The Sacrament of Penance (Reconciliation)
The sacrament of penance, commonly called confession or reconciliation, is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. It is the sacrament through which God forgives us of our sins and calls us closer to Him. While baptism cleanses us of the stain of original sin, we all commit actual sins throughout our lives. In His great love for us, God gives us confession so we can experience the total absolution of these sins.
Scriptural Basis of the Sacrament of Penance
Jesus instituted this sacrament very clearly to His Apostles after His resurrection, as recounted in the Gospel of John:
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:19-23).
In His ministry on Earth, Jesus frequently told His followers that He was forgiving their sins – this is one of the reasons He was met with opposition, as the explicit forgiveness of sins is something only God can do, and so Jesus’ actions were (quite rightly) placing Himself at the level of God. As Jesus prepared to leave the Earth and entrust His mission to the Church he was founding, through His Apostles, He needed to provide a means of bestowing this grace of forgiveness upon His followers. Jesus gave His apostles the power to act on His authority to forgive sins, which we still experience in the Sacrament of Penance.
What Happens at Confession?
A Catholic receives the sacrament of penance at confession. We tell our sins to a priest and receive absolution – our sins are wiped away!
Different parishes and communities have slightly different methods for the confession, but the general outline is as follows.
It is helpful for the penitent (the person receiving the sacrament) to begin by performing an examination of conscience – you examine your behavior and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you how you have strayed from God, and what you should confess.
The penitent then goes to confession. Technically, confession can happen anywhere that is private, where the act will not be overheard. Traditionally, before Vatican II, it took place in confessionals in churches – very small booths with just enough space for a seat. The penitent would enter and sit down. Their booth would be next to a booth for the priest, with a small screen or grill in the wall between the two. The confession would take place like this, with the penitent audible to the priest but hidden from view. Now, confession often takes place face to face, with the priest and penitent sitting in chairs facing each other. In many cases, both options are available and the penitent may choose.
The penitent begins with the sign of the cross, and traditionally says the words: Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been [X] since my last confession” (stating the length of time since their last confession – e.g., “It has been six months since my last confession.”)
The penitent then tells the priest their sins, in whatever order or way they like. The priest will often ask some questions or offer some advice. While confession is not a therapy session, many priests like to provide some comfort or guidance if they’re able to.
The penitent is usually then asked to express contrition for their sins – say that they’re sorry and will try to not sin again. This can be done in their own words or by saying an Act of Contrition.
The priest will usually give the penitent some form of penance – an action that is intended to heal their relationship with God or others or offer some kind of apology or restitution. Penance is often a set numbers of prayers, but it can also be a more personal action – for example, if the penitent confesses a broken relationship with their spouse, the priest may ask them to apologize to their spouse, or perform a specific good deed for them. The penitent is expected to complete this act of penance, whatever it is, as soon as possible after confession.
If the priest feels the penitent is sincere (which is usually the case), he will absolve their sins with a brief prayer. The penitent ends with the sign of the cross.
Why Do We Need Confession if God Has Already Died for Our Sins?
Scripture is very clear that Jesus’ mission on Earth was to die for our sins – He repaid our debt so that we might be free. The following passages make this abundantly clear:
Hebrews 7:27 – “Unlike the other high priests, [Jesus] has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself.”
Colossians 1:13-14 – “[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
Hebrews 9:26 – “But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
So why should we bother with the sacrament of penance if our sins have already been forgiven? This is a fair question, but one that is easily explained. Jesus died to grant us our salvation – but in order for us to experience in it, we still have to take hold of this great gift in our own lives. Imagine if someone bought you a beautiful gift and told you to come over and get it from their house. The gift giver went to a lot of trouble to select, purchase, and wrap a gift that you would really enjoy. But despite that effort on their part, if you never get around to collecting it from their house, you’ll never get to use the gift. The gift is still there, but you haven’t decided to claim it and put it to use.
This is a good analogy for the gift of our salvation. Because God will never impose His will on us, we must decide on our own to accept His gift by living in communion with God and His Church. Receiving the sacrament of penance is one element of this acceptance. Sin separates us from God and the Body of Christ. If we truly desire to live in God’s grace, we will seek out opportunities to repair this separation when it occurs.
On a simpler level, God also knows that the sacrament of penance is good for us emotionally and psychologically. There is a difference between reading and hearing that God is prepared to forgive our sins when we repent and physically hearing a priest say to us in confession “Your sins are forgiven.” Can God forgive our sins without human mediation? Of course. But a sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace. We are corporal people, and it is immensely helpful to us to receive a physical sign (the words and actions of the priest) to help us understand the invisible reality of God’s mercy.
Will the Priest Tell Anyone Else My Sins? Will He Bring Them Up Next Time I see Him?
The answer to both these questions is a resounding “no”! Anything said in confession is absolutely secret – it is referred to as being under the “seal of confession,” which is absolutely sacred. A priest may never reveal something said to him in confession – even to the penitent – unless he is given very clear and specific permission by the penitent to do so. In other words, if you see your priest at the grocery store, he will not mention your sins – even if he can be sure no one else will overhear. He cannot even bring them up at your next confession unless you repeat them to him then, or give him specific permission to break the seal of confession. (That being said, most priests say that as soon as a penitent leaves confession the priest forgets all the sins, so they couldn’t repeat them anyway!). The Code of Canon Law, the list of laws that apply within the Catholic Church, states that a priest who “directly violates” the seal of confession incurs excommunication from the Catholic Church, and “one who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the delict” (Canon 1388.1).
Penance is a sacrament that Catholics can receive as often as they want. However, when we talk about it in the context of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, we often refer specifically to the first time someone receives it – their “First Reconciliation” or “First Confession.” In the Latin Church, Catholics typically make their first reconciliation around the age of reason, seven or eight years old, although the exact age varies greatly depending on parish, diocese, and individual circumstance. Those preparing to receive this sacrament should undergo a period of age-appropriate preparation before undergoing the sacrament for the first time. Adult converts to the faith can normally make their first confession as soon as they’re baptized.