Ecclesiastical Year for Catholic Schools - Andreas Petz


The Sacrament of Penance

1. The Sacrament of Penance was given us by Christ in order to obtain remission of sins committed after Baptism; whoever receives this Sacrament frequently, will find an excellent means of rooting out sin and implanting virtue in the heart. In the first centuries of the Church a private and a public confession was customary. When the Christian had confessed his sins privately, the priest could oblige him to make a public confession of some of his sins; but only such as were publicly committed. By this public confession he was to do penance and repair the scandal given. Secret hidden sins dare not be publicly confessed. In the course of time, public penance was abolished and public confession also ceased.

2. The visible sign established by Christ, which constitutes the matter of the Sacrament of Penance, is the contrite confession of sins, and the absolution pronounced by the priest, is the form.

3. The effects of this Sacrament are very consoling.

a) All sins, without exception, can be forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance, if the penitent is heartily sorry and makes a good confession.

b) The eternal punishment due to sin is remitted, and the temporal in part. The greater the penitent's sorrow, and his desire to do penance, the more readily will the temporal punishment due to sin be remitted.

c) Sanctifying grace which has been lost by mortal sin returns to the soul, and all the merits of good works performed previous to committing mortal sin revive again. He who has only venial sins to confess receives an increase of sanctifying grace in the Sacrament of Penance.

d) The grace assistance is also received in Confession; the penitent receives strength to overcome temptation and to continue in the practice of virtue.

4. But to experience these effects, the penitent must prepare himself properly, so that he may go to confession with befitting sentiments of contrition and make a good confession. He should therefore first implore the assistance of the Holy Ghost, sincerely examine his conscience, and especially excite in his heart true contrition for his sins; make a firm resolution of amendment, and avoid the occasions of sin for the future. Then go to confession and candidly confess his sin without reserve, obey the instructions of the priest and faithfully perform the penance imposed.

Rite of the Sacrament of Penance

1. In administering the Sacrament of Penance, the priest is vested with a surplice and purple stole, to remind the faithful that he is the ambassador of God, endowed with supernatural power to dispense this Sacrament. The priests sits, to show his judicial authority. The violet color denotes the penitential spirit, without which no remission of sin is possible.

2. The priest receives the penitent on his entrance into the confessional with the benediction: "May the Lord be in thy heart and on thy lips, that thou mayest truly and humbly confess thy sins in the he name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen." The priest prays thereby, that the penitent may have the grace to make a good and contrite confession. This is a short summary of the prayers, which the priest formerly prayed before confession for the penitent. He makes the sign of the Cross at the same time over the penitent, who also blesses himself. This sign here has besides the general significance of a blessing, also the special meaning, that the forgiveness of sin can only be obtained through the merits of Jesus Crucified.

3. The penitent then confesses his sins kneeling, for this is the posture proper for an humble contrite sinner. Then he listens attentively to the advice and instruction of the priest, answers his questions humbly and candidly, is careful to notice the penance, then makes an act of contrition while the priest gives the absolution.

4. The absolution itself consists of three parts:

a) The usual absolution, the same as the priest prays before giving Communion to the Faithful, but while he there uses the plural, here he uses the singular number,

"May the Almighty God have mercy on thee, forgive thee thy sins, and bring thee to life everlasting, Amen."

"May the Almighty and merciful Lord grant thee pardon, absolution and remission of thy sins, Amen."

b) Then follows the remission of the canonical censure.

"May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve thee, and I, in His stead, release thee from all ban of excommunication and interdict, so far as I may, and so far as required by thee."

c) Then finally the Absolution proper,

"I absolve thee from thy sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen."

5. This formula of absolution is a summary of the ancient practice customary in the early Church. As at that time a double confession was customary (a secret and an open confession) so a double absolution was in use. After a secret confession, absolution was given with the imposition of hands; the penitent received thereby, remission of his sins and was readmitted into communion with God. After public confession, canonical penance was imposed to atone for the temporal punishment due to sin. After the public penance had been performed, a form of absolution was again given, by which the penitent was freed from all sin and punishment of sin, and once more received into full communion with the Church. This act was called reconciliation.

When public confession and canonical penance ceased, these two kinds of absolution were epitomized into the form now in use.

The first part, the absolution, reminds us of that absolution given after secret confession. As the priest then placed his hands on the penitent so the confessor now raises his right hand as a sign that he has power, as God's representative, to remit sin.

The second part, the remission of the canonical censure, is a reminder of the second absolution or reconciliation, after the public penance had been performed. It is now more of a reconciliation and reunion with the Church, and is imparted before the absolution proper. The penitent enters at once into the full enjoyment of all the means of grace in the Church; the remission of temporal punishment due to sin is left to his own zeal in making use of the treasure of indulgences.

The third part contains the absolution proper, by which the efficacy of the Sacrament, the forgiveness of sin takes place.

6. After the absolution, the priest says a special prayer, asking that the penitent now freed from sin by the Passion of Christ, through the merits of the Blessed Virgin, by his own good works and sufferings, may obtain remission of temporal punishment, an increase of grace, and a special reward in Heaven.

By an indulgence is meant the remission of the temporal punishment due to us on account of our sins. Every sin, however grievous, is remitted through the Sacrament of Penance, or by an act of perfect contrition, as regards its guilt and the eternal punishment due to it. But the debt of temporal punishment is not always remitted at the same time. This latter is done away with by deep penitence, or by works of satisfaction, e. g. prayers, alms, fasting, etc.

To gain an indulgence it is necessary to be in a state of grace, otherwise good works can only conduce to the conversion of him who performs them, and are valueless for the remission of temporal punishment.

The Church grants indulgences for the recital of certain prayers, for visiting certain holy places, for the use of certain sacred things, besides personal indulgences.

An indulgence is either plenary, when a full and entire remission of all  temporal punishment due to sin is gained, or partial, when only a portion  of the temporal punishment is remitted.

Plenary indulgences are granted by the Church, provided that we approach the sacraments and pray for the Holy Father's intention besides performing the prescribed works; sometimes the condition of visiting a church is added.

The most important plenary indulgences are the Jubilee indulgence, the indulgence of the Portiuncula, and that of the Papal benediction.