Sacrament of Penance is a gift to the Church Print
Year of Faith
Thursday, Jul. 18, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

By Abbot Marcel Rooney, OSB

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This is the first in a series of articles examining the theology and spirituality of the Sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation.


The Gospels bring out clearly that Jesus wanted to give authority regarding sin to His Church.

One example will suffice — John 20:21-23: “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.”

Interested in learning more about the Mass?

Abbot Marcel Rooney's DVD series, “Reflections on Holy Mass” may be ordered through the Orate Institute of Sacred Liturgy, Music, and Art via the institute’s Web site at or by phone at 608-203-6735.

Proof of the sacrament of confession in Scripture

This text (as well as a text such as Matthew 18:15-18) shows that Jesus wanted to give a judicial role to the Church, as well as legislative power — to make rules and thus interpret the Law of God.

But what a gift to the Church! To have the means by which our sins can be forgiven, this is a gift indeed!

The many different names of the sacrament

The Catechism of the Catholic Church mentions different names for this sacrament (No. 1423). Each of the names highlight a different aspect of the sacrament.

Thus, it is sometimes called “the sacrament of conversion” —since it makes present Jesus’ call to conversion, but also manifests the first step back to God, when one has turned away in sin.

It is also called “the sacrament of confession” — and this in two senses: (1) confessing our sins to a priest is essential for the sacrament to take place; (2) confessing, or proclaiming, the wonderful mercy of God that is available here.

Another aspect is brought out when we call it the “sacrament of forgiveness,” since, after we have confessed them with a sincere heart, by the priest’s absolution, our sins are truly forgiven.

Because of this latter fact, the sacrament also is sometimes called “the sacrament of reconciliation,” since it reconciles us to God after we have ruptured our relationship with Him by sin.

Means of doing penance

There are many ways in which one can do penance in life, and thus have one’s sins forgiven. The ancient Church depended on three — and these influenced many of the texts that entered the liturgy for the season of Lent. Those three are: prayer, fasting, almsgiving/charity (Cf. also, Catechism No. 1434).

But for serious sin, the Church has always urged and required the use of the sacrament itself.

Requirements for forgiveness of sins

To celebrate the Sacrament of Penance, three acts are required of the person desiring that their sins be forgiven:

(1) Contrition: Whether it comes from the fear of damnation because of our sin (this is sometimes called “imperfect contrition”), or from an intense love for God because we recognize that our sin is an offense against this God Who has loved us so much that He sent His Son to die for us and our salvation (this is sometimes called “perfect contrition”). The spirit of contrition means that we are truly turning back to God, from Whom we have strayed by our sin.

(2) Confession: The Church requires the penitent to state aloud all mortal sins to a priest in this sacrament (at least once a year per the Council of Trent). It also recommends presenting to the priest lesser sins, as such forthright admission can help in forming our conscience, in fighting temptations and the tendency to sin, and in helping us open up to the Holy Spirit, Who will grace us with the gift of holiness if we really desire it.

(3) Satisfaction: This is also called a “penance,” imposed by the priest celebrating the sacrament with the penitent. The point of this satisfaction is not to “make up for” the sins we have committed, as if we could “equalize God’s ledger,” with our sins in one column and our penances in the other column. No, the point of the satisfaction is to reorient us to being what we should be all the time. It is an expression of our conversion to the Lord. Doing penances means showing love for God, or such action is worthless.

Difficulties understanding the sacrament

Catechesis for this important and wonderful sacrament is badly needed today.

Many folks grew up with a very legalistic view of sin, but came to sense that somehow the sacrament was not answering the deepest needs of their souls for reconciliation with God.

Further, we have a hard time owning up to sin, admitting honestly when we have done wrong.

This is endemic in public figures and politicians: they never say, “I lied. . . told a baldface lie. . .” but rather prefer to say, “I misspoke. . .” This attitude touches us Catholics also, as we find it hard to own up to our real sins. We prefer to “forget about it” and brush off our real responsibility for our actions.

Catechesis is needed

Other factors enter into the problem we have today with this sacrament, but these illustrate why many are feeling that the sacrament simply doesn’t answer the deepest need of their souls for union with God and a sense of real forgiveness for real faults committed.

Hence, there is need for a new and profound catechesis to address the situation of people longing for God, but impeded from reaching Him.

“I confessed to you that I had sinned, no longer concealing my guilt; I said, I will go to God and confess my fault.” And you have forgiven the wrong I did, you have pardoned all my sin” (Psalm 32:5).

Abbot Marcel Rooney, O.S.B., is president of the Orate Institute of Sacred Liturgy, Music and Art, resident in the Madison Diocese. The Institute is devoted to helping people understand more and pray better the sacred liturgy.