What is the sacrament of Penance?
...Because we don't often celebrate the sacrament, our understanding of the theology that underpins it has diminished. What a pity! ...
...Every repented sin (mortal and venial) can be forgiven when we receive the sacrament of reconciliation...
The current generation of Australian Catholics don't really go to Reconciliation...much. Perhaps you may attend a 'second rite' Reconciliation in your parish during Advent or Lent, but the days of many in the parish attending Confession before celebrating Eucharist are far behind us. Because we don't often celebrate the sacrament, our understanding of the theology that underpins it has diminished. What a pity! Pope Francis has continually reminded us of God's mercy - something that we experience intimately when we celebrate this sacrament.
Penance, Confession or Reconciliation?
Catholics seem to use these terms interchangeably, but since Vatican II, the best word to us is 'Reconciliation' as it reveals our intention: through the sacrament we ask to be reconciled with God and others. (You can read a further explanation of what each word means in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1423-1425). Formally, it is the 'Sacrament of Penance' and the 'Rite of Reconciliation.'
When should I go to confession?
The Easter Story reveals humanity at our worst. We witness Jesus suffering from the sins of others: he is beaten, tortured, humiliated and finally murdered. The story does not end with Jesus’ death though. Jesus forgives those who sinned against him and rises bodily into heaven. With Baptism, we are welcomed into the Christian community, with the promise of life with God after death. Why? Because we are loved by God. When we do wrong or ignore God calling us to goodness, we rupture our relationship with God and others. Christians have spent much time categorising and naming sin. What is important is God’s mercy and forgiveness is always available to us as we try to repair these relationships. We hear about God’s mercy and forgiveness each time we celebrate Eucharist, because in essence, each time we gather, we celebrate the Easter story and are reminded our baptismal promise of life with God. There are many ways to repent and ask God’s forgiveness.
“The people of God accomplish and perfect this continual repentance in many different ways. They share in the sufferings of Christ by enduring their own difficulties, carry out works of mercy and charity, and adopt ever more fully the outlook of the Gospel message”.
(Rite of Penance 2.4).
In the Sacrament of Penance, we ask God’s forgiveness in a particular way. We acknowledge that our relationships have been ruptured and we seek to actively make amends and seek forgiveness from God and if possible, from those we have harmed.
‘Mercy’ is an act of compassion or forgiveness towards someone who is deserving of punishment. Pope Francis has spent much of his papacy helping us to understand God’s infinite mercy for us. He has spoken about the Church being a ‘field hospital’, ‘a welcoming place taking in the wounded and serving them, ministering to them, not a place of judgment and condemnation’. (Pope Francis, ‘The Name of God is Mercy’).
I don't see a confessional box like you do on TV at my local church. Where should I confess?
When travelling, you may still see a confessional box like you do on television. However, here in Australia, the first rite of the sacrament is generally received in a small room off the main church called a 'Reconciliation Chapel'. Most chapels will provide a choice for the penitent to receive the sacrament sitting facing the priest, or kneeling (perhaps behind a small screen or curtain). Read more.
What actually happens during the sacrament?
It depends which rite of the sacrament you are receiving. If you are receiving the first rite, you will enter the reconciliation chapel with a priest. You will begin with the sign of the cross and then make your confession. The priest may ask you some questions about your confession. He will then ask you to pray the Act of Contrition and absolve you of your sins. You can read more about what happens here. The other rites are celebrated in the main church.
You can read the entire Rite of Reconciliation here.
What does it take for me to be forgiven? How does penance work?
Very rarely a priest is not able to offer absolution. There are three reasons for this: (1) the person has not committed any sin, (2) the person who has committed the sin is really not sorry for the sin or, (3) the person intends to continue sinning in the same way. Read more.
If the person is absolved by the priest, a 'penance' will be given. This is usually a prayer or reflection or an action that helps the absolution, such as returning stolen property. Read more.
James Robinson, Education Officer Liturgy Brisbane
Additional resources and films about Reconciliation: