The New Evangelisation and the Sacrament of Penance
Archbishop of Glasgow
Meeting of the European Doctrinal Commissions
(Esztergom, 15 January 2015)
If my memory serves me well, it was Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York who,
during the 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelisation, made a point of
saying that the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation should be regarded as
the Sacrament of the New Evangelisation.
This observation was applauded for its positive spiritual and pastoral
intention. The core of the new evangelisation was emerging as a reality based on
a new encounter with the person of Jesus Christ and with his Church. The
sacrament of penance and reconciliation seemed ready-made for such an encounter.
As a result, Proposition 33 asked that the Sacrament of Penance and
Reconciliation should again be put at the centre of the pastoral activity of the
Church. Here is the text of that proposition:
The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is the privileged place to receive
God’s mercy and forgiveness. It is a place for both personal and communal
healing. In this sacrament, all the baptized have a new and personal encounter
with Jesus Christ, as well as a new encounter with the Church, facilitating a
full reconciliation through the forgiveness of sins. Here the penitent
encounters Jesus, and at the same time he or she experiences a deeper
appreciation of himself and herself. The Synod Fathers ask that this sacrament
be put again at the center of the pastoral activity of the Church.
I am not sure to what extent the Synod Fathers’ recommendation has become
reality. Practice is mixed. It is true that many Catholics no longer go to
confession or hardly ever go. And those who do approach the sacrament do so with
less regularity than was the case once. In a letter, a parishioner who wanted me
to approve general absolution for normal pastoral use said simply: …many
people are not willing to go to confession. It is possibly also true that
some priests may be unwilling to devote much time and energy to the ministry of
the confessional and to participate in pastoral planning which aims to
regenerate the sacrament. On the other hand, where the sacrament is given
importance, where it is made readily available, and where there is a reasonable
choice of priest-confessors, people do seem to come to confession in encouraging
This more positive aspect of the current situation should perhaps tend to
persuade us that the way forward lies not in accommodation or surrender to a
hostile or unpromising cultural situation, but instead to continue patiently,
faithfully, and compassionately to explain, teach, promote and celebrate what we
understand to be the gift of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins of those
who believe in him. If the personal encounter of Jesus with the human person is
the key to the new evangelisation, then bishops and priests really need to value
and promote the Sacrament of Penance in its essential integrity.
PART 1: THE RENEWAL OF FAITH AND DOCTRINE
1. The Mystery of Reconciliation in the History of
As the Introduction to the Rite of Penance outlines (1-3), Jesus Christ is the
centre of the Father’s salvific plan of reconciliation and mercy. Jesus began
his work on earth by preaching repentance and saying: Turn away from sin and
believe the good news (Mark 1:15). Jesus welcomed sinners and reconciled them to
the Father. Above all, Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose again for
our justification. On the night before his passion and death, he instituted the
Eucharist as the sacrament of the new covenant in his blood for the forgiveness
of sins. After his resurrection, the risen Lord sent the Holy Spirit on the
Apostles, empowering them to forgive or retain sins and sending them forth to
all peoples to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins in his name. And
since the beginning, the Church has never failed to call men from sin to
conversion and by the celebration of penance to show the victory of Christ over
This victory over sin is first achieved sacramentally in baptism. Peter gave
voice to this mystery in his preaching of the kerygma: “Repent and let every one
of you be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins”
(Acts 2:38). And so, in the Creed, the Catholic Church proclaims her faith in
“the one baptism for the forgiveness of sins”. In the sacrifice of the Mass, the
passion and death of Christ for the forgiveness of sins is made present. Christ
himself is present and is offered as “the sacrificial Victim” whose death God
willed to reconcile us to himself (Eucharistic Prayer 3) in order that “we may
be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit” (Eucharistic Prayer 2).
And furthermore, Jesus Christ instituted for his Church the sacrament of
penance, giving to his apostles and their successors power to forgive sins. In
this way, through the sacrament of penance, the members of the Church who fall
into sin after baptism may be reconciled with God and renewed in grace.
The renewal of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation in the pastoral
activity of the Church for the promotion of a new evangelisation will depend to
a large extent on how these fundamental themes of Catholic faith can be
communicated to the faithful, showing that the forgiveness of sins is an
essential dimension of the salvation of which Jesus Christ is the unique bearer
and of which his Church is the sacrament.
In this way, the faithful will learn that the compassion of Jesus is much more
than the contemporary secular super-virtue of tolerance which merely accepts and
accommodates and excuses behaviours which are currently fashionable while
absolutely refusing to forgive the unmentionable transgressions against the
dominant canons of correct speech and action. Rather the compassion of Jesus in
the sacrament of penance forgives all sin of which the sinner is truly
repentant. The compassion of Jesus heals and renews. The compassion of Jesus
truly re-creates the holiness and innocence of the soul. The compassion of Jesus
brings a renewal of true friendship with God and man. The compassion of Jesus is
at the heart of the absolution which is imparted by the priest to the contrite
penitent in the Sacrament of Penance in which Jesus the Lord says what he alone
can say: “My child, your sins are forgiven. Go in peace and sin no more.”
2. The Reconciliation of Penitents in the Life of
Because of Christ’s love and his gifts and because the Church is Christ’s body,
the Church is holy. But at the same time, the Church is always in need of
purification. The baptised are exposed to temptation and unfortunately often
fall into sin. As a result the Church constantly pursues repentance and renewal.
In the first place, baptism forgives all sin, both inherited (original) and
personal. However baptism is only received once. The sacrament of the Holy
Eucharist was instituted in the blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. In
the course of time, through theological reflection and doctrinal clarification,
the Church established that the Holy Eucharist forgives venial sin and is a
protection against mortal sin, and that anyone who is conscious of mortal sin
must not receive Holy Communion without first making a sacramental confession
(if a confessor is available).
While forgiveness of sins can be gained in other ways, it remains the conviction
of faith of the Catholic Church that “Christ instituted the sacrament of
Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since
Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace
and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance
offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification.
The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as "the second plank [of
salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace." (CCC 1446)
The Code of Canon Law puts this in more succinct terms: “Individual and
integral confession and absolution constitute the only ordinary means by which a
member of the faithful conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and the
Church. Only physical or moral impossibility excuses from confession of this
type; in such a case reconciliation can be obtained by other means “(CIC
The reference in this canon to “other means” of reconciliation is helpful
because it points to the important fact that penance and conversion (whether
sacramental or other) is essentially interior, and also to the many forms of
penance in Christian life (CCC 1434) which may favour the process of conversion
and reconciliation, above all from the harm and gradual corrosion of the
spiritual life caused by everyday faults.
But the major insight of faith in terms of the forgiveness of sins is that the
sacrament of penance was instituted for the forgiveness of serious sins
committed after baptism. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it,
referring to the Council of Trent’s Decree on the Sacrament of Penance:
Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance: All
mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious
must be recounted by them in confession.
And answering the implicit question – when must we go to Confession? – the
Catechism summarises the precepts of the Church for different categories of
· According to the Church’s command, “after having attained the age of discretion,
each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious
sins at least once a year.”
Anyone who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy
Communion, even if he experiences deep contrition, without having first received
sacramental absolution, unless he has a grave reason for receiving Communion and
there is no possibility of going to confession.
· Children must go to the sacrament of Penance before receiving Holy Communion for
the first time.
In these days when many of the faithful go to Confession rather infrequently,
the doctrine of the confession of everyday faults needs to be freshened up in
catechesis and pastoral practice. There is a good balance and wisdom about the
teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this matter:
Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is
nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession
of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies,
let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit. By
receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father’s mercy,
we are spurred to be merciful as he is merciful (CCC 1458).
And as Pope Benedict XVI observed in his 2007 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation
on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis, it is the duty of bishops to
encourage frequent confession among the faithful: The Synod recalled that
Bishops have the pastoral duty of promoting within their Dioceses a
reinvigorated catechesis on the conversion born of the Eucharist, and of
encouraging frequent confession among the faithful (SC 21).
Part 2 SOME THEOLOGICAL AND CANONICAL ISSUES
(Adaptation of an Ad Clerum Instruction for Lent 2014)
1. Hearing Confessions is not a burden
The success of the Sacrament of Penance depends a great deal on the pastors of
the Church. The ministers of the Church need to banish from their minds any
thought that hearing confessions is a burden whose irritating effect should be
limited by cutting to the bone the time that is given to the humble ministry of
It has been my experience as a parish priest that time spent in the confessional
is never wasted, even if people do not at first come in as many numbers as we
would wish. If they know you are there, they will come when they need you. And
if you are there, and if you tell them you will be there, and if they know you
will be there, that in itself constitutes a kairos, a time of grace, for
your people and they will be drawn to Confession.
Confession should not be treated like a Cinderella sacrament. Along with the
most Holy Eucharist, Reconciliation is the only other sacrament we receive
repeatedly through our lives. In our ministry, priests should value this
sacrament for what it truly is, the sacred and efficacious sign and instrument
of personal encounter between the Lord and one of his sinful disciples in which
we expose our soul to him for his gracious touch of forgiveness and mercy. What
could be more beautiful or more wonderful or more worth celebrating devoutly and
well? What could be more worth a priest’s attention and effort and time?
Priests need to examine their consciences and consider if they give enough time
and effort in their ministry to this precious Sacrament of forgiveness, if they
commend it seriously enough to their people, and if they make themselves
available to their parishioners often enough and for long enough in the
In a word, as Pope Benedict XVI advised: All priests should dedicate
themselves with generosity, commitment and competency to administering the
sacrament of Reconciliation. (Sacramentum Caritatis, 21).
2. Rite 3: For Reconciliation of Several Penitents
with General Confession and Absolution
As has been mentioned, many contemporary Catholics find it difficult to go to
Confession. In one of his Wednesday Audiences (19th February 2014),
Pope Francis suggested why. He mentioned laziness or embarrassment, a loss of
the sense of sin, and the tendency to make oneself the centre and the measure of
right and wrong. For whatever reason, many people do not want to confess their
serious sins to the priest. If they do not abandon the sacrament altogether, the
solution that some adopt is to seek out questionable forms of the Sacrament
which allow them in one way or another to receive absolution without an integral
confession of sin. And where these practices become customary, it has a
deleterious effect on the Sacrament of Penance in that community and in
surrounding communities, and it can be very difficult to convince the community
not to change its ways.
In these circumstances, priests need to resolve not to concede to temptations to
take shortcuts with the Sacrament of Penance with dubious initiatives which may
impinge not just on liceity (whether it is allowed or not) but on its validity
(whether it confers grace or not).
It seems that, although the vast majority of priests respect the norms regarding
the sacrament of penance, not everyone does. And there may be a lingering
feeling among some priests and some lay people that the norms regarding the
sacrament of penance are simply bureaucratic rules and regulations of a sort
that the bishop must publicly uphold as a matter of routine but in fact can be
legitimately put aside or creatively circumvented for penitential liturgies in
Advent and Lent prior to Christmas and Easter.
I refer in the first place of the use of Rite 3 for the Reconciliation of
Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolution. It must be stressed
that Rite 3 is designed for exceptional circumstances which rarely or ever
manifest themselves in our circumstances. In particular, the condition which
refers to the impossibility of going to confession and receiving the sacraments
for a “lengthy” time (Latin, diu) completely takes it out of our normal
pastoral situation. In our situation, there is almost always time and
opportunity to go to confession before very long.
A careful reading of the norms governing the use of Rite 3 clearly shows this
(See the Rite of Penance 31; and 32-34; CIC 961-963; and see especially the
Apostolic Letter of Pope St John Paul II, Misericordia Dei – On
Certain Aspects of the Celebration of the Sacrament of Penance [7 April
And it is to be noted that the conditions regarding Rite 3 bear not just on
liceity, but on validity (cf. CIC 962/1). We would not want to mislead people
into thinking they have received sacramental absolution when in fact they have
not. We would not want to turn a penitential act of worship into a charade.
We do well to pay serious attention to the teaching of the Catechism of the
Catholic Church which reminds us:
Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance: All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are
conscious must be recounted by them in confession…When Christ’s faithful strive
to confess all the sins that they can remember, they undoubtedly place all of
them before the divine mercy for pardon. But those who fail to do so and
knowingly withhold some, place nothing before the divine goodness for remission
through the mediation of the priest, "for if the sick person is too ashamed to
show his wound to the doctor, the medicine cannot heal what it does not know (CCC 1456).
I also find the case very persuasive that the Catechism makes for the disclosure
of sins to another person, in terms of good practice from a human point of view,
especially in a time when the art of counselling is so valued.
The confession (or disclosure) of sins, even from a simply human point of view,
frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an
admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility
for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the
Church in order to make a new future possible (CCC 1455).
It is widely recognised that the unburdening of our consciences to a sympathetic
confidant is of considerable personal therapeutic value. This should be all the
more so in confession when the penitent can, if he or she wishes, have the
advantage of anonymity and is protected by the confessional seal which
guarantees an absolute confidentiality.
It is also the case that those who feel most aggrieved by the wrongful use of
Rite 3 are priests in neighbouring parishes whose plans for special times for
Confession and for Penitential Liturgies before major feasts get derailed
because many of their parishioners choose to participate in a ceremony which
cancels or severely restricts the integral confession of sin which is an
essential part of the sacramental event. It is hardly surprising that where Rite
3 is used contrary to the norms, Catholics just don’t want to go to confession
Priests will do well to consider a passage from Misericordia Dei where
Pope St John Paul II challenges the temptation to contrive the conditions for
“It is not acceptable to contrive or to allow the contrivance of situations
of apparent grave necessity… and still less because of penitents’
preference for general absolution, as if this were a normal option equivalent to
the two ordinary forms set out in the Ritual”.
In fact in any future revision of the Rite of Penance, it would be advisable to
take Rite 3 out of the Ritual and publish it separately as a Rite for
Emergencies and Exceptional Situations of Grave Necessity. This would guard
against the temptation to consider Rite 3 as an option to be used in normal
So it is time to let go once and for all of the well-intentioned but
questionable use of Rite 3. The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation in the
form of Rite 3 (for Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolution) is
only to be used in exceptional circumstances according to the norms. It is
especially to be noted that the condition of the impossibility of receiving the
sacraments for a considerable period of time effectively takes Rite 3 out of
most normal pastoral circumstances.
3. Rite “Two-and-a-Half”
I refer now to what has come to be known colloquially among priests in Scotland
and Ireland, and perhaps elsewhere in the English-speaking world, as rite “two
and-a-half”. In fact it is not any kind of rite for sacramental reconciliation
that the Catholic Church recognises. It is a pure innovation without any
authoritative foundation. Because it has no basis in liturgical norm and is not
a recognised or approved liturgical form, the shape of this ritual may vary, but
perhaps the common elements are these: a penitential act of worship in which at
least there is an examen, a general confession of sin, a communal act of
sorrow, a ‘going before’ a priest, an individual expression of general sorrow
for undisclosed sins (or perhaps 1 sin), and individual absolution.
You can easily see that this structure is hardly more than what happens in the
penitential rite at the beginning of Mass: In the penitential rite at the
beginning of Mass, the priest invites the assembly to acknowledge their sins.
There is a pause for reflection and then everyone recites the “I confess”,
expressing sorrow for their sins and asking forgiveness. What happens next is a
kind of “absolution”. The priest prays: “May Almighty God have mercy on us,
forgive us our sins and lead us to everlasting life”.
But this is not the form of sacramental absolution. We might well ask, “Why ever
not?” Why should not the priest then say: “I absolve you from your sins in the
name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”? The reason is that
the Church believes and teaches that a general confession of sin is not a
sufficient basis for sacramental absolution. At least some attempt to make an
individual and integral confession of sins to the priest acting in the person of
Christ is required.
Once again, we do well to take note of the teaching of the Catechism of the
Catholic Church which reminds us:
The Church’s faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere
to it. When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith
received from the apostles – whence the ancient saying: lex orandi, lex
credendi…The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. Liturgy
is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition(CCC 1124). For this reason no sacramental rite may be modified or manipulated at the
will of the minister or the community. Even the supreme authority in
the Church may not change the liturgy arbitrarily, but only in the obedience of
faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy (CCC 1125).
So once again, I think it is time to let go of such defective and misleading
rituals. It is irresponsible to take the risk of presenting the ritual described
above, or variations of the same, as a licit and valid form of the Sacrament of
Penance and Reconciliation. It is salutary for us all to remember that none of
us, bishops included, is exempt from obedience to the Church’s discipline or
from the consequences which could ensue from deliberate or neglectful
4. Theology of the Sacraments
I suspect that the misuse of the Sacrament of Penance comes down to
forgetfulness about what sacraments are and how they are efficacious signs and
instruments of Christ’s grace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarises
centuries of theology and doctrine when it teaches as follows:
Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify.They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who
baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that
each sacrament signifies (CCC 1127).
Augustinian sacramental theology spoke of the sacrament as a sacred sign (signum
sacrum) with a verbal element (Accedit verbum ad elementum et fit
sacramentum) in a Neo-Platonic context in which the sign was a participation
at the level of being in the sacred reality. This was teased out originally by
St Isidore of Seville in more western categories as “sign/sacrament alone,
sign/sacrament and reality, and grace of the sacrament” (sacramentum tantum,
sacramentum et res, res sacramenti), which became a classic way of
accounting for the essential elements of what was called a sacrament. The
canonical shorthand became form (words) and matter (the physical
sign). More modern sacramental theology, influenced by the liturgical
renewal, speaks of a “core symbolism” which referred to both the liturgical word
The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way:
The liturgical word and action are inseparable both insofar as they are signs
and instruction and insofar as they accomplish what they signify. When the Holy
Spirit awakens faith, he not only gives an understanding of the Word of God, but
through the sacraments also makes present the "wonders" of God which it
proclaims. The Spirit makes present and communicates the Father’s work,
fulfilled by the beloved Son (CCC 1155).
The point is this: the efficaciousness (the grace-bearing quality) of the
sacrament has always been linked to the presence of the sacred sign, or
the sacramentum et res, or the core symbolism, together with a
word which proclaims the grace of salvation which is signified. These
constitutive elements are different in each sacrament.
- Baptism: The grace of the new life of Baptism is tied to water and the invocation of
the Trinity. You could have a very meaningful and joyful birthing or naming
ceremony without the use of water and without mentioning the Holy Trinity. This
might even be very spiritual, but it would not be Baptism.
- Confirmation: In Confirmation, the seal of the Holy Spirit is tied to the anointing with the
oil of chrism and the form of words, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy
Spirit.” If those elements, that core symbolism, is not there, what happens may
well be a spiritual and joyful event, but it is not Confirmation
- Eucharist: At Mass, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the reality of the
Eucharistic Sacrifice depend on the use of bread and wine, (the epiclesis) and
the words of institution. If the bread and wine are not used, if the words of
institution are omitted, you could still have a worthy and spiritual act of
worship, but whatever has been going on, it’s not the Mass.
- Orders: In Ordination, we know that the Sacrament is conferred when the bishop
lays hands on the ordinand and prays the prayer of consecration. Without this
core symbolism, there may be a very worthy rite of institution or commissioning
or appointment, but at the end of it there is no new bishop, priest or deacon.
- Matrimony: Again, in Marriage, the sign is the consent of a man and a woman making them
husband and wife. If that does not happen, what happens might be very charming
and joyful, but it is not Marriage.
- Anointing: In the Sacrament of the Anointing, the sign is the action and words with
sacred oil. If that is not there, whatever occurs might be a consoling and
prayerful action, but it is not the Sacrament of Anointing.
- Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation: In the Sacrament of Penance, finally, the Church has established that the sign
is the penitent confessing all their sins to the priest who gives absolution in
the person of Jesus Christ. If that is not there, whatever happens might be
spiritually consoling and joyful, but it is not sacramental forgiveness of sins.
(In exceptional circumstances, when the conditions are verified, and always
according to norm, these elements may be transposed but not suppressed.)
So, in the sacraments instituted by Jesus Christ, God has seen fit to link his
saving love to certain signs and words which proclaim what is celebrated and
signified. If the sign is not there, whatever occurs might be spiritually very
worthy and even joyful, but it is not the sacrament.
Of course, grace and forgiveness can be given by God outside the Sacraments and
outside the Church. But the Sacraments which Christ gave us “work” (i.e. confer
grace) through the use of certain signs which signify the grace of the
Sacrament, and if these signs are not used, we are not celebrating Christ’s
5. The Sacrament of Penance and the Eucharist, and
the Practice of Indulgences
It is a principle of classic Catholic sacramental theology that all the
sacraments tend towards the Eucharist as their centre. The Sacrament of Penance
tends to the Eucharist in so far as it offers the gift of reconciliation with
God and with the Church which is celebrated and expressed in the Eucharist as
the sacrament of the redemption. Pope Benedict XVI observed: Reconciliation,
as the Fathers of the Church would say, is ‘laboriosus quidam baptismus’; they
thus emphasized that the outcome of the process of conversion is also the
restoration of full ecclesial communion, expressed in a return to the Eucharist
(Sacramentum Caritatis 20). This in fact corresponds to practice
since, according to the law of the Church, in general terms penitents who are
conscious of serious sin are obliged to go to Confession before receiving Holy
Communion. And in fact, again in general terms, Catholics go to Confession in
order to be free of their sins and be less unworthy to receive the Eucharist.
When we go to Confession, the Eucharist is in our minds. It is somehow for the
Eucharist that we go to Confession, even if we are not conscious of serious or
mortal sin. It needs to be said that any disruption of this relationship through
questionable innovations, even for the best of intentions, would tend to render
the Sacrament of Penance obsolete.
For instance, it has been suggested that the situation of the divorced and
re-married (without canonical annulment) is similar to that of the lapsi
of Christian antiquity who, after a time of canonical penance could be
re-admitted to full ecclesial communion and thus also to the sacraments.
However, it must be said that the two situations are not comparable. In the
situation of the lapsi, it was a case of re-integrating Christians who
had abjured their faith under the pressure of persecution, but who had repented
later, making a new and full profession of their faith, thus re-establishing
ecclesial communion and access to the sacraments. In the case of the divorced
and re-married of the present time, the proposal is to admit them once more to
the sacraments without changing their state of life and intimate behaviour which
are objectively contrary to the indissolubility of a pre-existent sacramental
union which has not been annulled. Therefore, the situation of the divorced and
re-married of today does not bear comparison with the lapsi of the early
Moreover, in this connection, it is worth bearing in mind that, according to the
teaching of the Church, the forgiveness of sins involves certain acts of the
penitent. These acts are contrition, confession of sin and satisfaction (cf. CCC
1450-1460). The most important of these is clearly contrition or sorrow for sin
which, following the Council of Trent, is defined in the Catechism as “sorrow of
the soul and detestation of the sin committed, together with the resolution not
to sin again” (CCC 1451; cf. DS 1676). In English, the Short Act of Contrition
which all Catholics learn in their childhood concludes with the words, “And I
will not sin again.”
This understanding of contrition draws on the relationship between forgiveness
and repentance clearly established in Sacred Scripture. The First Letter of John
provides us with a very striking text: “If we say we have no sin in us, we are
deceiving ourselves and refusing to admit the truth; but if we acknowledge our
sins, then God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and purify us from
everything that is wrong” (1 John 1,9; cf. Acts 3,19; 5,31; 11, 18; 26,18; Luke
24,47; 1 John 1,9). This biblical witness makes it impossible to propose a
forgiveness of God which does not involve the conversion of the sinner.
In regard to the Penance-Eucharist connection, I would like to quote further
what Pope Benedict XVI said in Sacramentum Caritatis about the wise use
of indulgences as a way of promoting the Sacrament of Penance and
Reconciliation. I would also note that if Pope Benedict XVI’s advice is to be
taken, there would have to be some work done in most local churches on
recovering the meaning of indulgences.
Finally, a balanced and sound practice of gaining indulgences, whether for
oneself or for the dead, can be helpful for a renewed appreciation of the
relationship between the Eucharist and Reconciliation. By this means the
faithful obtain "remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins
whose guilt has already been forgiven." The use of indulgences helps us to
understand that by our efforts alone we would be incapable of making reparation
for the wrong we have done, and that the sins of each individual harm the whole
community. Furthermore, the practice of indulgences, which involves not only the
doctrine of Christ’s infinite merits, but also that of the communion of the
saints, reminds us "how closely we are united to each other in Christ ... and
how the supernatural life of each can help others." Since the conditions for
gaining an indulgence include going to confession and receiving sacramental
communion, this practice can effectively sustain the faithful on their journey
of conversion and in rediscovering the centrality of the Eucharist in the
Christian life (SC 21).
6. Our Praxis of the Sacrament of Penance and
Our standard practice of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is what we
commonly call “Confession”. This is Rite 1 – For Reconciliation of Individual
Penitents. With the relative shortage of priests, it is becoming more awkward to
plan, prepare and execute Rite 2 – For Reconciliation of Several Penitents with
Individual Confession and Absolution – with a sufficient number of
priest-confessors to minister to a large gathering of penitents. So it is
important to make our standard practice of Confession as convenient and as
suitable as possible. Here are some proposals which could be discussed and
implemented at Parish and Deanery level.
(i) Every parish should have at least one continuous hour of Confessions per
(ii) The “Confessional” should be clearly marked and set up for Confessions.
(iii) Times for Confession should be published with a start time and a finishing time.
(iv) Times for Confession should correspond wherever they are published:
Notice-boards, bulletins and on-line sites.
(v) With only one priest in nearly all parishes, Confessions on a Saturday
evening (which is the common practice in Scotland) can become inconvenient.
Saturday evening does not need to be the time for Confessions. Other times in
the week should be explored and used. People would get used to this.
(vi) Parishes in a deanery or local area may want to have different days and times
(vii) In order to provide a sufficiency of confessors, from time to time priests could
exchange confessionals for their weekly hour of confessions.
(viii) In the run-up to Christmas and Easter, short periods for Confession can be
provided each day at convenient times, especially if Rite 2 liturgies are
impossible to organise.
(ix) Deaneries or groups of parishes should discuss whether they can set up a
‘Confession Day’ in a suitable church for continuous confessions through several
hours on a given day. This could happen, for instance, on the Friday before Palm
Sunday, or, possibly on the Monday or Tuesday of Holy Week. Recent experience
shows that these ‘Confession Days’ are surprisingly effective.
- Rite 2: For the Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession
Rite 2 liturgies can be found in the Rite of Penance. I commend and encourage
such good practice. When well organised and planned – especially with the
participation of a sufficient number of priest-confessors – these liturgies are
very beautiful and effective, emphasising the ecclesial dimension of
reconciliation. Indeed on a human level, many penitents simply appreciate the
example of other Catholics going to Confession, and the presence and support of
other people in their own journey of conversion, which comes to a moment of
special intensity in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.
- Physical or Moral Impossibility
According to Canon Law, “individual and integral confession and absolution
constitute the sole ordinary means by which a member of the faithful who is
conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and with the Church” (CIC 960).
However the same canon accepts that “physical or moral impossibility alone
excuses from such confession.” And the legislation goes on to say, “in which
case reconciliation may be attained by other means also”.
This is a most merciful and understanding solution from which we may all have
benefitted at some time in our lives, and it should not be glossed over in our
practice and catechesis. In such cases, when there are genuine cases of physical
or moral impossibility, perhaps prayer, pilgrimage, penance and charitable
giving may win for such persons the grace of forgiveness and reconciliation.
In his Wednesday Audience on 19th February 2014, Pope Francis made a
warm and lively appeal to pilgrims to receive the Sacrament of Penance and
Reconciliation. His message was: “Be courageous and go to Confession.” Here is
the official English-language summary of what Pope Francis said:
“Dear Brothers and Sisters: Through the Sacraments of Initiation, we receive
new life in Christ. This life we carry in earthen vessels, however, and we still
experience temptations, suffering, and death. Because of sin, we can even lose
this new life. Jesus therefore willed that the Church continue his works of
salvation for her members, in particular through the Sacrament of
Reconciliation, which flows from the Paschal Mystery. The forgiveness we receive
is not the result of our own efforts, but is the gift of the Holy Spirit
reconciling us to God and to each other. While the celebration of the Sacrament
is personal, it is rooted in the community of the Church, in which the Holy
Spirit is present, uniting us all in Jesus Christ. When confessing our sins
then, we confess to the priest who represents not only God but also the
community of the Church that accompanies us on the path of conversion… The
Sacrament of Reconciliation calls us back to God, and embraces us with his
infinite mercy and joy. May we allow his love to renew us as his
children and to reconcile us with him, with ourselves, and with one another”.
Pope Francis has shown that he has the heart of a priest-confessor, of a priest
who treasures the ministry of reconciliation with which he has been entrusted.
He is giving us every encouragement to commend Confession to our people. I hope
we can respond generously and creatively to the Pope’s promptings for the sake
of the new evangelisation.