What is the difference between Confession, Penance, and Reconciliation?
Those three names are commonly used interchangeably for the Sacrament in which sins are forgiven. The Sacrament is called “Confession” because the penitent makes a verbal confession of his or her particular sins. It is called “Penance” from another element of the Sacrament – the good action that the priest asks the penitent to perform as a sign of his or her sincerity, and as a way to bring some good into the world in reparation for the sin committed. And finally “Reconciliation” refers to the final effect of the Sacrament: the penitent is reconciled with God and the Church.
What is the origin of this Sacrament?
It is no exaggeration to say that the very reason that Jesus Christ came into the world was for reconciliation: to reconcile us to the Father and to one another. The very first message in the New Testament, on the lips of John the Baptist, was: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2) After the death of John the Baptist, this message was taken up by the Lord Jesus. During His life on earth, the Lord forgave the sins of various people He encountered. And after His Resurrection, he told His Apostles to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins in His name to all the nations. (Luke 24:47)
Why do Catholics confess their sins to a priest?
This is founded on the clear instruction of the Lord. After His Resurrection, the Lord appeared to His Apostles, breathed on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:22-23)
Why can’t I just as well confess my sins directly to God?
Christ instituted the Sacraments as He did because we are physical creatures living in a visible world. We know by seeing and hearing. All of the Sacraments involve an actual encounter with a person who speaks and acts in the name of Christ (in most of the Sacraments, a priest). Jesus well understood human nature and our desire to celebrate in a very open way and in the presence of family and friends; think about the way we celebrate Baptisms and weddings. Only in regard to Reconciliation are people inclined to become very “spiritual” and want everything to be internal, and only between them and God. This is on account of our pride – which is also the root of every sin. Humility is the way back to God; and the confessional is a great school of humility.
But understand, you can confess your venial sins directly to God through prayer or the mindful petition to God in the celebration of the Mass. Yet, frequent celebration of Reconciliation, even for venial sins only, and especially with the same Confessor, affords you the chance to have the ongoing conversation about your life and to receive spiritual guidance regarding sins that we cannot seem to shake. But grave and serious sins (mortal sins) must be confessed to a priest.
How do I prepare for Confession?
Before approaching the Sacrament, one makes an “examination of conscience.” This is the effort to recall one’s sins – to look to see what is “on my conscience.” It is often helpful to do so using guides that remind us of the range of typical sins. There are many versions of such guides. While guides based on the Ten Commandments are popular, the oldest mention of sin in the Bible is a Hebrew expression – not a single word – but an expression that means, “to break relationships.” A wonderful way to prepare for Reconciliation is to consider all of the relationships in your life and to seek reconciliation for the way you might have harmed a relationship, “in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.” (Confiteor)
When is the Sacrament of Reconciliation available?
All Catholic parishes have scheduled times at which a priest is available for Reconciliation. At Sacred Heart, we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation at regular times.
[link to: About Us/General Mass Information]
What if none of those times are feasible for me?
It is always possible to make an appointment for Reconciliation by contacting a priest. You may make an appointment to meet the priest at the Parish Office. And, you can always celebrate the Sacrament at any other Catholic Church in the area.
What if I haven’t been to the Sacrament for many years? How do I prepare? What do I say?
First, don’t be afraid. Jesus said, “Heaven rejoices more for one repentant sinner than for 99 righteous persons who never needed to repent.” The priest will be happy you’ve returned to confession after many years and will greet you with open arms. Second, try to prepare with the help of a good examination of conscience, but the priest will know that you cannot remember your sins with the precision of someone who celebrates the Sacrament regularly. Third, get the largest sins off of your shoulders first. Fourth, don’t be afraid to ask the priest for help; most confessors are happy to lead someone in your circumstances through an examination of the “big stuff” in the confessional. Finally, don’t wait. Come back to be reconciled to your loving Father, set off the celebration in heaven, and share your Father’s joy!
Where are the Confessionals in our church?
Our confessional is located just inside the main doors, to the right, at the back of the church. The white light over the confessional door indicates that the priest is present. If both doors are shut when the light is on, it means someone’s confession is being heard. You should wait outside, and you will probably find a line of people waiting that you can join. If you arrive, the light is on, and the right-hand door (as you face the confessional) is open – then the priest is ready and available to celebrate the sacrament.
Once I am in the Confessional, what should I do to celebrate this Sacrament?
Our confessional space is very old and very small. When you enter the confessional either kneel or if the space is too confining (tall people) or medical conditions make kneeling problematic, please feel free to stand. Your part in the celebration are to make your confession, to express contrition for your sins by saying a prayer called the “Act of Contrition,” and to do the penance assigned after leaving the reconciliation room. The priest’s two essential responsibilities are to listen pastorally and chat with you if it seems appropriate, to assign a penance, and to give absolution. He may give some advice or encouragement in the course of the Sacrament, but what is essential is the absolution that imparts the forgiveness that comes from God.
It seems there is a lot to remember. Do I need to take notes with me when I come into the confessional, so that I don’t forget anything?
You can certainly do that. But you need not be worried about forgetting some detail. Priests are very accustomed to prompting people as necessary, and making sure that everything that needs to happen does.
Some of my sins are really bad and difficult to talk about. Do I have to confess these too?
Even though these sins are hard to admit, they are the most important to confess. Serious sin (often called mortal sin) cuts one off from a full, loving relationship with God. In order to restore this relationship, it is necessary to confront the sin and take responsibility for it.
Will what I tell the priest remain a secret?
The priest is bound to absolute secrecy concerning the sins he hears in this Sacrament. A priest can never reveal the sins a person has confessed nor use the information in the governance of the parish. This is known as the “Seal of confession,” which admits of no exceptions. If a priest were to violate the seal of confession he would be automatically excommunicated.
How often should I go to confession?
The Church requires that Catholics go to confession at least once a year, especially to confess serious or mortal sins. Such sins must also be confessed before receiving Holy Communion. But since we are all sinners, going to confession every month or two would certainly be a healthy spiritual practice.
Should I be concerned that the priest will be upset or disgusted with me on account of the seriousness of my sins or the length of time since my last confession?
No. In fact, the priest will be very happy that you have come to this Sacrament of healing and forgiveness. Few things are more gratifying for a priest than to hear a serious or overdue confession. The priest leaves the confessional knowing that something important has happened and humbly grateful that he could be an instrument of God’s mercy and healing.
What is the “Act of Contrition?”
It is a prayer expressing regret for your sins, and the intention to love and serve God more faithfully in the future. One of the following forms is traditionally used.
O my God, I am heartily sorry
for having offended You.
And I detest all my sins
because of Your just punishments;
but most of all because they have offended You, my God,
who are all good and deserving of all my love.
I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace,
to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin. Amen.
I am sorry for my sins with all my heart.
In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good,
I have sinned against you
whom I should love above all things.
I firmly intend, with your help,
to do penance, to sin no more,
and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.
Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us.
In his name, my God, have mercy. Amen.