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Sacrament of Penance - Reconciliation

drawing by Helen Hull Hitchcock ©

Wednesday, 19 February 2014
Dear Brothers and Sisters: Through the Sacraments of Initiation, we receive new life in Christ. This life we carry in earthen vessels, however, and we still experience temptations, suffering, and death. Because of sin, we can even lose this new life. Jesus therefore willed that the Church continue his works of salvation for her members, in particular through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which flows from the Paschal Mystery. The forgiveness we receive is not the result of our own efforts, but is the gift of the Holy Spirit reconciling us to God and to each other. While the celebration of the Sacrament is personal, it is rooted in the community of the Church, in which the Holy Spirit is present, uniting us all in Jesus Christ. When confessing our sins then, we confess to the priest who represents not only God but also the community of the Church that accompanies us on the path of conversion. Though this Sacrament is a great treasure, we may be tempted to dismiss it, perphaps due to laziness or embarassment, or because of a diminishing sense of sin and its effects. Too often, we see ourselves as the centre and measure of all things, and our lives can go adrift. The Sacrament of Reconciliation calls us back to God, and embraces us with his infinite mercy and joy. May we allow his love to renew us as his children and to reconcile us with him, with ourselves, and with one another.

Pope Benedict XVI

"To live life to the full in freedom we must overcome the test that this freedom entails, that is, temptation. Only if he is freed from the slavery of falsehood and sin can the human person, through the obedience of faith that opens him to the truth, find the full meaning of his life and attain peace, love, and joy."

Angelus March 5, 2006

"In order to respond to the call of God and start on our journey, it is not necessary to be already perfect. We know that the prodigal son's awareness of his own sin allowed him to set out on his return journey and thus feel the joy of reconciliation with the Father. Weaknesses and human limitations do not present an obstacle, as long as they help make us more aware of the fact that we are in need of the redeeming grace of Christ."

Message for the 43rd World Day of Prayers for Vocations
March 30, 2006

Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight, and I am no more worthy to be called your son.
­ Luke 15:21

For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.
­ Romans 3:23-25

Jesus said, "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No man cometh unto the Father but by me."
­ John 14:6

In [Jesus Christ] we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins.
­ Colossians 1:14

Then Jesus said to [His apostles], "Peace be unto you; as my Father has sent me, even so send I you. And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them: "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose soever sins you remit, they are remitted, and whose soever sins you retain, they are retained".
­ John 20:12, 22-23

The Sacrament of Penance

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "The forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism is conferred by a particular sacrament, called the sacrament of conversion, confession, penance, or reconciliation." (CCC 1486)

At the beginning of the chapter on the Sacrament of Penance, the Catechism quotes Lumen Gentium [Light of the World], the Second Vatican Council's document on the Church in the world:

"Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from God's mercy for the offense committed against Him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example, and by prayer, labors for their conversion." (Lumen Gentium 11.2)

The Catechism explains, "To return to communion with God after having lost it through sin is a process born of the grace of God, who is rich in mercy and solicitous for the salvation of men. One must ask for this precious gift for oneself and for others.

"The movement of return to God, called conversion and repentance, entails sorrow for and abhorrence of sins committed, and the firm purpose of sinning no more in the future. Conversion touches the past and the future, and is nourished by hope in God's mercy." (CCC 1489-90)

In 1966, Pope Paul VI issued an Apostolic Constitution on Penance, Paenitemini, a high-level document on the importance of the sacrament. "By first of all examining more thoroughly the link which binds it to Christ and His salvific action, [the Council] has underlined more clearly how all its members are called upon to participate in the work of Christ and therefore to participate also in His expiation", he wrote.

The Ritual of Confession
The Sacrament of Penance is a liturgical action instituted by the Church for the reconciliation of sinners to communion with God and with the Church. Catholics are obliged to go to confession to receive the sacrament of penance at least once a year -- usually during the Easter season (it used to be called "Easter duty") -- or whenever they are conscious of serious sin. Receiving this sacrament is encouraged at other times, as a means of restoring full unity with God and His Church, and for spiritual growth.

The sacrament consists basically of four acts of the penitent and the priest:

Contrition: First the penitent (the repentant sinner -- the root word in "penitentiary"), must be aware of his sinfulness and must be truly sorry (contrite) for his sins. Another word for repentance is "contrition". He must repent his sins, and seek the sacrament of penance -- that is, to go to confession to a priest.

Confession: The penitent confesses to a priest all the sins he can recall -- after examining his conscience -- that he has not confessed before. The confession is entirely private -- the priest-confessor never reveals anything the penitent confesses. Traditionally confession takes place in the "confessional", a small room where the priest and penitent are separated by a screen to assure complete privacy and anonymity. It is also permissible, if both the priest and penitent agree, to administer and receive the sacrament of penance "face to face" in another room in the church reserved for this purpose. The sacrament can take place elsewhere, in an emergency.

Act of Penance: The priest-confessor proposes certain actions -- penance -- for the penitent to perform. This may be saying certain prayers and/or performing some other fitting action. The person who performs this penance thus shows his sorrow for his sinful acts. This helps him to overcome his faults, and the harm his sins have caused others -- to be reconciled with them and with the Church, and to return to behavior consistent with being a disciple of Christ.

Absolution: After the penitent accepts the acts of penance, the priest, by the authority that the Church has given him (see the quote from John 20:22, 23 above), absolves the sinner; that is, he grants God's pardon for the sins.

Structure of Confession/ Absolution Rite
The normal practice for administration of the Sacrament of Penance is in private -- with only the penitent and the priest present. On occasion, as during penitential seasons, a parish may hold a "communal penance service", where the congregation may pray and reflect together with the priest before each person individually goes to confession. (Only in extreme cases of emergency, such as on a battlefield, may a priest give "general absolution" to all at the same time; and that with the stipulation that the individual penitents go to confession individually as soon as possible.)

To begin, the penitent kneels and, by custom, says: "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned", and may add, "It has been [time] since my last confession." The priest greets the penitent. Then crossing himself, the penitent says "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" and begins his confession.

The priest may help the penitent with an examination of conscience, perhaps by asking questions. During the confession, the priest may read Scripture passages and offer spiritual counsel.

After hearing the confession, the priest assigns a penance, and the penitent accepts the penance with the following prayer:

Act of Contrition (click here for Spanish Version)
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee, and I detest all my sins because of thy just punishment, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Actus contritionis (Latin)
Deus meus, ex toto corde pænitet me ómnium meórum peccatórum, éaque detéstor, quia peccándo, non solum pœnas a te iuste statútas proméritus sum, sed præsértim quia offéndi te, summum bonum, ac dignum qui super ómnia diligáris. Ídeo fírmiter propóno, adiuvánte grátia tua, de cétero me non peccatúrum peccandíque occasiónes próximas fugitúrum. Amen.

(See also Act of Contrition prayer card page.)

The priest then extends his hands in blessing over the penitent, and prays the prayer of absolution:

Prayer of Absolution
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 give you pardon and peace,
and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Acto de Contrición

Señor mío, Jesucristo, Dios y Hombre verdadero, Creador, Padre y Redentor mío; por ser tú quien eres, bondad infinita, y porque te amo sobre todas las cosas, me pesa de todo corazón haberte ofendido; también me pe sa porque puedes castigarme con las penas del infierno.

Te ofrezco mis sufrimientos como expiación de mis pecados, propongo confesarme y cumplir la
penitencia que me sea impuesta; ayudado de tu gracia propongo firmamente no pecar más y evitar las ocasiones próximas de pecado. + En el nombre del Padre, del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo. Amén.

(See First Communion page for more information on first confession. See Fast and Abstinence page for this form of penance.)

Catechism of the Catholic Church Article 4 - The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation §1420-1498
The Rites of the Catholic Church, Vol I - Rite of Penance p 517ff.

Illustration: The Prodigal Son - Helen Hull Hitchcock, pencil drawing

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Press Release from


Feb 2nd 2004


An initiative to encourage Catholic children to understand about the Sacrament of Reconciliation is launched this week by a leading Catholic women's group.

The Association of Catholic Women is inviting children to take part in a nationwide project: "Confession ­ why we go".

A leaflet sent to Catholic primary schools says: "The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a most beautiful Sacrament, through which our sins are forgiven. Imagine that a friend has asked you: "Why do Catholics go to confession? Please tell me about it". Write to them explaining what we believe about this Sacrament."

The Association brings together Catholic women from all walks of life, and includes many teachers, parish catechists, and people involved with preparing children and young people for First Communion and Confirmation. .

"The task of passing on the Faith belongs to all of us, and teachers in the classroom deserve our support and encouragement" said ACW chairman Mrs Josephine Robinson, herself a children's liturgist "The aim of this project is to send a positive message about the love and mercy of God, and enable children to express this in their own words, so that it becomes something they can really understand and appreciate."

In the project, children are encouraged to think and write about occasions when Christ forgave people's sins, and the power that he gave to the Apostles to continue this work. The idea is to present the message of forgiveness in a positive and encouraging way, so that children can learn "how beautiful it is that we can have our sins forgiven, so that we can grow closer to God while we are here on earth, and look forward to being happy for ever in Heaven."

The writer of the best essay will receive an engraved cup and a prize. Any school that has not received a copy of the brochure should contact ACW, 22 Surbiton Hill Rd Surbiton KT5 8ET England.

Information submitted to us by Joanna Bogle.

Related articles, documents:

Hall of Blessings
Friday, 25 March 2011

Dear Friends,

I am very glad to address to each one of you my most cordial welcome. I greet Cardinal Fortunato Baldelli, Major Penitentiary, and I thank him for his courteous words. I greet Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, Regent of the Penitentiary, the personnel, the co-workers and all the participants in the Course on the Internal Forum which has now become a traditional appointment and an important occasion for deepening the knowledge of topics linked to the sacrament of Penance. I would like to reflect with you on an aspect not sufficiently thought about but which is of great spiritual and pastoral importance: the pedagogical value of Sacramental Confession.

Although it is true that it is always necessary to safeguard the objectivity of the effects of the sacrament and its correct celebration in accordance with the norms of the Rite of Penance, it is not out of place to reflect on how much it can educate the faith of both the minister and the penitent. The faithful and generous availability of priests to hear confessions — after the example of the great saints of the past from St John Mary Vianney to St John Bosco, from St Josemaría Escrivá to St Pius of Pietrelcina, from St Joseph Cafasso to St Leopold Mandi? — shows all of us that the confessional may be a real “place” of sanctification.

How does the sacrament of Penance educate? In what sense does its celebration have pedagogical value, especially for ministers? We may start by recognizing that the mission of priests is a unique and privileged observation point, from which it is daily granted to contemplate the splendour of divine Mercy. How often in celebrating the sacrament of Penance the priest witnesses real miracles of conversion which, in renewing “the encounter with an event, a person” (Deus Caritas Est, n. 1), reinforces his own faith!

Basically, hearing confession means witnessing as many professiones fidei as there are penitents, and contemplating the merciful God’s action in history, feeling tangibly the saving effects of the Cross and of the Resurrection of Christ, in every epoch and for every person.

We are often faced with true and proper existential and spiritual dramas that find no answer in human words but are embraced and taken up by divine Love, which pardons and transforms: “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow (Is 1:18).

If, on the one hand knowing and, in a certain way, visiting the depths of the human heart, even its darkest aspects, tests the humanity and the faith of the priest himself, on the other, it fosters within him the certainty that it is God who has the last word over human evil and history, it is his Mercy which can make all things new (cf. Rev 21:5).

Then, how much the priest can learn from exemplary penitents: through their spiritual life, the seriousness with which they carry out their examination of conscience, the transparency with which they admit their sins and their docility to the Church’s teaching and to the confessor’s instructions.

From the administration of the sacrament of Penance we may draw profound lessons of humility and faith! It is a very strong appeal to each priest for knowledge of his own identity. We will never be able to hear the confessions of our brothers and sisters solely by virtue of our humanity! If they approach us, it is only because we are priests, configured to Christ the Eternal High Priest, and enabled to act in his Name and in his Person, to make God who forgives, renews and transforms, truly present. The celebration of the sacrament of Penance has a pedagogical value for the priest, as regards his faith, as well as the truth and poverty of his person, and nourishes within him an awareness of the sacramental identity.

What is the pedagogical value of the sacrament of Penance for penitents? We should state beforehand that first and foremost it depends on the action of Grace and on the objective effect on the soul of the member of the faithful. Of course, sacramental Reconciliation is one of the moments in which personal freedom and an awareness of self need to be expressed particularly clearly. It is perhaps also for this reason, in an epoch of relativism and of the consequent attenuated awareness of one’s being, that this sacramental practice is also weakened.

Examination of conscience has an important pedagogical value. It teaches us how to look squarely at our life, to compare it with the truth of the Gospel and to evaluate it with parameters that are not only human but are also borrowed from divine Revelation. Comparison with the Commandments, with the Beatitudes and, especially, with the Precept of love, constitutes the first great “school of penance”.

In our time, marked by noise, distraction and loneliness, the penitent’s conversation with the confessor can be one of the few — if not the only — opportunities to be truly heard in depth.

Dear priests, do not neglect to allow enough room for the exercise of the ministry of Penance in the confessional: to be welcomed and heard is also a human sign of God’s welcoming kindness to his children.

Moreover the integral confession of sins teaches the penitent humility, recognition of his or her own frailty and, at the same time, an awareness of the need for God’s forgiveness and the trust that divine Grace can transform his life. Likewise, listening to the confessor’s recommendations and advice is important for judging actions, for the spiritual journey and for the inner healing of the penitent.

Let us not forget how many conversions and how many truly holy lives began in a confessional! The acceptance of the penance and listening to the words “I absolve you from your sins”, are, lastly, a true school of love and hope that guides the person to full trust in the God Love, revealed in Jesus Christ, to responsibility and to the commitment to continuous conversion.

Dear priests, our own prior experience of divine Mercy and of being humble instruments teaches us an ever more faithful celebration of the Sacrament of Penance and profound gratitude to God who “gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18).

I entrust to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mater misericordiae and Refugium peccatorum, the fruits of your Course on the Internal Forum and the ministry of all Confessors, as I bless you all with great affection.

© Copyright 2011 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

First Confession and First Communion: Documents from the Holy See clarifying the obligation of administering First Confession before First Communion to end errors and abuses of sacramental discipline. (dated 1910-2004)

Presentation of the Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II in the Form of Motu Proprio, Misericordia Dei, (The Mercy of God). Intervention by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Thursday, May 2, 2002

Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II in the Form of Motu Proprio, Misericordia Dei, On Certain Aspects of the Celebration of the Sacrament of Penance, April 7, 2002

Little Catechism on Confession  -- Diocese of Lincoln, Pentecost 2001 Voices 

On the Integrity of the Sacrament of Penance, Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, March 20, 2000 -- Summer 2000 Voices

First Confession and First Communion by John Cardinal Wright, Congregation for the Clergy, December 7, 1980 (lVatican website)

PAENITENTIAM AGERE, Encyclical of Pope John XXIII on the Need for the Practice of Interior and Exterior Penance, JULY 1, 1962 (Vatican Website)

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