Confession Must Be Humble, Complete and Accompanied by Firm Purpose of Amendment

Author: John Paul II


Pope John Paul II

Given 22 March 1996

To Cardinal William W. Baum, Major Penitentiary

1. At the conclusion of the course on the internal forum, which this Apostolic Penitentiary has been conducting for several years for newly-ordained priests or candidates soon to be ordained who wish to prepare themselves better to fulfil the saving mandate of the Lord who forgives, I am pleased to send, through Your Eminence's kind offices, a special message giving them proof of my satisfaction and at the same time directing their commitment to the service of their brothers and sisters.

On previous occasions I have developed the theme of the sacrament of Penance from various angles, illustrating the functions of the confessor from the doctrinal, ascetical and psychological standpoint so that he will fulfil this loftiest task of his as perfectly as possible.

2. Now I would like to give explicit but certainly not exhaustive, consideration to some aspects concerning the person who is the beneficiary of the sacred rite of Penance: in sacramental confession, he can and must renew, strengthen and direct his Christian life to holiness, that is, to the life of supernatural charity which is obtained and practiced in the Church towards God, our Father, and towards men and women, our brothers and sisters.

In the sacrament of Penance, the sacrament of confession and reconciliation, every soul relives as its personal history the Gospel account of the tax collector, who left the temple justified: "But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!'. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled but he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Lk 18:13-14).

To acknowledge one's misery in the sight of God is not to abase oneself, but to live the truth of one's own condition and thus to obtain the true greatness of justice and grace after falling into sin, the effect of malice and weakness; it is to rise to the loftiest peace of spirit, by entering into a living relationship with God who is merciful and faithful. The truth thus lived is the only thing in the human condition that truly makes us free: this is attested by the word of God (Jn 8:31-34), which, in regard to our moral condition, explains the light brought to man by the Eternal Word in the "kairos" of the fullness of time.

3. The truth, which comes from the Word and must lead us to him, explains why sacramental confession must not stem from and be accompanied by a mere psychological impulse, as though the sacrament were a substitute for psychotherapy, but from sorrow based on supernatural motives, because sin violates charity towards God, the Supreme Good, was the reason for the Redeemer's sufferings and causes us to lose the goods of eternity.

Confession of sins must be humble and complete

From this standpoint one can clearly see how confession must be humble complete, accompanied by a firm, generous purpose of amendment for the future and lastly by the trust that this same amendment will be achieved.

As for humility, it is obvious that without it the accusation of one's sins would be a useless list or, worse, an arrogant assertion of the right to commit them: the "Non serviam" by which the rebellious angels fell and the first man and his descendants were lost. Humility is really identified with detesting evil: "For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless in your judgement" (Ps 51 [50]:5-6).

4. Confession must also be complete in the sense that one must tell "all mortal sins", as was expressly stated in the 14th session, fifth chapter, of the Council of Trent, which explains this necessity not in terms of a simple disciplinary norm of the Church, but as a requirement of divine law, because the Lord established it so in the very institution of the sacrament: "From the institution of the sacrament of Penance ... the universal Church has always understood that there was also instituted by the Lord the complete confession of sins and this is necessary by divine law for all who have fallen after Baptism. For our Lord Jesus Christ, when about to ascend from earth to heaven, left priests as his own vicars, as overseers and judges, to whom all mortal sins into which Christ's faithful might have fallen were to be referred..." (Denzinger-Schonmetzer, 1679).

Canons 7 and 8 of the same session state all this in precise juridical form:

Can. 7: If anyone says that for forgiveness of sins in the sacrament of Penance it is not necessary by divine our law to confess each and all mortal sins the which are remembered after due and careful reflection, even secret sins and those against the last two commandments of the Decalogue, together with the circumstances which change the character of the sin; but that confession of just this kind is useful only for the instruction and consolation of the penitent be and was in past times observed only for the imposition of a canonical satisfaction; or says that those who make an effort to confess all their sins wish to leave nothing for the divine mercy to nay pardon; or, finally, that it is not permitted to confess venial sins: let him be anathema. (Denzinger-Schonmetzer, 1707).

Can. 8 If anyone says that the confession of sins, in the form the Church preserves, is impossible and should be abolished by devout people as a human tradition, or that each and all of Christ's faithful of either sex are not bound to it once a year, in accordance with the constitution of the great Lateran Council; and that consequently Christ's faithful should be persuaded not to confess during the Lenten season: let him be anathema. (Denzinger-Schonmetzer, 1708).

5. Partly because of the mistaken reduction of moral value to the so-called "fundamental option" alone, partly because of the equally mistaken reduction of the content of the moral law solely to the precept of charity, often vaguely understood with the exclusion of other sins, and partly and perhaps this is the most widespread reason for such behaviour because of an arbitrary, reductive interpretation of the "freedom of the children of God", claimed as a private, confidential relationship prescinding from the Church's mediation, unfortunately many of the faithful today approach the sacrament of Penance without making a complete accusation of their mortal sins in the sense just mentioned by the Council of Trent. Sometimes they react to the priest confessor, who dutifully questions them about the necessary completeness, as if he were allowing himself an undue intrusion into the sanctuary of conscience. I hope and pray that these unenlightened faithful will be convinced, also by virtue of this present teaching, that the norm requiring completeness in kind and number, insofar as can be known from an honestly examined memory, is not a burden imposed on them arbitrarily, but a means of liberation and serenity.

No repentance without purpose of amendment

It is also self-evident that the accusation of sins must include the serious intention not to commit them again in the future. If this disposition of soul is lacking, there really is no repentance: this is in fact a question of moral evil as such, and so not taking a stance opposed to a possible moral evil would mean not detesting evil, not repenting. But as this must stem above all from sorrow for having offended God, so the intention of not sinning must be based on divine grace, which the Lord never fails to give anyone who does what he can to act honestly.

If we wished to rely only on our own strength, or primarily on our own strength, the decision to sin no more, with a presumed self-sufficiency, almost a Christian Stoicism or revived Pelagianism, we would offend against that truth about man with which we began, as though we were to tell the Lord, more or less consciously, that we did not need him. It should also be remembered that the existence of sincere repentance is one thing, the judgement of the intellect concerning the future is another: it is indeed possible that, despite the sincere intention of sinning no more, past experience and the awareness of human weakness makes one afraid of falling again; but this does not compromise the authenticity of the intention, when that fear is joined to the will, supported by prayer, of doing what is possible to avoid sin.

6. And here we should again consider the trust which should accompany the detestation of sin, the humble accusation of it and the firm will to sin no more. Trust is the possible and necessary exercise of supernatural Hope, by which we expect from God's Goodness, through his promises and through the merits of Jesus Christ the Saviour, eternal life and the graces necessary to attain it. It is also an act of that esteem we owe ourselves as creatures of God, who has already ennobled us by nature above all material creation, elevated us to Grace and mercifully redeemed us; it is an incentive to commit ourselves with all our strength, wherever lack of trust is scepticism and paralyzing frigidity.

In this regard, the Gospel offers us critically valuable teaching about the final tragedy of Judas' betrayal and Peter's saving reparation. Judas repented. The Gospel is explicit in this regard "When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, 'I have sinned in betraying innocent blood'" (Mt 27:3-4). However, he did not connect this repentance with the word Jesus spoke to him precisely while Judas was betraying him: "Friend" (Mt 26:48); he did not have trust and took his own life. Peter fell, indeed three times, with almost equal gravity, but he trusted and, having made his threefold reparation through love after Easter was confirmed by Christ in his ministry. St John wonderfully gives us the reason, the strength and sweetness of our hopes: "So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God abides in him" (1 Jn 4:16).

7. As I address those attending the course, I am thinking of all the priests of the world. The reflections I have just given are dedicated to the ministry of all us priests, so that we will not only be generously ready to hear the sacramental confessions of the faithful, but will continually, in liturgical homilies, catechesis, spiritual direction and every possible form our ministry to the truth may take, train them to benefit with better dispositions from this great gift of God's mercy, which is the sacrament of Penance. We ask the Lord for this same grace for ourselves, who, as brothers among brothers, must amend ourselves from sin so as to grow in holiness, by using that same sacrament as penitents.

In entrusting to the Blessed Virgin's motherly intercession the future ministry of the young men who have so diligently taken part in this course, I invoke upon everyone the favours of the divine kindness, as a pledge of which I affectionately send a special Apostolic Blessing.

From the Vatican, 22 March 1996.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10 April 1996.

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069