Sacrament of Reconciliation

In 1976, singer Elton John  had a big hit with the song, “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word” – in which he laments, “It always seems to me that sorry seems to be the hardest word.” While that ballad was a big hit with record buyers, its message remains a challenge to us; because, indeed, many times, sorry does seem to be the hardest word to say. Think of things that you may have done to friends or family members during your lifetime that you wish you could apologize for, but pride or fear kept the word “sorry” from being uttered.


The lyrics of this song can perhaps be heard echoing in our relationship with God. We know his commandments, we know his law, and yet we go astray. But we know in our hearts that we need to make things right with God and his Church; we know that we have to say “sorry.” But, how do we that? Sorry, indeed, seems to be the hardest word. But it doesn’t have to be that way, because by the goodness of Jesus Christ we have a Sacrament given to us for just this purpose, namely, the Sacrament of Penance (also called, Reconciliation or Confession). In this Sacrament, a penitent (one who is sorry for their sins) sits with -- or kneels in front of -- a Priest (one who ordained to sit in the place of Christ) and confess his sins, expresses contrition and has his sins absolved. He is also given an outward sign in that Sacrament that is called a penance – an external act that shows one’s desire to “be right” with God and his Church, again. The Penance may be prayers, scripture reading or a charitable act; in any event it is a token gesture that completes the Rite of Penance.


Bringing Wrongs to the Rite

Now, I would bet that many Catholics remember making their first Confession; I would equally wager that for too many of them that first Confession was their last Confession. Now, today, right now, this is the time to change that, this is the day to mend fences with God, neighbor and the Church. Many people, many people I know – part of that lost generation of Catholics who had weak instruction in the faith –  often don’t go to confession because they say that they do not know how to go to confession. Don’t fear that. When one comes to confession, the priest will guide you through it. Heck, we even have crib notes, so to speak, in the confessional room to guide you along.


Amazing Grace

Confession is in the truest sense a graced moment: it is the moment when God’s Sanctifying Grace is made accessible to you again. And it is so simple. One simply comes into the confessional room, he kneels down in front of the screen (providing anonymity), or, if available, he takes a seat opposite the priest. The person then indicates that he is ready to begin the confession; he makes the Sign of the Cross. At that time, the priest may choose to greet the penitent with a short passage from scripture. Then the penitent begins with a general formula for Confession – we all know the way, it is in every TV show and movie that shows a Confession. The person says, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, it has been (however long it has been) since my last confession. These are my sins.” Now, some people have told me that they have encountered folks that tell them “You shouldn’t say that ‘Bless me, Father’ thing.” They are wrong: the Rite of Penance dictates that the penitent expresses that he is ready to confess using a “general formula for confession.” The “Bless me, Father”  words express that and do so in a beautifully ritualized manner. Does the penitent have to say those words? No, he can say it in some other way, the Rite of Penance suggests one option as praying the Confiteor (“I confess to Almighty God and to you…”) but the common practice of “Bless me father…” is perfectly fine.


True Confessions

Then the penitent begins to confess his sins. He needs to name them and claim them as his own. What sins does one need to confess? Well, the Church says that the penitent must confess any mortal sins that are known to him. I know many people say, “Oh, my, I can’t remember all the sins that I committed!” That’s okay, one only has to confess the sins he can recall – notably the mortal sins, that is, the serious sins: the sins that have broken one’s relationship with God. The Church also commends the practice of confessing venial sins, those sins that are of less grave less significance. (The distinction between mortal and venial sins is bit more nuanced than what I just described, but that would be a topic for a whole ’nother article).

After one makes a confession to the best of his ability, he usually finishes with words like, “for these and for all my sins I am truly sorry” or some other words that express that he is finished with his confession. The priest will then counsel the penitent and assign him a penance, frequently prayers. The purpose of penance is to have the person, the penitent, make a token act that contributes to making, what the Church calls “satisfaction for sins.” That is to say, one completes a specific act or task assigned as penance as a way of showing some outward sign that they want to make up for their sins. Now of course we know that Christ has already taken our sins to the Cross for us – so what whatever we do is a gesture of good faith to add to, not to replace, Christ’s loving act.

Think of penance this way. If your five year old child knocks over a lamp that costs $100, there is no way he can make up for the cost of the lamp. You may ask him to give you a dollar from his allowance, or do some extra chores to make up, but really, he isn’t going to make a dent in the cost of replacing the lamp. In this analogy, one can say that, in fact, Christ has already replaced the lamp. And so too with penance, we are asked to do some small act to assist in making up for our sins, but Christ bears the brunt of it.


Who’s Sorry Now?

So, to this point in the confessional one has made a confession, received penance, and now the priest will ask the penitent to pray an Act of Contrition. What’s that? Well, an Act of Contrition is a short prayer that says “I’m sorry” to God, and expresses one’s intention to sin no more. When one goes to Confession one needs to be sorry for his sins – this sorrow is called contrition. Now, there are two types of contrition that we may come to Confession with – the first and best is called perfect contrition; this type of contrition means were are sorry for our sins because they offend God. But there is also imperfect contrition and that is when one is sorry for their sins because they know that they are wrong, that they shouldn’t have done them, and that they fear the loss of Heaven. It is this kind of the contrition you may have when you get a speeding ticket – you know you’re wrong, you know it’s the law, but you are more sorry that you were caught (and may face punishment) than you are sorry for the act. And so you plead guilty. Perfect contrition is best, but all that is required for Confession is imperfect contrition… and sometimes imperfect contrition is the best one can muster.


The Final Frontier

And now you pray your Act of Contrition prayer. To help you along there are usually a few versions of that prayer right in the confessional for you to read, if you need it. After that prayer, the priest absolves your sins using special words given us by the Church that wipe away your sins. He says, with his hands or a hand extended over you: “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” With that the sins of the penitent are absolved – his sins are gone. After that the priest will say something like “Go in peace” – and one may respond “Thanks be to God” or just “Thanks.” The penitent then leaves to do his penance. That’s it. Simple.