by Jay Chin
The Sacrament of Penance, also known as confession, like all sacraments, is offered at Christ’s command. He said to His disciples, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you… Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:21-13). Thus, if we do not seek the Sacrament, our sins will not be forgiven. We must confess our sins because forgiveness demands knowledge of the trespass. Without knowing what we are forgiving, forgiveness becomes little more than a sign of good-will. This act of confessing is the most difficult component of the sacrament, for it requires us to examine our conscience and realize how often we have been unfaithful to God’s love. Yet in that examination of conscience we are also invited to reflect on our real need for the sacrament and what the sacrament means. In the same way as Christ’s Body is fully present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, Christ’s forgiveness and love are fully present in the Sacrament of Penance. Christ Himself raises us from the death of sin, and it is for that new life that we bear the shame of our wrongdoings.
In order to licitly receive other sacraments, such as the Eucharist, it is necessary that we be guiltless of all mortal sins, those sins that we commit knowingly and willfully against the Commandments of God in serious matters. The Sacrament of Penance requires only that we confess all our mortal sins. However, it is beneficial to also confess our venial sins, those we commit in trivial matters, for it shows that we detest all sins. Since we sin frequently and oftentimes are unaware of their gravity, frequent confession is always recommended. The Precepts of the Church, however, dictate that one receive the sacrament at least once a year.
In order to have a thorough confession, you should always prepare yourself through an examination of conscience. Reflect on the Ten Commandments and ask yourself if you have acted against them in any way. When you enter the confessional, make the Sign of the Cross, and a short dialogue begins. Local custom dictates what the priest will say, but in the English-speaking world he will say, “May the Lord be in your heart and help you to confess your sins with true sorrow,” or something similar to it. The reply is, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” State how long it has been since your last confession, and then state your sins. The priest does not need to hear exact circumstances of each sin, but only the commandment one has acted against and how many times, if one can remember. In any case, what is most important is that you be as sincere as you can be, never trying to hide from the truth. If the priest asks for clarification, provide it, and if he asks that you speak more clearly, do so. When you have finished stating your sins, you may say, “For these and all the sins of my past life, I ask pardon of God, penance, and absolution from you, Father,” or something conclusive to that effect. The priest may offer some spiritual advice, give you your penance, and ask for your Act of Contrition. We make an Act of Contrition to show that we are truly sorry for what we have done and are committing ourselves to amending our lives. There are many variations of this prayer; you need to learn only one. The priest will give you Absolution and tell you to go in peace. Thank him, cross yourself, and go off to fulfill your penance.
And as we do as Father prescribed, we should rejoice that we are free of the bonds of sin and ask all the saints, especially the Blessed Virgin Mary, for their intercession, that we may too discover the joy that kept them away from evil and commend ourselves totally to the works of God.