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Understanding the Sacrament of Penance

Fr. Paulo Alvarez Norton
The Author of the Sacrament of Confession is Jesus Christ himself, who said to His Apostles and all His successors: "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them." (Jn.20:23)

About the word “penance,” some say that it derives from the Latin poenam tenere (to bear a penalty), because the penitent receives or imposes on himself a penalty in order to satisfy God. Others affirm its origin is the term penitus (deep within) that is, something intimate, deep, that afflicts the heart.

woodcut of a priest giving absolution to a penitent

A priest giving a penitent absolution, German woodcut

In Greek the appropriate word could be μετάνοια or metanoia, a change of mind or soul. But it must be remembered that the Church condemned as heretical the doctrine of Luther that pretended penance was only the amendment of life. Her Magisterium was clear in this regard:
  • Condemned proposition: "The proverb is very truthful and superior to the doctrine hitherto taught by all on contrition: The greatest penance is not to do it [the offense] henceforth, the best penance is the new life.” (D 747)

  • "As far as temporal punishment is concerned, if anyone says that for sins there is no satisfaction at all made to God through the merits of Christ by the punishments He inflicts and are patiently borne, or by those imposed by the priest, or those voluntarily undertaken by the penitent – fasts, prayers, almsgiving or also by other works of piety – and that, therefore, the best penance is only a new life: let him be anathema." (D 923)
Sacramental confession

Now, what is sacramental confession? Sacramental confession is the accusation of sins committed after Baptism, made before the competent priest to receive his absolution. (1) This is also affirmed by the Council of Trent (cf. D 899).


Ancient authors followed by St. Thomas listed certain conditions for confession, some necessary and others convenient. A good confession must be:
  • Vocal, which means spoken and not by signs or writing, unless there is a just cause;

  • Secret, no one is obliged to publicly confess his sins or to use an interpreter;

  • Simple, that is, free of every useless narration and only about one’s own sins;

  • Humble;

  • Pure, that is, with the intention of receiving absolution;

  • Discreet, which means not to expose or make known any accomplice to the sin without necessity, especially using careful and appropriate words in sins against the 6th Commandment;

  • Strong and accusatory, that is, without hesitation or vainglory of sins;

  • Truthful, which means absent from all lies.
Regarding this last point, it is good to remember that the one who lies in confession about a grave action that he must necessarily declare, commits a serious sacrilege and makes the confession invalid. To lie about something else that does not need to be confessed is a slight or serious sin, depending upon to the matter.


When confessing one's sins, it is necessary to state the following:
  • What sins the penitent has committed;

  • How often he has committed that sin;

  • All relevant circumstances that can increase the severity of the sin. For example, each of these cases is different: a. to scandalize one person or many, b. to say bad words carelessly or to blaspheme God intentionally.

  • Whoever unintentionally forgets some mortal sin does not make a bad confession and is forgiven his sins, but he has the obligation to confess them in the next confession he makes.

Contrition, which occupies first place among the acts of the penitent, is sorrow of the soul and detestation of the sin committed with the intent to not sin in the future. Contrition is, therefore, repentance and the purpose of amendment.

In order to have repentance it is necessary:

1. To have sorrow for the sins committed. Sorrow for sins is the detestation of evil for having offended God or because we can go to Hell.

sorrow for sins

A penitent should have sorrow for his sins and a firm resolution not to sin again

We say that the penitent has contrition when he repents moved by the sorrow for having offended God; we say that he has attrition when he repents moved by the exclusive fear of Hell. Perfect contrition allows a penitent to go to Heaven without sacramental confession; attrition requires sacramental absolution of the priest to have the same effect.

Sacred Scripture requires the sinner to make penance for the sins he has committed. It asks for the inner feeling of sorrow and also encourages external works of penance. (2)

The Council of Trent, in turn, teaches: “Contrition, generally considered, is sorrow of the soul with the detestation of the sin committed and the purpose to sin no more.” (3)

The constant doctrine of the Church tells us that sorrow for the sin is of a spiritual nature, so that it generally transcends the capacity of the senses and is only certainly perceived by the faculties of intelligence and will. Hence, even while the sinner must be internally sorry for his sin in order to make a good confession, he does not always and necessarily experience an intensitas doloris [intense sorrow]. Thus, in order to clarify this point, the theologians teach that to recognize this inner sorrow it is enough to sincerely express contrition. (4)

The penitent must have not only sorrow but also detestation, because it is the hatred of the sin that produces the sorrow. There may, however, be detestation of sin without sorrow or pain, as it exists among the blessed.

Sorrow is the detestation of the external or internal evil that afflicts us. Sadness is one of the types of sorrow and is characterized by the detestation of the internal apprehension of an evil. In conclusion, an indispensable part of sorrow for sin is detestation of evil.

2. To have a firm purpose of amendment. For the validity of the sacrament at least an implicit purpose of amendment is necessary. This purpose is part of contrition.

The Council of Trent considers the purpose not to sin again implicitly included in contrition. Indeed, according to it, the purpose of amendment must be:
  • Firm: This means the desire to firmly avoid sin henceforth. What is required, then, is a real hic et nunc [here and now], sincere and firm intention not to sin again. A relapse in the future generally does not mean a lack of firmness at the moment of confession.

  • Effective: This means an effectiveness of purpose, which implies: a. adopting the necessary means to avoid sin; b. avoiding as much as possible occasions of sin; c. repairing the damages caused to one's neighbor by the sin. (5)

  • Universal: This is the intention to not commit any mortal sin.
How to make a confession
  • The penitent begins by making the Sign of the Cross.

  • A simple formula is good to start: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was… days/months/years ago and these are my sins.”

  • The penitent, then, lists the kind and approximate number of his sins (e.g. I missed Mass 3 times; I lied 20 times).

  • If it is necessary, the priest may ask him questions.

  • The priest will give him an appropriate penance.

  • The priest, then, asks the penitent to make an Act of Contrition.
Act of contrition

After confessing all one's sins, if the absolution follows, the priest will indicate that it is time to pray the Act of Contrition.

litho catechism

A litho in an old Catechism teaching youth how to make a confession

Here are two examples of Act of Contrition:

1. I confess to Almighty God, to blessed Mary ever Virgin, to blessed Michael the Archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, to the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints, and to you, Father, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed: Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore I beseech blessed Mary ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, all the Saints, and you, Father, to pray for me to the Lord our God.

2. O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell. But, most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance and to amend my life. Amen.


It is imperative to fulfill the penalty imposed by the priest as soon as possible.

The rules for a priest to determine the type and quantity of the penance rely on the gravity and number of sins committed by the penitent as well on the ability of the penitent to fulfill it.


A pre-Vatican II confessional that insures secrecy, replaced by the 'reconciliation room' where face-to-face talks are encouraged

reconciliation room
The Council of Trent says: "The priests of the Lord must, as soon as their spirit and prudence suggest, according to the condition and possibilities of penitents, impose suitable and healthy penances, and not close their eyes to the sins or act with too much indulgence with penitents, thus becoming partakers of the sins of others [cf. I Tim. 5,22] by imposing certain very light penances for very serious crimes. And they should consider that the satisfaction (penance) they impose must be not only to give a new life and a medicine for a disease, but also be in reparation and punishment for past sins ... " (6)

Similarly, the Code of Canon Law (1917) says: "The confessor must impose healthy and convenient penances, proportionate to the class and number of sins and to the conditions of the penitent, and the latter has an obligation to accept them with good will and to fulfill them personally." (7)

Certainly, in very few areas can the catastrophic results of modern "theology" be observed more clearly than in Morals. Today, the academic study of Morals is almost completely distorted; even more so is the practical application of the principles of Moral Theology. Sacramental confession, in this sense, has been practically neglected (the very concept of sin was stripped of clarity and objectivity).

And if a priest – by a miracle – continues hearing confessions, penances hardly seem to correspond adequately to the seriousness of certain sins. Nothing is more opposed and contrary to the daily battle to increase in Catholic virtue; nothing goes so drastically against the command to daily "fight the good fight of faith" than to lead the faithful to believe that it is not necessary to strive to fulfill a just penance in reparation for offenses made to God.

As for the types of penance, St. Thomas teaches that the general rule is that we should deprive ourselves of something in honor of God. We have only three goods: goods of the soul, goods of the body and goods of fortune. We deliver the latter by almsgiving; those of the body, by fasting. The goods of the soul such as peace should not be subtracted from what is essential or diminished, since it is by them that we become pleasing to God. Rather, they can serve to give greater glory to God, such as prayers.

Even though it is true that nothing can be taken from God, nonetheless, the sinner, by his sin, diminishes the glory God deserves and in this sense takes something from Him. Therefore, in order to compensate this loss, it is necessary for the sinner to give something in order to honor God. The prayer of one who – humbly and repentantly – receives absolution is accepted by God as just penance.

Let us remember that every confession can be our last confession. Should we not be careful to make it in the best way possible if our eternal salvation depends on it?

Important reminders

All the aforementioned points suppose that in confession one comes to accuse oneself, not to excuse oneself or to seek spiritual direction.

The confessional is first of all a tribunal in which the criminal accuses himself and asks for absolution and the corresponding penance in order to be acquitted of his guilt and penalty and return to the possession of the state of grace.

Consequently, the penitent has to concisely reveal the sins he previously listed when he made his examination of conscience. Negligence in the examination of conscience and a shame to state one's sins are perhaps the worst enemies of a good confession. It is worth remembering here what the Curé of Ars said about this: "The Devil takes away the shame from the sinner when he commits the sin, but he gives it back again, as a false shame, before confession."

The Sacrament is seriously profaned if some mortal sin is omitted maliciously or if one does not want to give up the intention of returning to sin.

Value of the confession

Now, the confession carried out under the conditions requested by the Church is a means of great sanctifying efficacy, since the Sacrament purifies our souls, gives an increase of grace, generates a psychological disposition of peace that helps us in the struggle for perfection, and gives us greater spiritual lights for our daily life. For example, we better understand the need to forgive offences, seeing how mercifully Our Lord has forgiven us, or we are able to see more clearly the malice of sin. Confession also increases the soul's strength to overcome temptations and strengthens it for the fulfillment of duty.

  1. Confessio sacramentalis est accusatio peccatorum propiorum post baptismum commissorum facta sacerdoti competenti ad eorum absolutionem obtinendam.
  2. Cf. in the New Testament: Lk.3:8; 13:5 Mt. 3:2-8; 4:17 Act. 2:38; 3:19; 8: 22; 11:18 Apoc. 2:5 in the Old Testament: Jer. 18:8; 31:18-20; Joel 2:12-14 Ez. 18:21-32 Is. 1 Dan. 4:24
  3. Contritio (generice accepta) est animi dolor ac detestatio de peccato commisso, cum proposito non peccandi de cetero. Council of Trent, Sess. 14, c. IV (D 897).
  4. Royo Marín, Teología Moral para Seglares” ed. BAC, 1958, t. II, n. 196, p. 284.
  5. Not all sins can be repaired by our own means alone. Some sins against other men can be repaired by our own means; sins against God, only by the merits of the Redemption.
  6. Dz. 905.
  7. Canon 887.


Blason de Charlemagne
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Posted August 21, 2017