles and their successors the right to forgive sins if they so judge the penitent worthy, and the corresponding right to retain sins, or refrain from absolving, if the sinner is not sincerely repentant.
The implications of this power of judging whether to absolve or not are at the heart of the Sacrament of Penance. By these words, Christ indicated that before receiving absolution, the sinner must disclose his sins. He must confess what he did wrong.
This means that auricular confession, where the penitent speaks his sins and the priest hears his sins, is of divine origin. The Church did not invent the confession of sins. It is a divine law from which no one on earth has the right to dispense. Auricular (or audible) confession is part of divine revelation. It is an unchangeable article of the Catholic faith.
Private Confession of Apostolic Origin
In the early Church, Christians were expected to live very holy lives. And they did. To become Christian meant to expect to become a martyr. Every Pope for the first three hundred years of the Church’s history was murdered for the faith. Countless thousands shed their blood in witness to their love for Christ. To this day, the Colosseum and the catacombs are proofs in stone to the faith which was stronger than death and monuments to the sanctity of those who took Jesus literally when He told them to “become perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Understandably, therefore, the Sacrament of Confession was not so frequently received by persons whose lives were a living martyrdom. Yet, even in the early Church, sinners were reconciled after they had confessed their sins, received absolution and performed what to us must seem like extraordinary penance for the wrong they had done.
The emphasis in those days was on confessing mortal sins. And there were Bishops who had to be reproved by the Pope for excessive severity, either in demanding public confession of grave crimes or even refusing to give absolution for such sins as apostasy, adultery, fornication, or willful murder.
One document issued by Pope Saint Leo the Great in the middle of the fifth century, deserves to be quoted in full. He is writing to the Bishops of Campania in Italy, reproving them for demanding a public confession of sins before receiving absolution in the Sacrament of Penance.
I have recently heard that some have unlawfully presumed to act contrary to a rule of Apostolic origin. And I hereby decree that the unlawful practice be completely stopped.
It is with regard to the reception of Penance. An abuse has crept in which requires that the faithful write out their individual sins in a little book which is then to be read out loud to the public.
All that is necessary, however, is for the sinner to manifest his conscience in a secret confession to the priests alone …It is sufficient, therefore, to have first offered one’s confession to God, and then also to the priest, who acts as an intercessor for the transgressions of the penitents (Magna Indignatione, March 6, 459).
It is a matter of history, therefore, that private, individual confession of one’s sins to a priest goes back to apostolic times. Christ Himself prescribed confession in the Sacrament of Penance, and His directives were followed since the first century of the Christian era.
Church’s Infallible Teaching
Among the doctrines of revealed faith which the Church had to defend, was the precept of sacramental Confession.
The Protestant leaders in the sixteenth century rejected the Sacrament of Confession as of divine institution. And they especially reacted against the Catholic Church’s teaching about the need for telling one’s sins to a priest. As a result, the Council of Trent issued no less than fifteen solemn definitions on the Sacrament of Penance. Two of these deal specifically with the obligation to confess one’s sins to a priest. They are critically important in our ecumenical age. The following positions are declared as contrary to the Catholic Faith.
If anyone says that sacramental Confession was not instituted by divine law or that it is not necessary for salvation according to the same law; or if anyone says that the method which the Catholic Church has always observed from the beginning, and still observes, of confessing secretly to the priest alone is foreign to the institution and command of Christ, and that it is of human origin: let him be anathema.
If anyone says that, to obtain remission of sins in the Sacrament of Confession, it is not necessary according to divine law to confess each and every mortal sin that is remembered after proper and diligent examination, even secret sins, and sins against the last two Commandments, and those circumstances which chance the character of a sin …or finally that it is not permissible to confess venial sins: let him be anathema.
No apology is needed for these long quotations from the Church’s irreversible teaching on the sacramental confession of sins.
No Peace Without Forgiveness
Our purpose in this conference is not only to lay the foundations for our faith in the Sacrament of Penance. We are especially interested in understanding how this Sacrament provides us with such peace of soul as nothing else on earth can give. What are we saying? We are saying that the single most basic and universal source for worry or anxiety is the sense of guilt that, as sinners, we all naturally experience.
It was no coincidence that Jesus addressed the disciples with the imperative, “Peace be with you,” and repeated, “Peace be with you,” when He instituted the Sacrament of Penance. As every psychologist knows, the deepest source of a troubled mind is a guilty conscience.
The word “peace” is almost a theme of the Gospels. On Christmas morning, the angel told the shepherds that the birth of the Savior was the promise of, “Peace on earth to men of good will.” During His long discourse at the Last Supper, Jesus promised us, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you” (Jn 14:27). No wonder Christ is called the Prince of Peace.
No words can describe what only a Catholic believer can understand: what it means to be absolutely certain on revealed faith that I, a sinner, am once more in the friendship of God because I have received absolution in the Sacrament of Confession. This peace of soul is priceless. It is also irreplaceable. Only a person who is certain that his sins are forgiven can have true peace of soul. God became man to give us this precious gift of peace and the Sacrament He instituted on Easter Sunday night to give us repentant sinners this foretaste of Heaven here on earth.
It is a law of the Catholic Church that the Sacrament of Penance should be received on reaching the age of reason. First decreed by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, the law was confirmed by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century.
When the French Bishop Jansenius became a Calvinist, Jansenism deeply infected millions of Catholics. Jansenists were claiming that “there had been no Church for the last five hundred years.” Why not? Because reconciliation of sinners through the Sacrament of Penance was made available even to children who had just reached the age of reason. As the Jansenists read the practices of the early Church, only public penance was recognized, and only long and arduous works of satisfaction were accepted as necessary conditions for priestly absolution.
As Saint Vincent de Paul declared, many Catholics did not make their First Confession and First Holy Communion until their deathbed. It took some two hundred years for these erroneous ideas to be effectively challenged by Pope Saint Pius X. He literally reversed the trend set in motion by Jansenism and restored the custom that the Church had urged on the faithful for centuries: everyone should have access to Confession on reaching the age of reason, and then receive Holy Communion. Why? Because these two Sacraments are the most powerful means of grace given to the Church by Christ.
But errors do not die just because they are condemned by the Church. In our own day, the Holy See has had to remind the faithful that children should receive First Confession as early as possible, and always before First Communion. I have in my hands a forty-page article on First Confession that the Holy See told me to write and then send a copy to every priest in the United States. I think it is worth quoting the closing words of this article: “We do not consider it coercion to suggest and, if need be, insist that a child get a balanced diet of food or adequate sleep and clothing. No parent believes he is unduly tampering with a child’s liberty by sending it (perhaps reluctantly) to school. A Catholic cannot afford to follow a double standard where the spiritual needs of God’s children are concerned. After all, they belong to Him.”
How this needs to be preached from the housetops! Children should have access to the Sacrament of Peace as soon as they reach the age of discretion. When our Lord told His disciples, “Let the little children come to me,” He was inviting them to confess their little failings and receive from Him the grace that only He can give those who tell Him they are sorry for having offended His loving Heart.
Judging by the drastic drop in confessions in countries like the United States, the erroneous opinion is gaining ground that Confession is not to be received, or made, frequently. There are dioceses in which general absolution is widespread. Books in theology, ostensibly Catholic, are telling the people that confession in the Sacrament of Penance is a rarity. I do not hesitate to say that the two principal causes of the massive breakdown of the Catholic Church in Western countries are the loss of faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the corresponding loss of faith in the value of sacramental Confession.
What is frequent confession? In the mind of the Church, frequent confession is at least every two weeks. We know this from the Church’s legislation on gaining a plenary indulgence. This requires receiving Holy Communion and going to Confession within eight days before or after the prayer or good work, which carries a plenary indulgence, is performed. (In January 2000, the Apostolic Penitentiary established that the time is now “about 20” days instead of eight days.)
In the present century, two Bishops of Rome have written extensively and urgently in favor of frequent confession. Suppose we summarize their teaching.
First, by the frequent and reverent reception of this Sacrament we make more perfect the justification we first received in Baptism. What does this mean? It means that every Sacrament of Confession enables us to become more and more sinless. Christ thereby exercises His saving redemption on our souls by cleansing us more and more and thus preparing us better and better for that Kingdom of Glory where nothing undefiled can enter and where only the sinless have a claim to enjoy the vision of the all-holy God. And who in his right mind would claim he or she is already sinless?
Second, by the frequent and reverent reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we become more conformed to Jesus Christ. We become more like Him in the power to practice the virtues that characterized His visible life on earth. What virtues are they? We become more humble and better able to conquer our foolish but stubborn pride. And the very humiliation of telling our sins to another sinner is God’s way of telling us, “If you confess, I will make you more humble.” We become more patient in bearing with pain and enduring the people that God puts into our lives. Sometimes I think pain should have a masculine and feminine gender. Most of our suffering, most of the difficulties and problems and tribulations that we have to endure on earth, if your lives are like mine, come from other people. And of course, we pay them the favor of being corresponding graces of tribulation in their lives. Through this Sacrament we become more conformed to Jesus by becoming more prayerful in greater awareness of God’s majesty and, therefore, our need to pay attention to God, and in greater awareness of our weakness and constant need for assistance from the Lord. This is one place where Jesus did not have to pray to overcome His sinful tendencies, yet He prayed to inspire us to pray and we surely, unlike Him, have sinful tendencies. Above all we become more loving in giving and giving and giving ourselves according to the divine will even as Jesus kept giving Himself to the will of His Father even to the last drop of His blood.
Finally, by the frequent and reverent reception of the Sacrament of Penance, we become more submissive to the voice of the Spirit dwelling in the depths of our hearts. This Spirit, of course, is always speaking to us, but we are not always listening to Him. We are so busy with so many things, so preoccupied with ourselves, our interests and concerns, that He is often not only the unseen but, I am afraid, the unappreciated Guest in our souls. As John the Baptist said of the Savior to his contemporaries, “There is one in our midst whom we know not.” And if we are going to be submissive to this Spirit of God the first condition is that we are aware that there is a Spirit, that He has a voice and that He is talking. You do not listen to silence. And this is divine speech.
The Spirit of God wants nothing more than for us to pay attention to Him. Pay Him the courtesy, if you will, of recognizing that He is within us. The Spirit of God wants us to thank Him for all the good things He has given us. He wants us to keep asking Him. That is why He keeps creating problems. Those are divine signals. Did you know that? They are divine shouts. “Listen to Me. Thanks. Thanks for at least looking at Me. And except for the pain or the sorrow or the trial or the temptation, knowing you,” He tells us, “you would not even bother thinking of Me. Thanks! Now that you are awake, listen!” So we rub our eyes and say, “Yes, Lord.”
But mainly the Holy Spirit wants us to be submissive to His will whether this be obedience to His commands when He tells us, “Do this” or “Do not do that,” or when He gently invites us to do something more than we have to under penalty of sin, when He just whispers, “Would you mind doing this?” or “Would you mind avoiding that? Not because you have to, but because I would like you to show that you love Me.” All of this, and far more than human speech can describe, is available to us, so the Church of God tells us, by our frequent and reverent reception of the Sacrament of Christ’s Peace.
Copyright © 2003 by Inter Mirifica. Used with permission.