The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation
The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is one of the healing sacraments of the Catholic Church. This healing is necessary since we are still in our "earthly tent" and subject to suffering, illness and death. The new life we have obtained in Christ Jesus through the Sacraments of initiation can be weakened and even lost by sin.
Necessity of the Sacrament
St. John the Apostle writes, "If we say, ""We are without sin,"" we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. If we say, ""We have not sinned,"" we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1: 8-10)
Also, "If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrong doing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly." (1 John 5: 16-17)
From the two verses above we can deduce that if we claim we are no longer sinners after we have accepted the Gospel of Jesus Christ we are lying to ourselves and we dont have the truth in us. He even goes so far to say that we make Jesus a liar! Also, we can see from the second verse that there is sin that is "deadly". What is "deadly" or "Mortal" sin? The Catholic Church teaches us that Mortal Sin is sin of a very grave or serious nature. This sin is mortal or deadly in its ability to remove the person guilty of this type of sin from the Sanctifying Grace that God gives us in Baptism. This is the Grace that justifies us in the eyes of God and can only be obtained by Baptism in the name of Jesus (see Acts 2: 37-42.) When we are in Mortal Sin we have effectively excommunicated ourselves from Jesus and His Church. The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation removes the guilt of this sin from our souls and "reconciles" us back to full communion with God and His Church. It effectively leaves our souls in a state of perfect purity of guilt just as if we were newly Baptized Christians.
"Mortal Sin?" Someone may ask. "Didnt the saving act of Jesus on the cross absolve us of our past, present, and future sins?" Simply stated, no. Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus unconditionally absolve future sin. In fact repentance or penance is a requirement for any forgiveness of sin. Without an acknowledgment of our guilt, our sins arent forgiven. (Refer back to 1 John 1:8.) Also, see Hebrews 10: 26-29, and 2 Peter 20-22.
Institution of the Sacrament
The sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is instituted by Christ himself. In the Gospel of St. Matthew Chapter 16:18-19, Jesus gives His disciple Simon whom he renamed Peter, the authority to "bind and loose" sin. Later after his death and resurrection Jesus gives all of his disciples this authority. See St. John 20: 21-23.
This authority given to his disciples to "bind and loose" sin was the conclusion to Christs own ministry of forgiving sins. For an example of Christ's ministry of forgiveness, See Luke 5: 18-24
The transmission of the authority to bind and loose through Apostolic succession
When the church began to grow in size and also in territory, it was no longer practical or the Apostles themselves to minister to the faithful that were spread throughout all corners of the known world. They therefore saw it necessary to confer their own authority onto other men who were faithful and upstanding individuals within their respective churches. These men were the successors of the Apostles were called episkopos (Greek for Bishop) overseers and presbyteros (Greek for elders). Elders later became known by the faithful as Priests due to the role in which they act in the Mass. (This authority can be seen in 2 Corinthians 5: 18-20)
Development of Doctrine
During the early years of the Church, the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation was done not in private as we do today, but it was done in public. This form of public penance was quite rigorous and usually was only reserved for those who committed very serious sin, such as murder, adultery, or apostasy. And usually lasted for a long time. A person could normally receive absolution for these sins only once a lifetime. Because the formal forgiveness of serious sin in the church was restricted, and involved severe penances, many converts to Christianity began to delay being baptized until late in their lives. They feared falling into serious sin after baptism and the rigors of public confession. A change in the understanding of this sacrament took place in the sixth and seventh centuries. Irish monks, probably in the context of spiritual direction, developed the practice of forgiving sins in Jesus' name as part of a more frequent private confession that included less serious sins. This eventually became the standard form of the sacrament. Private confession is the norm today in the Catholic Church. (Excerpts taken from Basics of the Faith: A Catholic Catechism, written by Alan Schreck and published by Servent Books)
The Priest's Role in Confession
What is the Priest's role in Confession? Primarily the priest's role in the process of Penance and Reconciliation is as the vicar or in the person of Jesus Christ himself (in persona Christi). Therefore Catholic doctrine teaches that when a penitent confesses his sins to the Priest, he is actually through God's grace confessing his sins to Jesus. When the priest gives the penitent absolution, he is actually absolving the sin in the person of Christ. So it is actually Christ absolving the sins. A secondary role of the priest is to act as a spiritual guide. This means he is to assist the penitent in working out the underlying problems that are causing them to sin. Especially, habitual sin.
Parts of the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation
Examination of Conscience: Prior to seeking the sacrament, a person should spend some time with an examination of conscience. This is done with much prayer and through reading the Word of God in the Bible. A person reflects on his or her actions and the way they fell short of the expectations of their stewardship to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Contrition/Attrition: The state of sincere regret and sorrow for having offended God by sinning. Perfect Contrition is the state of complete or perfect regret and resolution to not sin in the same way ever again through pure charity for offending God. Attrition is the state of sorrow of sin due to the fear of punishment. One form of the Act of contrition often used by a penitent is:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You, and I detest all my sins, because of Your punishments, but most of all because they offend You, my God, who are all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the occasions of sin.
Confession: The actual act of confessing ones sins to the Priest or Bishop. In the case of Mortal Sin, the penitent is required to iterate each and every type of serious sin as well as the number of times that sin was committed.
Absolution: The authority given to the Priest through his ministerial privilege to absolve or remove the guilt of the individual by "binding the sin. An important note, the Priest can refuse to absolve anyone who doesnt appear to show true remorse or contrition during the time of the confession, and doesnt demonstrate a sincere desire to reform ones sinful ways. The form normally used for absolution in the Latin rite of the Church is:
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and the 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.
Satisfaction/Reparation: Once the Priest gives the penitent absolution, he also prescribes a penance that in some way will help correct the sinful state of the penitent. These penances can be as simple as prayers said for non serious sins, up to acts that will correct the situation that the persons sins have caused. An example would be to repay someone some money if the person stole from another.
Teaching of the early Church Fathers on the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation
The Didache c. 140 AD
Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life.
On the Lords Day of the Lord gather together, break bread and give thanks after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure.
Tertullian, on Repentance c. 202 AD
In regard to this second and single repentance, then: - since it is such a serious affair, so much the more laborious is its examination. It is not conducted before the conscience alone, but it is to be carried out by some external act. This act, which is more usually expressed and spoken of by the Greek word, is exomolgesis (confession), by which we confess our sin to the Lord, not indeed as if He did not know it, but because satisfaction is arranged by confession, of confession is repentance born, and by repentance is God appeased. Thus, confession is a discipline for mans prostration and humiliation, enjoining a manner, even as regards dress and food, conducive to mercy. It commands one to lie in sackcloth and ashes, to cover the body with mourning, to cast the spirit down in sorrow, to exchange the sins which have been committed for a demeanor of sorrow; to take no other food or drink except what is plain, not, of course, for the sake of the stomach, but for the sake of the soul; and most of all, to feed prayers on fasting; to groan, to weep and wail day and night to the Lord your God; to bow before the presbyters, to kneel before Gods refuge places, and to beseech all the brethren for the embassy of their own supplication. Confession is all of this, so that it may excite repentance; so that it may honor God by fear of danger; so that it may, by its own pronouncement against the sinner, stand in place of Gods indignation; and so that it may by temporal mortification, I will not say frustrate, but rather expunge the eternal punishments. Therefore, while it abases a man, it raises him; while I covers him with squalor, the more does it cleanse him; while it condemns, it absolves. In so far as you do not spare yourself, the more, believe me, will God spare you!