Penance is a neglected sacrament in our church today. Few Catholics receive it. It was among the last sacramental rites to be revised after the Second Vatican Council and little catechesis accompanied its introduction. The Mass, with its changes in language and form, got most attention after the council. It seems to me that Penance needs to be better known and better celebrated.
Like the Mass, this sacrament has different names. It’s called the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Sacrament of Penance and also Confession. Each term describes something about it.
It’s called the Sacrament of Reconciliation because God shows us mercy here, a mercy that reconciles us to him and to our world. The prayer the priest prays after the penitent confesses sin explains the sacrament:
“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 grant you pardon and peace. I absolve you from your sin in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Reason can point to a God all-powerful and infinitely wise, but faith says God is “the Father of mercies.” God reveals himself as merciful in Jesus Christ who died and rose again from the dead. Appearing to his fearful disciples on Easter Sunday evening he said to them:
“’Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’” (John 20,19-23)
God is merciful and mercy brings “pardon and peace.” The mercy of God is a favorite theme Pope Francis stresses today in his preaching and ministry. It is a prominent theme in the recent Synod on the Family. We need to believe in it.
Besides the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the sacrament is called the Sacrament of Penance. To do penance is to try to heal the wounds and damage we have caused through what we have done or left undone in life. The penance given the penitent by the priest in confession is part of a life-long way of penance. We’re also part of a church that must be always penitential, a church always needing to be reformed.
The sacrament is called Confession because we look at ourselves in the light of God’s word and try to uncover and express what are our sins and how they prevent us from loving God and neighbor as we should.
Reconciliation, Penance, Confession. The simple steps taken in this sacrament are concrete expressions of these themes. We can confess individually, probably the most familiar way, or as part of a group. There are two ways for celebrating the sacrament in groups, one ending with individual absolution, the other with general absolution.
Briefly, individual confession before a priest can be done either kneeling or face to face. It begins with the Sign of the Cross, a sign of God’s blessing and God’s presence. Then there is a short reflection on God’s word so that we might know our sins and be encouraged to confess them to our God. This step should also take place in our preparation for confession.
We express our sins to the priest, receive a penance from him and pray that God forgive us.
The priest then declares the mercy of God and the grace of pardon and peace in the prayer mentioned above.
The sacrament concludes with an expression of thanksgiving to God, who is merciful.
A fuller treatment of the Sacrament of Penance can be found in The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, now free online.