Sancta Missa - Rituale Romanum (Roman Ritual) - Penance - Introduction



When the fathers of the Church say that penance is a second plank of salvation for all who have suffered supernatural shipwreck after baptism, it is implied that they conceive of a real dependence of the former upon the latter. And we understand from the development of doctrine that this dependence rests absolutely on the baptismal character, which is the basis in the subject for reconciliation and renewed friendship with God, if such is to be accomplished by sacramental means. For the character, the indelible seal of our organic union with Christ, is not destroyed by sin, no matter how heinous. Even the crime of unbelief, which alone severs all communion with Christ in His body, the Church, does not destroy the sacramental character. Tragic though it is, the culprit's soul retains the mark of the divine Lamb--to its condemnation, it is true; yet in this case too rehabilitation or reincorporation in Christ will be founded on the same basis. It is owing to the ineffaceability of the character that baptism can never be repeated, and that there must be in the dispensation of Providence another sacrament of reconciliation, similar to baptism, but still distinct in its purpose and to certain defined limits in its effects. For baptism is a new creation, the sacrament of regeneration and incorporation in the mystic body, the bestowal of the pristine robe of sanctifying grace, which involves a total obliteration of both sin and its punishment in time and in eternity. Penance, on the other hand, is the sacrament of reanimation and healing of an unhappily fallen member of Christ, bruised and broken and dead in sin--the sacrament of restoration to friendship with God and renewed union with Christ. It also brings full pardon of sin, with full remission of eternal punishment, but a part of the debt remains to be paid. This is the temporal punishment, which even sacramental absolution does not cancel entirely. Only by exercising the virtue of penance as an integral part of the sacrament can full satisfaction be rendered to God in this world and all debts canceled by Him. It is from this necessity-that the recipient approach the sacrament in a penitential spirit and laden with the fruits of penitential works, whether they anticipate or more generally follow the actual pronouncement of absolution--that the sacrament has its very name.

Through the sacramental mystery of penance, the passion of Jesus comes down to us anew; and His saving blood flows anew as a purifying stream over the filth of our wickedness. We have been made a new creature by death and resurrection with Christ in baptism, and have received from the Church the admonition to carry our new life without stain to the judgment seat of our Lord. But Christ knew what is in man; therefore, on the day He arose from the dead, He instituted the sacrament which would again and again, as often as we have need of it, put us in contact with the paschal mystery of redemption, in order that we might renew in ourselves His new and glorious and immortal life. It is the risen Savior Himself who lifts us up when we are prostrate in sin, albeit the operation takes place through the instrumentality of a priest. Yet He left no doubt that the minister of penance acts in the name of God, when He prefaced the granting of power to absolve with the words: "As the Father has sent me, I also send you. When He had said this, He breathed on them, and He said to them: 'Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.'"[1] True, the priest, in the capacity of minister of penance, is a physician in the sense that he makes a spiritual diagnosis and prescribes a remedy; and judge in that he decides whether or not the subject is properly disposed; but he becomes in one act physician, judge, and mediator when he dispenses this grace-laden mystery through the rite of absolving. The most essential act, therefore, in the whole process of this sacrament is absolution, under which sign divine grace is infallibly conveyed (providing no obstacle is placed in the way), and under which operation Christ is present as priest, physician, and judge. Other external acts like declaration of sins and satisfaction sometimes may be dispensed with; absolution never, for it is unconditionally of the essence of the sacrament. By this sacramental act the passion of Christ belongs to us as though we ourselves had suffered it. Much can be said for the psychological and therapeutic value of confession, but apart from sacramental absolution about the same results can be obtained in a psychiatrist's office. And the peace of soul, which we desire and obtain when we receive penance, is a concomitant of our real supernatural resuscitation through being absolved, much more than it is a moral consequence of merely revealing our inner wretchedness.

It is in virtue of the sacrament itself, rather than owing to any other accompanying and accidental advantages, that devotional confession is so earnestly recommended. Penance, like all sacraments, has a medicinal character and effect, and as such it was instituted immediately for the healing of a soul afflicted with grievous sin. However, the sacramental principle must be retained and applied in each case, making no exception for penance--that sacraments have a consecratory (or reconsecratory) and an elevating function, and besides they are the chief means by which we tender worship to God as members of His Son and of His Church. It is this latter function of transfiguration which is chiefly operative and which must be emphasized in the practice of devotional confession, because the penitent in such confession, guilty of only venial sin or entirely free from sin, does not require the healing of penance-venial sin may be expiated in other ways--but he is seeking in penance its secondary effects: blotting out of venial sins, increase of divine life, remission of temporal punishment, divine assistance in future combat against the powers of darkness, and last but not least the glory of God.

We are going to consider below how the subjective dispositions of the recipient play a more significant part in penance than they do in the other sacraments. Nonetheless, it may not be overlooked that here, as in all intercourse between Creator and creature, God's operation in us through grace is paramount "Convert us, O Lord, to you, and we shall be converted; renew our days as from the beginning."[2] Christ goes out to seek the sinner. The sinner does not stand abandoned in his misery, nor does he attempt on his own initiative, no matter how strong the personal effort, to struggle up to the heights from whence he has plunged. God calls the sinner back to Himself, by instilling confidence in His tender forgiveness or fear of His just retribution. And if the lost sheep heeds the call, he appears before God, not in isolation and loneliness, but in the unity and faithfulness of Christ and succored by the compassionate tears and prayers of the Church. He is led back in repentance by One who is not only the divine transcendence but also the humanly immanent One--by the God-man, the mediator, who as man is not insensible to the penitent's lapses, and who as God is capable of absolving, of binding up his wounds and pouring in oil and wine. Moreover, when it comes to satisfaction for sin, the Church prays in the rite for confession: "May the passion of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, and all the good you do and the suffering you endure, gain for you the remission of your sins, increase of grace, and the reward of everlasting life." Herein lies a wealth of teaching and a world of consolation. Christ our head has made satisfaction for all our iniquity by His atoning sacrifice. Left to ourselves we would be powerless to do anything of the kind. Therefore, every penance that we perform by way of expiation and every cross we endure, all are meritorious only because they receive consecration from being drawn into the all-redeeming and all-satisfying, yes, the superabundant sacrament of God's condescension to us. And more--Christ and the penitent are supported in the expiatory act rendered to the Almighty by the entire communion of saints, the merits won for the penitent by the Mother of the Redeemer and all His faithful members triumphant in heaven, militant on earth, and suffering in purgatory.

What does the sacrament of penance demand from the recipient? We indicated above that his personal contribution to the validity and efficacy of penance is of greater moment here than in the case of the other sacraments. The dispositions required of the subject can best be summed up in the Greek word "metanoia," a transformation, a conversion of mind and will. The act of "going to confession," consequently, is infinitely more than a revealing of one's miserable plight, in the manner of unloading a heap of refuse without further ado. Too much emphasis can be laid on the declaration of faults, to the neglect of the far greater importance of genuine conversion which includes, above all, sorrow, and sorrow contains implicitly permanence of resolve and the will to make satisfaction. "Be converted and do penance for all your iniquities, and iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions, by which you have transgressed, and make to yourselves a new heart and a new spirit; and why will you die, O house of Israel?"[3] Grace presupposed, metanoia, conversion, is an act of the mind in apprehending the havoc of sin as an offense against God with detriment to the soul, along with the knowledge obtained from positive divine law that transgressions must be confessed. Conversion is a movement of the affections in experiencing sorrow for sinful actions, either because they have offended God's love and holiness, or, falling short of this, at least because of the reprobation they deserve. Conversion is an act of the will, first, in that it contains the resolve of permanent repudiation of past conduct and a wholehearted turning to God; second, in that it is a willingness to exercise works of penance as satisfaction for the injury done to the divine majesty. Penitence results from enduring sorrow and expresses itself in outward acts of satisfaction, of which prayer, fasting, and alms-deeds are the most approved and salutary. In her present discipline, the Church sees fit not to impose as strict obligation the rigorous penances of former times, wisely cognizant that her members are not made of the same stern stuff as in the days of enthusiastic Christian fervor. Nevertheless, her mind in this regard is not altered to the extent that the penance which is of obligation should be merely a token. As the Roman Ritual still has it: "He (the minister) shall impose a suitable and salutary satisfaction, as wisdom and prudence will dictate, keeping in mind the state of the penitents and other considerations such as their sex, age, and disposition. But let him take heed lest he impose too light a penance for grievous sins, and by such possible connivance become a party in another's sins. The confessor must bear in mind that satisfaction is not intended merely as a means for betterment and a remedy for weakness, but also as a chastisement for past sins." Whatever happens in actual practice, the subject of the sacrament of penance should know that he is acting in full accord with the true Christian spirit if he goes beyond fulfilment of a token penance, if such is prescribed, and, by taking upon himself works of supererogation, derives benefits in a measure pressed down and running over. Equally explicit is the Ritual regarding the type of penances to be enjoined. They should be "practices which are opposed to the sins confessed, for example, almsgiving in the case of the avaricious, fasting or other mortifications of the flesh for the dissolute, acts of humility for the proud, exercises of piety for the lax." All earnest members of Christ's mystic body, sincerely desirous of advancing in perfection through this most personal of the sacramental mysteries, will attach utmost importance to the prescriptions given above, so that the heavenly mediator may come to them unimpeded in His redeeming might, to heal His sheep and to set them back in the pasture of refreshment, to ennoble and prepare them for eternal peace and light.


1. Jn 20.21-23.

2. Lam 5.21.

3. Ezech 18.30-31.

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