In the Nov. 9 issue of The Dialog, I presented an outline of the basic concepts of the sacrament of penance. In this issue, I want to pick up with what happens after the sacrament of penance is completed and then make note of other considerations about this sacrament.
Even after the sins of the penitent are forgiven and absolved in the sacrament of penance, there is also what the church calls temporal punishment due for sin. You see, sins have consequences. They separate us from God and his church. That is what confession fixes, but a person’s sins have had ramifications beyond just that person. This means that although a person’s sins are forgiven, that person has committed sins which hurt the world and hurt Christ; they are the pains Christ suffered for us and there are human consequences for those sins.
This is kind of like the kid who hits a baseball through the neighbor’s window. The kid goes over to the neighbor’s house, he confesses what he did, and the neighbor forgives him. But you know what? The window is still broken and needs to be fixed. That broken window, like the effects of our sin, requires some form of fixing or restitution. In “churchy” language, we refer to this required restitution as “temporal punishment due for sin.” More accurately, it is actually taking the place of the temporal punishment due for sin. And by the grace of God, this can be fixed. The damage done by our sins can be wiped away, in a mystical divine manner, by what we call “indulgences.” Indulgences are generous gifts of God’s grace that are gained by certain good actions, like charitable acts, prayers or reading the Bible. These good actions wipe away some or all of that due punishment. It is kind of like time-off for good behavior.
These good acts earn an indulgence (a grant of God’s grace) given by God and made known by the church. The grace from the indulgences are like a wellspring built up over the ages from the superfluous good works of Mary and the saints, a wellspring that we dip into when we receive indulgences. That is why for Catholics we emphasize both faith and works — faith in God who works in the sacraments and good works that continue to strengthen us and make us better Christians.
Now, I should add, that over the history of the church, the idea of indulgences got a black eye from a misunderstanding of what they were as well as from superstitious and disreputable practices surrounding them. Don’t let that dissuade you from the doctrinal truth of the church which definitively holds that indulgences of God’s grace, mediated through his church, are a gift of his goodness to us, a way to make things right, not just with God but with neighbor. I should note that your indulgences could also be applied to the poor souls in purgatory to help ease them on their way to heaven.
Don’t try this at home
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one specific matter concerning confession. Many people say that they don’t need to go to confession. They say, “It’s between me and God.” They say, “I have made my peace with God.” Well, isn’t that convenient? So, for example, the rapist or the murderer has made peace with God. What exactly was that peace? Did God tell him his actions were OK? Did God tell him to cut back a little?
The idea that “this is between me and God” is not only ill-conceived, it is simply wrong because no sin is truly personal. Sins affect others: they affect neighbors, they affect the church, they affect one’s relationship with others, they affect one’s relationship with God.
Thus, one needs to name his or her sins, and bring them to Christ in the sacrament of penance, and hear the words of absolution. The priest in the person and in the voice of Christ puts forth that absolution, that statement of forgiveness, reconciling the penitent to God and his holy church.
Before concluding this series on penance, I would like to focus on three specific areas that help us understand the sacrament with more clarity:
l Ways in which the sacrament is celebrated,
l Form and matter of the sacrament, and
l The question of the proper name of the sacrament.
Manners of celebration
There are three ways that the sacrament of penance may be celebrated. The first way is the most common: the individual penitent going to the priest for confession. The second way, which we often see done during Advent or Lent, is commonly called a “penance service.” This is a service in which many are gathered together for the penance, but prior to individual confessions, communal prayer, Scripture readings and hymns take place to ready the penitents for the sacrament. Finally, the third, and rarely used form, is commonly called general absolution. This manner of the sacrament is only done in cases of grave emergency, as determined by the bishop. In this case, the priest would be allowed to grant a general absolution to the faithful. However after the passing of the crisis, the penitents would have the affirmative obligation to go to confession and confess those sins brought to mind since their last Confession.
No priest has the authority to grant a general absolution without the declaration of proper circumstance from the bishop.
An example of where this was done was at the World Trade Center site on Sept. 11, 2001. The cardinal of the Archdiocese of New York, examining the circumstances, authorized his priests present in that crisis to grant general absolution. That is the kind of crisis that the church envisions to be present for the permission for general absolution to be granted.
Form and matter
Those who have been reading this column know that for each sacrament I make a point to identify what “form” and “matter” are necessary for a specific sacrament to be validly confected. For the sacrament of penance to be confected, the matter that is necessary is sin, confessed with contrition by a baptized Catholic. The form of the sacrament is speaking of the words of absolution by the priest over the penitent. Without that form and matter present, no sacrament of penance is confected.
The name game
Frequently we hear varying terms for this sacrament. Confession, reconciliation and penance are the most common of monikers. So, what is the actual name of this sacrament? Well, if we go by the heading of the section dedicated to this sacrament in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it is called “The Sacrament of Penance.” This designation is affirmed by the ritual text of the church for this sacrament, which is titled: “The Rite of Penance.”
However, once you open the ritual text or read through the next few paragraphs of the Catechism, you will see frequent references to “Rite for Reconciliation” or “the Sacrament of Reconciliation.” Peppered throughout those passages are multiple references to confession. So, what is this sacrament called?
Firstly, let me say that debating the name of this sacrament is far less important than availing yourself of it. Whatever the name you like to use for this sacrament, go to it and receive it. That being said, the primary name of the sacrament seems to be the sacrament of penance, however, the church itself uses the variant names of this sacrament.
Let’s be clear that all three of these names speak to constitutive elements of the sacrament: one with proper contrition makes a confession in order to seek reconciliation with God and his church, while the outward sign that one is asked to make as satisfaction for this reconciliation is called penance.
On the topic of the penance, let me conclude with these thoughts: If I’m wrong (and Christ and his church are wrong) about this entire concept of the necessity of going to be reconciled in confession, and you go to confession anyway, no harm, no foul. It can’t hurt. But if I’m right about all I am telling you, and you’re wrong, and you don’t go to confession, big troubles for you.
By simply erring on the side of charity and care for your soul, you should go to confession. It is good for the soul; it is good to avoid the loss of heaven and the pains of hell; it is good for your life; it is good for your conscience. It is good as setting an example, and it is a powerful way to help conform ourselves to Christ. The sacrament of penance is an outward sign, instituted by Christ to confer grace to us.
So I must confess, that I think that we should avail ourselves of it frequently.
Father Lentini is principal of St. Thomas More Academy in Magnolia.