Discover God's Love Anew
Dear Brothers and Sisters in the Lord,
Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has asked "for renewed
pastoral courage in ensuring that the day-to-day teaching of Christian
communities persuasively and effectively presents the practice of the
Sacrament of Reconciliation" (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 37). A
renewed appreciation for this wonderful sacrament which leads many to
return to the life of grace will bring about a new springtime, a new era
of growth and life for the Church.
In response to the Pope's invitation, this statement will speak of
our need for reconciliation and explain how we receive it. While we hope
that all Catholics properly understand the nature and importance of the
sacrament of Penance, this statement is directed in a special way to
those who do not understand it or who have drifted away from its use.
We invite every Catholic to celebrate the sacrament of Penance or
Reconciliation or, as we have traditionally said, "go to
Confession," on a regular basis. There can be no better way to make
progress on our spiritual journey than by returning in humble repentance
and love to God, whose forgiveness reestablishes us as his children and
restores us to peace with his Church and our neighbors.
With every prayerful best wish, we remain,
Sincerely yours in Christ,
The Bishops of Pennsylvania
- What is Confession?
Confession is a sacrament instituted by Jesus Christ in his love and
mercy. It is here that we meet the loving Jesus who offers sinners
forgiveness for offenses committed against God and neighbor. At the same
time, Confession permits sinners to reconcile with the Church, which
also is wounded by our sins.
The sacrament, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes,
is known by many names. Sometimes "it is called the sacrament of
conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus' call to
conversion" (1423). But it is also better known as "the
sacrament of Penance, since it consecrates the Christian sinner's
personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance, and
For many of us it still continues to be known as "the sacrament
of confession, since the disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is
an essential element of this sacrament" (1424). At the same time,
the Catechism reminds us that "it is called the sacrament of
forgiveness, since by the priest's sacramental absolution God grants the
penitent 'pardon and peace'" (1424). Finally, it is also called the
sacrament of Reconciliation because it reconciles sinners to God and
then to each other (1424). In this text, we will refer to the sacrament
as the sacrament of Penance.
Through this sacrament, we meet Christ in his Church ready and eager
to absolve and restore us to new life. The graces of Christ are
conferred in the sacraments by means of visible signs - signs that are
acts of worship, symbols of the grace given and recognizable gestures
through which the Lord bestows his gifts. In the sacrament of Penance,
the forgiveness of sins and the restoration of grace are the gifts
received through the outward sign, i.e., the extension of hands and
words of absolution pronounced by the priest.
2. What is sin?
Unfortunately, in society today, many people have lost the
understanding of sin. Our Holy Father has stated that "it happens
not infrequently in history, for more or less lengthy periods of time
and under the influence of many different factors, that the moral
conscience of many people becomes seriously clouded. . . . Too many
signs indicate that such an eclipse exists in our time" Reconciliation
and Penance, 18). In our day, many people have lost the sense of sin
and feel that they can do whatever they wish without considering or
fearing the consequences.
For such people, the term "sin" has no meaning. Yet we know
that sin is a terrible evil which all of us must come to understand and
with which all of us must struggle. According to the Catechism of the
Catholic Church, sin "is an offense against God as well as a
fault against reason, truth and right conscience. Sin is a deliberate
thought, word, deed, or omission contrary to the eternal law of
God" (1849, 1853). In other words, sin is willfully rejecting good
and choosing evil. In judging the degree of sin, it is customary to
distinguish between mortal and venial sins. "Mortal sin," the Catechism
teaches, "destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation
of God's law . . . Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it
offends and wounds it" (1855). (Refer to the Glossary
on Mortal and Venial Sin at the end of the booklet.)
3. Why is Confession necessary?
We need the sacrament of Penance because each of us, from time to
time, sins. When we recognize that we have offended God who is all
deserving of our love, we sense the need to make things right. Like the
prodigal son in the Gospel, we long to know again the loving embrace of
a forgiving father who patiently waits for each of us. Jesus himself has
established this sure and certain way for us to access God's mercy and
to know that our sins are forgiven. By virtue of his divine authority,
Jesus gives this power of absolution to the apostolic ministry. As the Catechism
of the Catholic Church says, "in imparting to his apostles his
own power to forgive sins the Lord also gives them the authority to
reconcile sinners with the Church" (1444).
We need to know that our sins are forgiven. There is something in our
human nature that calls out for the assurance that our sins are actually
forgiven. Confession is the visible manifestation of God's mercy that
provides us, in human terms as well, the clear awareness that God has
4. What is the source of the forgiveness of our sins?
Jesus invites us to reconciliation with God. It is Christ, the Good
Shepherd, who offers us forgiveness and the power to turn
away from sin. Writing to the Corinthians, Saint Paul reminds us that
just as sin came into the world through Adam and Eve, so too grace and
new creation come to us through Jesus Christ. Just as death came through
a human being, so too the resurrection of the dead came through a human
being. As in Adam all people die, so in Christ all shall be brought to
life - a fullness of life, a new creation already beginning in us
through grace (cf. 1 Cor 15).
This is the message we proclaim when we face the mystery of sin. Just
as Adam brought sin, death, disharmony, confusion, disruption and
struggle into our lives, Christ, the new Adam, gives us grace,
redemption, new life and salvation. (Refer to the Glossary
on Original Sin at the end of the booklet). It is in Jesus Christ that
we find the beginnings of the new creation. He leads us back to the
Father, overcomes the tragic alienation of sin and restores harmony.
Jesus gives us newness of life in grace that begins to restore our
relationship with God and that will lead to full communion with God in
glory. Grace is the beginning of a new creation for all of those
baptized into Christ. In short, Jesus' passion and death have rescued us
and given us new life.
5. How is the Church able to forgive sins?
The Church professes belief in "the forgiveness of sins"
and is fully aware that only God forgives sins. It also believes that
Jesus, through his death, washed away all sin and, after his
resurrection, gave to his Church the power and authority to apply to us
the redemption he won on the cross, namely God's forgiveness of our
As the Catechism points out, our faith in the forgiveness of
sins is tied to faith in the Holy Spirit and the Church: "It was
when he gave the Holy Spirit to his apostles that the risen Christ
conferred on them his own divine power to forgive sins: 'Receive the
Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you
retain the sins of any, they are retained'" (976; cf. John
We bring our failings to the Church, then, because Jesus imparted to
his apostles, their successors, and through them to all ordained
priests, his own power to forgive sins, to restore and reconcile the
sinner with God and also the Church. This power to forgive sins is often
referred to as the "power of the keys", the power entrusted to
the Church when Jesus told St. Peter, "I will give you the keys to
the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in
heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven"
(Matt 16:19). This power is manifested and operative in the sacrament of
6. Why do we continue to need forgiveness if we are already saved?
The new life received in Christ does not abolish the weakness of
human nature or our inclination to sin. "If we say, 'We are without
sin,'" Saint John wrote, "we deceive ourselves, and the truth
is not in us" (1 John 1:8). There are a great many kinds of sins,
some mortal, others venial. But all sin has a detrimental effect. It
impedes the soul's progress in the exercise of the virtues and the
prevalence of the good. "Sin creates a proclivity to sin," the
Catechism reminds us. "It engenders vice by repetition of
the same acts" (1865).
As a result, even though we are baptized into new life, we must
continue to return to the sacrament of Penance to cleanse ourselves of
sin and receive God's mercy. We are always in need of God's forgiveness
through the sacrament of Penance if we are to grow in a life of grace.
7. Why do I need to go to a priest for confession?
It is most unfortunate that many people have adopted a mindset that
they do not need to go to Confession. Many say "I just tell my sins
to God and he forgives me." There is on the part of such persons a
failure to recognize that the sacrament of Penance is not an invention
of the Church. Rather, the sacrament of Penance is Christ's gift to the
Church to ensure the forgiveness he so generously extends will be made
available to every member of the Church. Once again, we cite the words
of our Holy Father in highlighting the connection between Christ, his
Church and the sacrament of Penance:
"From the revelation of the value of this ministry and power to
forgive sins, conferred by Christ on the Apostles and their successors,
there developed in the church an awareness of the sign of forgiveness,
conferred through the Sacrament of Penance. It is the certainty that the
Lord Jesus himself instituted and entrusted to the Church - as a gift of
his goodness and loving kindness to be offered to all-a special
Sacrament for the forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism" (Reconciliation
and Penance, 3).
8. What is the role of the priest in forgiving sins?
In establishing his Church, Christ passed on to her the power to
forgive sins. Just as he forgave sins, so would those chosen by him to
be his apostles have the extraordinary power to forgive sins. In the
priesthood today, the visible external sign of Christ's mercy and
forgiveness is exercised in confession. Just as the whole Church makes
visible in our world the presence of Christ, so the priest makes visible
the forgiveness and mercy of Jesus in the sacrament of confession. The
priest who by ordination is configured to Christ absolves sinners, not
in his own name and power, but in the name and person of Jesus.
9. What do I need to do to be forgiven?
What leads us to the sacrament of Penance is a sense of sorrow for
what we have done. The motivation may be out of love of God or even fear
of the consequences of having offended God. Whatever the motive,
contrition is the beginning of forgiveness of sin. The sinner must come
to God by way of repentance. There can be no forgiveness of sin if we do
not have sorrow at least to the extent that we regret it, resolve not to
repeat it and intend to turn back to God. While we cannot be certain
that we will not sin again, our present resolve must be honest and
realistic. We must want to change, to be faithful to the Lord, and
intend to take steps to make faithfulness possible. Christ's forgiveness
always calls for such a commitment: "Go, and do not sin again"
10. What happens in Confession?
In the sacrament of Penance, the contrite sinner comes before Christ
in the person of the priest who hears the sins, imposes a penance and
absolves the sinner in the name and by the power of Christ.
The sinner comes before the merciful judgment of God and approaches
the Lord in sorrow, admitting guilt before his representative. It is in
the person of Christ that the priest hears the confession of guilt. The
words spoken in Confession are guarded by the most solemn obligation of
complete confidentiality. In fact, Church law prescribes a serious
penalty for any confessor who directly violates the "seal of
It is in the name of Christ that the priest pronounces the Savior's
mercy: "I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and
of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." The Catechism reminds us
that "absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the
disorders sin has caused" (1459). Thus, the priest imposes a
penance on the penitent, which can take the form 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
11. How do I prepare for Confession?
Confession is not difficult, but it does require preparation. We
should begin with prayer, placing ourselves in the presence of God, our
loving Father. We should harbor in our hearts a sense of sorrow for all
we have done. The motivation for our sorrow may be out of love of God or
even fear of the consequences of having offended God. Whatever the
motive, contrition is the beginning of forgiveness of sin. We need to
have sorrow at least to the extent that we regret it, resolve not to
and intend to turn back to God.
With this disposition of heart, we should review our lives since our
last confession, searching our thoughts, words and actions to discover
those that did not conform to God's love, to his law or to the laws of
the Church. This is what is known as an "Examination of
Conscience." (Refer to Appendix at
the end of the booklet.)
12. How do I go to Confession?
The following may be helpful in preparing for confession. Above all,
do not be afraid. If you are hesitant about what to do, ask the priest
- Greeting:The priest welcomes the penitent warmly and greets him or her with
- Sign of the Cross:Then the penitent makes the Sign of the Cross, which the priest
may also make.
- Invitation to Trust in God:The priest invites the penitent to have trust in God using one of
the formulas in the ritual or similar words. If the penitent is
unknown to the priest, it is proper for the penitent to indicate his
or her state in life (married, single, or clergy), the time of his or
her last confession and anything else that may help the confessor in
exercising his ministry.
- Reading of the Word of God:
- Confession of Sins and Acceptance of Satisfaction:The penitent confesses his or her sins and accepts the prayers or
deeds that the priest proposes as a penance.
- Prayer of the Penitent and Absolution:The priest asks the penitent to express sorrow by praying one of
the prayers found in the ritual or in his or her own words. The priest
then prays the Prayer of Absolution, to which the penitent responds:
- Proclamation of Praise and Dismissal:The priest continues: "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is
good." The penitent responds: "His mercy endures for
ever." The priest then dismisses the penitent, using one of the
formulas found in the ritual.
NOTE: This is taken from the ritual for Roman Catholics. Eastern
Churches utilize a different formula.
13. Why do I receive a penance?
To complete the process, a penance is imposed. Absolution takes away
sin, but it does not remedy all disorders caused by sin. While we are
not capable of truly satisfying God for the evil we have done and its
consequences, we must make satisfaction for our sin through some action
or prayer that will express our desire to make amends and to repair
something of the disorder, damage or harm which our sinful actions have
brought into the world. The penance imposed takes into account the
penitent's personal situation and serves to support his or her spiritual
good. It corresponds as much as possible to the gravity of the sins
confessed. It may be a prayer, an offering, works of mercy, sacrifices
or service to another. But this penance is in a real way our share in
the Cross and helps us to be more closely joined to Christ.
In the Introduction to the Rite of Penance, we are reminded
that true conversion is completed by acts of penance or satisfaction for
the sins committed, by amendment of conduct, and also by the reparation
of injury. The kind and extent of the satisfaction should be suited to
the personal condition of each penitent. In this way the penitent is
helped to be healed of the evil which caused him to sin. Therefore, it
is necessary that the act of penance really be a remedy for sin and a
help to renewal of life.
14. How often should I go to Confession?
Individual and integral confession remains the only ordinary way for
us to reconcile ourselves with God and the Church. A
Catholic who has committed mortal (grave) sin is obliged to seek God's
forgiveness in this sacrament as soon as possible.
In ordinary circumstances, a Catholic who has committed mortal sin
should not receive Holy Communion before receiving sacramental
absolution. Not only does God forgive our sins, but we also receive the
power of God's grace to struggle against sin and to be strengthened in
our commitment to God and the Church. So powerful is the grace of this
sacrament that the Introduction to the Rite of Penance reminds us
that frequent and careful celebration of this sacrament is also very
useful as a remedy for venial sins. This is not a mere ritual repetition
or psychological exercise, but a serious striving to perfect the grace
of baptism so that, as we bear in our body the death of Jesus Christ,
his life may be seen in us ever more clearly.
Conclusion: Our Continuing Conversion
As we complete these thoughts on the sacrament of Penance, we might
well reflect that the deepest spiritual joy each of us can sense is the
freedom from whatever would separate us from God, a loving and merciful
Father who receives each of us with all the forgiveness and love
lavished on the prodigal son. Renewed, refreshed and reconciled in this
sacrament once more, we who have sinned become a "new
creation." Once more we are made new. It is this newness of spirit
and soul that we hope all of us experience time and again in the
sacrament of Penance.
Examination of Conscience
As you prepare to make a good confession, you want to ask God's
forgiveness for any way in which you have offended him but particularly
for any serious sin. If you are not certain what you should bring to the
priest in confession, do not be afraid to ask him for help. The priest
is there to assist you and to share with you God's love and mercy.
Many people find the Ten Commandments to be a good frame of reference
for an examination of conscience. The Commandments are listed here as a
reminder that you might find helpful.
- I am the LORD your God: you shall not have strange Gods before me.
- You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
- Remember to keep holy the LORD'S Day.
- Honor your father and your mother.
- You shall not kill.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet your neighbor's wife.
- You shall not covet your neighbor's goods.
Act of Contrition
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you, and I detest
all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell;
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 confess my sins, to do penance and to amend my life. Amen.
Glossary of Terms
Original Sin is the sin committed by Adam and Eve, the first
human beings. This sin was a willful act of disobedience, a rejection of
God's command that was so devastating that it ruptured the relationship
which our first parents enjoyed with God. As a result of this sin,
paradise was lost to them and to their descendants until our Redeemer,
Jesus Christ came to conquer sin and death and restore us to our
inheritance of the Kingdom of God. Original sin taints all human beings
and is washed away through the sacred waters of baptism. However, while
original sin is removed, its effects remain. One of these effects is
concupiscence, that disordered desire within us which produces an
inclination to sin (1264, 1426, 2515).
Mortal Sin is defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church
as "a grave infraction of the law of God that destroys the divine
life in the soul of the sinner (sanctifying grace), constituting a
turning away from God. For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must be
present: grave matter, full knowledge of the evil of the act, and full
consent of the will" (1855, 1857). The Catechism emphasizes
that "to choose deliberately - that is both knowing it and willing
it - something gravely contrary to the divine law and to the ultimate
end of man is to commit a mortal sin. This destroys in us the charity
without which eternal (happiness) is impossible. Unrepented, mortal sins
brings eternal death" (1874). This "eternal death" we
call Hell, where those who have died unrepentant of mortal sin suffer
the eternal separation from God and loss of eternal happiness, i.e.,
seeing God face-to-face.
Venial Sin, according to the Catechism, "does not
destroy the divine life in the soul, as does mortal sin, though it
diminishes and wounds it" (1855). Venial sin is a failure to
observe necessary moderation, in lesser matters of the moral law, or in
grave matters acting without full knowledge or complete consent"
(1862). We must realize, however, that while venial sins do not have the
grave effects of mortal sin, "deliberate and unrepented venial sin
disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin" (1863). It
should be the goal of every Christian to strive, through steadfast
prayer, acts of penance and works of charity, for a life free of sin.
© 2002 Pennsylvania Catholic Conference
Used with permission.