Speaking of forgiveness and firm purposes of resolve, this week we're going to talk about the Sacrament of Confession.
Confession (also called Reconciliation or Penance) is the sacrament by which sins committed after baptism are forgiven.
(The definition of a sacrament is "a outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace." There are seven sacraments in the Catholic Church - Baptism, Confession, Confirmation, the Eucharist, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.)
The Biblical Roots
"Jesus himself instituted the sacrament of Penance when he showed himself to his apostles on Easter day and commanded them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained' (Jn. 20:22a-23)." - YouCat, 227
Forgiving sins was a huge part of Jesus' ministry. Often if not always when he healed someone from a physical disease or hurt, He would forgive their sins and tell them to go and sin no more. Jesus is the Divine Physician, and healing souls is His specialty!
Continuing Jesus' work was the Apostles' special duty, the mission to which they would give the rest of their lives. In His name they were commanded to heal the sick and drive out demons. Doesn't it make sense that they were given the power to forgive sins, too? :)
Historically, the sacrament of Confession has always been an important part of Catholic Christianity. Here are some quotes I found on this webpage:
“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 Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure” (Didache 4:14, 14:1 [A.D. 70]).
“You [priests], then, who are disciples of our illustrious physician [Christ], you ought not deny a curative to those in need of healing. And if anyone uncovers his wound before you, give him the remedy of repentance. And he that is ashamed to make known his weakness, encourage him so that he will not hide it from you. And when he has revealed it to you, do not make it public, lest because of it the innocent might be reckoned as guilty by our enemies and by those who hate us” (Treatises 7:3 [A.D. 340]).
“It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries is entrusted. Those doing penance of old are found to have done it before the saints. It is written in the Gospel that they confessed their sins to John the Baptist [Matt. 3:6], but in Acts [19:18] they confessed to the apostles” (Rules Briefly Treated 288 [A.D. 374]).
How it Works
To make a good confession, five things are necessary:
1. Examination of Conscience: in preparing for confession, the penitent takes some time to reflect on the state of his soul and think about his sins. Only mortal (serious) sins (like missing Mass on Sunday, adultery, murder, etc.) must be confessed, but it's a good exercise in humility to confess venial (less serious) sins as well.
2. Sorrow for Sins: the penitent must have true contrition (sorrow) for his sins. Contrition can be either perfect, meaning motivated by love of God; or imperfect, meaning motivated by fear of punishment or hatred for the ugliness of sin. Either perfect or imperfect contrition will do, but perfect contrition is - well, more perfect.
3. Firm Resolve Not to Sin Again: the penitent must be determined to stay out of sin in the future and to avoid the near occasion of sin. I can't have the mindset, "Oh, stealing is bad, but that's okay; I'll just go to confession every time I do it." That's a big no-no. :)
4. Confession of Sins to a Priest: the scary part. Just kidding. :) After the penitent has told his sins as clearly and simply as possible (I'm not very good at this), the priest gives him absolution. At this moment the sins of the penitent are destroyed. (It feels really awesome.)
It isn't the priest who forgives our sins, but Jesus. Just as in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, God uses a man as His instrument in bringing grace to us poor mortals.
5. Penance: the penitent performs the act of penance which the priest assigned him. In the old days penance was really long and arduous, but now it's usually something simply like five Hail Marys or Three Our Fathers.
And then the penitent does a happy dance.