Sacrament of Penance - Common Issues
19 ... Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, "Peace be with you." 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 (Jesus) said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the holy Spirit. 23 Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained." [John 20:19-23]
In the evening of the day of the Resurrection, the day on which the Pascal Mystery which won peace between God and man was completed, the Lord appeared to His apostles saying, "Peace be with you." He then instituted the sacrament of His peace, the sacrament of reconciliation of man with God, commanding His ministers of reconciliation to forgive or retain sins in His Name and by His authority. The successors of the apostles (the bishops), and the priests who assist them, continue to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20), leading sinners to the Tribunal of Divine Mercy, accepting their contrition and confession of sin and granting them absolution on Christ's behalf.
Nature of the Sacrament
From the Scriptural accounts it is evident that the sacraments have a two-fold reality, one visible, one invisible. In Baptism Christ stated that being "born from above" would be a birth by "water and the Holy Spirit" (John 3:3-6). The water would be a sign, a sacrament, of the interior and invisible action of the Holy Spirit, washing and renewing the human person, making him or her a child of God. Likewise, in instituting the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper, the Lord provided that the common materials of bread and wine which nourish earthly life would be the visible sign of the invisible Bread from Heaven, Jesus Himself, who gives us eternal life (John 6:53-58, Mt. 26:26-28). On that same occasion He provided for sacramental signs of His personal ministry among us, by commanding His apostles to "do this in memory of me." Through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the apostles, their successors the bishops, and the priests who assist them, represent Christ's saving priesthood to us - the visible minister acting with the invisible saving power and authority of Christ.
We should expect to find, therefore, in the text of the institution of the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation, information regarding the nature of this sacrament. In fact we do. First, as we have already observed, Christ appointed certain ministers of reconciliation to act in his name. Not anyone can forgive and retain sin, but those to whom the office has been committed. In the first place this was the apostles, who then appointed other ministers of reconciliation to carry on this mission.
Every sacrament has matter and form. By common teaching, the necessary matter is the sins of the penitent - to which are associated concretely as proximate matter, that is, on the occasion of the Sacrament, the acts by which he submits his sins to the Church: contrition, the confession of sin, and the intention to accept penance.
Thus, lack of at least imperfect contrition (fear of punishment) invalidates the absolution of the sacrament, as does lack of an integral confession (holding out sins which one is obliged to confess - mortal sins, in number and kind), and the deliberate intention not to do penance for one's sins.
Certainly, the penitent should be interiorly contrite. The act of contrition is intended to excite the will to contrition and sorrow to the confessor. If not asked of an individual inside of confession one should make it outside of confession, either before or after.
On the matter of the penance, the confessor has a grave duty to impose one if the confession included grave matter, a slight duty if only venial sins. If the priest forgets then the penitent should mention it in the next confession. Impossibility of complying excuses any fault on the penitent's part. However, if the penitent forgets the penance, or forgets to perform the penance, he is likewise not obliged until he remembers. Forgetfulness creates an impossibility. Again, good will suggests asking the confessor at the next confession, but again, without strict obligation. As to when the penance must be done, strictly speaking, it need not be done even before receiving Holy Communion or even the next confession, as long as the intention to do it remains and one is not morally culpable for NOT doing it. HOWEVER, it is advisable that it be done immediately after confession, especially where the obligation is grave. A long delay in fulfilling a penance for grave sin can manifest deliberate intention, that is, by culpably not taking what concrete steps are
required to fulfil one's obligation. It should be noted that while the penance is essential to the sacrament, it remits the temporal punishment due to sin, not the eternal, which is remitted by the inflow of grace at the time of absolution. Only deliberate intention would void the absolution.
The form is the words of absolution. A priest has a moral obligation to say the entire form "I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." However, as to what is truly essential in this, it has been commonly taught that only "I absolve you" constitutes the essential form, as this states what is taking place. This form suffices in an emergency, though "from your sins" should ordinarily be appended. Substitutions of these core words, however, such has by "I forgive you," renders the sacrament probably invalid. Absolution speaks of the change of soul by the infusion of grace, that which is commonly taught as actually remitting sin. "I forgive you" is too generic, and does not precisely state what is occuring. It is seriously wrong, in any case, to deliberately place any sacrament's validity in doubt by altering the essential form or matter of a sacrament. It is one of those cases in which the common good of a parish obliges us to act to correct if we know the truth, speaking first to the priest, and then to the bishop, if necessary.
Answered by Colin B. Donovan, STL
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