The sacrament of Penance is a difficult sacrament to study. Not all denominations recognize Penance as a sacrament. Many Christian churches see the sacrament as more of a historical development than of Biblical origins. The Catholic Church, unlike many other denominations, focuses on Scripture and tradition. The Church looks to the time of Christ, and the tradition that developed from His time on Earth, as well as the Bible. Many Protestant churches look to the Scriptures alone, and that has always been a case for disagreement. When examining the sacrament of Penance it is pertinent to look to the Scriptures as well as the Catechism, and any current issues that are facing the sacrament itself.
The origin of the sacrament of Penance lays in the need to reconcile ones self with God and the community. The origins truly lie within the Bible. Often people of other denominations will mention that they do not understand how confession can be a sacrament because they do not see it as instituted by Christ. The Catholic Church, however, sees this sacrament as instituted by Christ. The following are some of the Scriptural passages that are often cited in reference to the sacrament of Penance: John 20:22-23, 2 Corinthians 5:18-20, and Matthew 16:19.
In John 20:22-23 Jesus grants the power to forgive sins, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” Corinthians 5:18-20, the ministry of reconciliation is recognized, “And all this is from God, who has reconciled us through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation. In Matthew 16:19 the concept of binding and loosing made which refers to confession, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
The history of Penance can be divided into three time periods; ancient, medieval, and modern. In the ancient period the order of penitents developed. Questions often arose about what to do with grave sinners, “Tensions accompanied Christianity's movement into the mainstream Greco-Roman culture: how much accommodation could there be without compromising principles?” The order of penitents was thus developed to supervise the conversion of those that were endangering the holiness of the community. The order of penitents slowly developed over time, “this penitential institution developed in most urban centers in the late 2 nd and early 3 rd centuries.”
The time spent in the community depended on the sin itself. There was a process to the order of penitents, “After the penitents evidenced sufficient maturation in conversion, they were reconciled with the faithful in a liturgy at which the bishop presided.” This ceremony represented the fact that those involved were now restored to complete status in the Christian community. There were many parts to the liturgy when the penitent was reintroduced and welcomed back into the community, “The laying on of hands, both as a prayer of exorcism and as a gesture of solidarity, was a prominent symbol in the liturgies before and at reconciliation.”
Cyprian wrote on the practices of the order of penitents. Cyprian wrote about the intended operation of the order penitents. He wrote that the, “repentant seek conversion, showing repentance and making satisfaction by external acts.” In the fourth century, in the time of Ambrose and Pacian, penance was done only once a lifetime and was seen as more of a punitive action than anything. It should also be noted that only serious sinners were allowed to be a part of this process. During this time, others began to seek conversion in other ways, “they sought change through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; they turned to holy men and women for individual guidance and support; they experienced God's transforming power and community support in the eucharist.” Sinners sought conversion like we still often do to this day.
Similar practices were developed in the East, however Eastern practice was less rigorous. This practice gave alternatives to those who were not subject to the order of penitents, “It also gave somewhat greater place to the practice of spiritual direction as an aid to those not subject to the requirements of the order of penitents and sometimes allowed it as an alternative for those reluctant to be publicly recognized as penitents.”
In the fourth and fifth centuries their were dramatic changes, “Lifelong consequences (e.g. celibacy, prohibition of certain offices and occupations) followed entrance into penance.” This more formalistic approach to penance is often referred to canonical penance. After a period of time, penance came to be seen more as a punishment than as a voluntary way of healing and reconciliation with God and man.
By the sixth century few people entered the order of penitents of their own volition. Many people did decide to become penitents on their deathbeds. The practice of penance for the dying became the most common form of penance near the end of the ancient period. Those who did voluntarily enter the order of penitents are often compared to those that take vows today, “Those who did voluntarily enter the order of penitents, the conversi, generally did so as an expression akin to that of those who today enter communities of vowed religious.”
In the medieval period quite a different practice regarding penance was developed, “Irish monk-missionaries in Gaul during the 6 th to 9 th centuries compensated for the failure of bishops to meet new pastoral needs by developing ‘tariff penance.'” This practice was borrowed from the East. The monks who were not in need of canonical penance looked for advice from spiritual experts on how to seek conversion. This liturgy included; communal prayers for forgiveness and declarations of reconciliation. The practice of conversion, as a result of this process, underwent a change, “Conversion too underwent something of a transformation as it was understood less as ecclesial rehabilitation than as private reparation or payment of an individual debt.” The satisfactions (penance) for sins are listed in penitentials. During this time period there was no official reconciliation like previously – this was reserved to the bishop after satisfaction was made.
There were many debates about the use of penitentials. Finally there were a series of compromises, “among the attempts to save canonical penance by compromise were: confession either to God or to priests of sins not subjects to the canonical discipline; canonical crimes publicly known and private confession and private satisfaction followed by the bishop's formal reconciliation during Holy Week or the priest's absolution.” Absolution, which is a key part of the rite of confession, “was originally a blessing concluding a liturgy, became a declaration that the penitent was no longer under obligation to make satisfaction.” In other words, after absolution the penance was complete.
The practice of placing ashes on the forehead began in the tenth century, “From the 10 th century ashes were imposed on all at the beginning of the Lenten penance. Lenten fasting became a significant means of purification and expiation; confession was often expected at the beginning of Lent or during it.” Also during this time, especially during the 9 th and 14 th centuries communal penance was often offered at Mass especially when people were to receive communion.
The modern system of penance was complete, “After the 15 th century the modern system of penance was complete; confession and absolution were the dominant symbol of post-baptismal conversion and the only normal form of the sacrament. It operated as the church's means of disciplining sinners and supporting the repentant, although it was often used in a rather mechanical fashion.” At this time absolution was no longer something that only the bishop could give once satisfaction had been made. Now it was more common to see the priest to go to the sacrament of reconciliation and receive absolution from the priest.
The Rituale Romanum defined more clearly the sacrament of penance, “the Rituale Romanum provided a simple ritual that minimized prayer and ecclesial elements, highlighted the penitents confession of sins and expression of contrition, and climaxed in the priest's absolution.” During this time also, when communion became more frequent, confession also became more frequent. Confession was not only regarded as purification from guilt but as a means of sanctification. This focus on individual forgiveness and sanctification remained constant until the 20 th century.
Vatican II marked significant changes for the sacrament of penance, “In 1963 Vatican II called for a reform that would clearly show the social and ecclesial nature and effects of the sacrament. Related forms came first: the discipline of fasting, abstinence, and personal penance.” Another cause of reform of the sacrament was from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Pastoral Norms. In June 1972 Pastoral Norms of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith permitted communal celebrations, though restricting absolution without previous confession. Through both of these changes, there are three separate rites of penance (Individual Penitents, Several Penitents with Individual Confessions and Absolutions and Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolution). The aforementioned rites now replace the penitent sections of the Ritual Romanum .
The first rite of Penance involves individual penitents. First there is the reception of the penitent where the penitent makes the sign of the cross which the priest may also do. Following the reception of the penitent is the reading of the Word of God which is optional. Then is the actual confession of sins and acceptance of satisfaction. The penitent says a general formula for confession such as ”I confess to almighty God.” The priest counsels the penitent and then the priest proposes penance and the penitent accepts and accepts to make satisfaction to amend his life. Finally is the prayer of the penitent and absolution. The priest then asks the penitent to express his sorrows, which is expressed through many different prayer forms. Then is the absolution, in which the priest extends his hands over the penitents head and says, “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.” After absolution there is the proclamation of praise of God and dismissal.
The second rite involves several penitents with individual confessions and absolution. First there is a song, followed by a greeting of the faithful. Then the priest will say the opening prayer which may sound something like this, “Brothers and Sisters, God calls us to conversion; let us therefore ask him for the grace of sincere repentance. All pray in silence for a brief period, then the priest says the prayer: Lord, / hear the prayers of those who call on you, forgive the sins of those who confess to you, / and in your merciful love, / give us your pardon and your peace. / We ask this through Christ our Lord. / R: Amen.” Next is the celebration of the Word of God, followed by a Homily which should reflect the Scriptural readings and to help the people to understand the Word. Next is a brief examination of consciences, followed by the actual rite of Reconciliation. The confession is individual as well as the absolution.
The final rite of penance is performed when there are several penitents with general confession and absolution. Everything is done the same as rite two except for a few changes. After the homily the priest explains that those who wish to be absolved should confess individually at the proper time, and some sort of satisfaction is proposed. Then is a general confession of sin, followed by a general absolution. The Church only grants general confession and absolution when “grave necessity” exists. The Catechism states, “Grave necessity can also exist when, given the number of penitents, there are not enough confessors to hear individual confessions properly in a reasonably time, so that the penitents through no fault of their own would be deprived of sacramental grace or Holy Communion for a long time. In this case, for the absolution to be valid the faithful must have the intention of individually confessing their grave sins in the time required.” The third rite of penance has come under great scrutiny in the Church because of the concept of “general confession.” Someone could have generally confessed and then have been absolved but never go to individual confession which creates a problem.
The sacrament of penance has many names. The sacrament is called the sacrament of conversion, Penance, confession, forgiveness and Reconciliation. The Catechism states that it is called the sacrament of conversion because, “it makes sacramentally present Jesus' call to conversion.” It is called the sacrament of Penance, “since it consecrates the Christian sinner's personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance, and satisfaction.” It is called the sacrament of confession since the confession is an integral part of the sacrament. It is called the sacrament of forgiveness because of the priest's absolution. It is also called Reconciliation, “because it imparts to the sinner the live of God who reconciles.”
There are many forms of penance in Christian life, and thus can be expressed in many ways. The interior penance suggested by the early Fathers insisted on fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. They also require, “effort at reconciliation with one's neighbor, tears of repentance, concern for the salvation of one's neighbor, the intercession of the saints, and the practice of charity ‘which covers a multitude of sins.'” This is often what happens with penance. When an individual is seeking forgiveness they often will go to the one they offended, pray for the one that they harmed, or ask for the intercession of the saints. The early Fathers were ahead of their time.
Conversion is expressed in daily life by gestures of reconciliation such as, “concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right, by the admission of faults to one's brethren, fraternal correction, revision of life, examination of conscience, spiritual direction, acceptance of suffering and endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness.” The idea here is the personal acceptance of the sin and the revision of the error in their own personal life.
Daily conversion can take place in the Eucharist. It is said that through the Eucharist those who live their lives in Christ are strengthened through the Eucharist. Another form of interior penance is the reading of sacred Scripture. The Catechism states, “every sincere act of worship or devotion revives the spirit of conversion and repentance within us and contributes to the forgiveness of our sins.” The seasons and days of penance are also important for the practice of the Church's penitential practice, “these times are particularly appropriate spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).”
There are three acts expected of the penitent. The first act required of the penitent is contrition. Contrition is true sorrow and detestation of sin, but also with the resolution to sin no more. There are two kinds of contrition: perfect and imperfect. Perfect contrition is, “when it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else. Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.” The contrition is called imperfect when it is consideration of the wrongness of the sin committed or the fear of the eternal punishments. This contrition, “cannot obtain the forgiveness of grave sins, but it disposes one to obtain forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance.”
The second act of the penitent is the confession of sin. Confession to the priest is an essential part of the sacrament. All mortal sins must be confessed, and confession of venial sins is strongly recommended. The Catechism states, “by receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father's mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as he is merciful.” The reception of the sacrament frequently helps to make us more merciful in daily life.
The final act of the penitent is satisfaction. The satisfaction for sins is the “penance.” The sin weakens the sinner himself as well as his relationship with God and man. To recover his full spiritual health, “he must ‘make satisfaction for' or ‘expiate' his sins.” The penance that the priest imposes must account for the penitent's personal situation and his/her spiritual good. The penance must also correspond to the gravity of the sin. Penance can consist of, “prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear.”
The minister of the sacrament is the priest, who is called the confessor. The sacrament was established by Christ through the apostles and thus their successors (the bishops and priests) celebrate this sacrament. By the sacrament of Holy Orders priests, “have the power to forgive all sins ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.'” Forgiveness of sins reconciles with God but also with the Church. The Catechism states, “since ancient times the bishop, visible head of a particular Church, has thus rightfully been considered to be the one who principally has the power and ministry of reconciliation: he is the moderator of the penitential discipline.” Priests are the bishop's collaborators, in that they have received the commission from their bishop (or superior) or the Pope.
The priest as minister of the sacrament should be faithful to the church, “He should have a proven knowledge of Christian behavior, experience of human affairs, respect and sensitivity toward the one who has fallen; he must love the truth, be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church, and lead the penitent with patience toward healing and full maturity.” The priest is to follow the laws of the Church and to help lead the penitent toward healing. The priest is also bound to keep all sins confessed to him under great secrecy, “this secret which admits no exceptions is called the ‘sacramental seal,' because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains ‘sealed' by the sacrament.”
The recipient of the sacrament is the penitent. No unbaptized person can be validly absolved. One must first be a member of the Church before he can submit himself and his sins to the judicial process of sacramental penance.
The sacrament of penance has many effects. Reconciliation with God is the purpose and effect of this sacrament, “for those who receive the sacrament of Penance with contrite heart and religious disposition, reconciliation ‘is usually followed by peace and serenity of conscience with strong spiritual consolation.'” Other spiritual effects of the sacrament include; “reconciliation with the Church, remission of the eternal punishment incurred by mortal sins, remissions (at least in part) of temporal punishments resulting from sin, and an increase of spiritual strength for the Christian battle.” The Church holds that confession of grave sins followed by absolution is the only ordinary means of reconciliation with God and with the Church.
Currently the sacrament of Penance faces controversy over the issue of general absolution. As mentioned general absolution is when a priest will grant absolution to a group of the faithful that have assembled, not one at a time, but as a group. Some have argued that rite three is “cheap grace.” Some have said that rite three's communal nature does not allow for the full nature of the gravity of sin to attach itself to the human mind.
Communal penance services are where the practice takes place. Fr. William Stenzel writes, “ By the mid-'70s communal penance services were regular parts of parish life during Advent and Lent, and parishioners with a desire and a hunger to celebrate the forgiveness of sin through God's mercy were filling churches for these services. Many people who had not celebrated this sacrament in years became twice-a-year regulars and spent more time acknowledging sin, calling on God's mercy, and rejoicing in absolution at one communal penance service than they had in a lifetime of two-minute Confessions. General absolution has been part of the "way back" for many.” In some senses when communal services were first present the people became more aware of their own sin and felt more from a communal celebration than from a single individual confession. The sentiment was not always felt throughout the Church.
Many Church communities are being encouraged to stop the practice of general absolution, “Church communities and priests who have celebrated this form of the sacrament for decades are being challenged to discontinue it on the grounds that it is an "abuse" of a sacrament in our church. Years of experience are discounted by church authorities who have not experienced a communal penance service with general absolution nor the long-term effects in a faith community that celebrates the sacrament of Reconciliation in all of its forms.” Many authorities who are encouraging the banning of the third rite of penance in parishes have not even practiced the rite. They therefore do not know the effects of this rite. The do not know what individual people think of the rite, or for that matter how they feel about it.
Then Cardinal Ratzinger had thoughts on general absolution, “ Only in situations of necessity, in which the human being's final salvation is at stake, can the absolution be anticipated and the confession left for a time in which it will be possible to make it. This is the true meaning of what in a rather obscure way is meant by the word collective absolution.” Ratzinger here is qualifying what necessity really is. In this case necessity is when the human being's final salvation is at stake.
The ultimate reality of this sacrament is forgiveness. Whatever the individual rites are the bottom line is that Jesus gave the power to forgive sins. The Christian when going to sacramental confession can feel the healing power of God.
Fink, Peter. (1990). The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship. Washington D.C: Liturgical Press.
Intervention by Cardinal Ratzinger. (2002). From http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20020502_ratzinger-penance_en.html
Liturgical Press. (1990). The Rites . Washington D.C. : Liturgical Press.
Stenzel, William. (Jan 2003). It would be a sin to lose general absolution. U.S. Catholic., 68., 24-29
The Sacraments of Healing. 22 October 2005 . from http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p2ss2csa4.htm
- Brandy Woodruff