The Catechism teaches that “Sin is before all else an offense against God, a rupture of communion with him. At the same time it damages communion within the Church” (1440). For those who have been baptized and therefore forgiven of original sin and any actual sin, there remains a necessary way after baptism to be objectively reconciled to God and the Church. Even after baptism, our new life received in Christ “has not abolished the frailty and weakness of human nature, nor the inclination to sin that tradition calls concupiscence” (Council of Trent, Decree on Original Sin, 792). The entirety of the Christian life is a call to continual conversion as we strive toward heaven where we will finally be “perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect: (Matthew 5:48). In this sacrament, Jesus calls us to metanoia. This Greek word is usually translated as “repent,” but it literally means to “change your thinking.” This radical reorientation of one’s entire life entails the desire to return to God with one’s whole heart. “This conversion of heart is accompanied by a salutary pain and sadness which the Fathers called animi cruciatus (affliction of spirit) and compunctio cordis (repentance of heart)” (CCC 1431). After committing sin, this affliction of spirit and repentance of heart should draw us to be reconciled to God through this sacrament of healing known as the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, also known as the Sacrament of:
Conversion—it makes present Jesus’s call to returning to the Father (CCC 1423);
Penance—it consecrates the Christian sinner’s personal and ecclesial steps of conversion (ibid.);
Confession—due to the essential element of disclosure of sins to the priest and confession of God’s mercy (CCC 1424);
Forgiveness—by the priest’s sacramental absolution God grants pardon and peace to the penitent (ibid.)
Reconciliation—it imparts to the sinner the love of God who says to “Be reconciled to your brother” (Matthew 5:24) (ibid.)
Through his earthy ministry, Jesus showed that forgiveness of sins had a personal and communal dimension. The effect of forgiveness was reintegration into the community of believers from which sin had excluded them. This personal and communal dimension has not changed: since each member of Christ is connected by baptism, each member’s sins in one way or another affect the entire Body. There is no such thing as a “private” sin. This sacrament helps to repair the bonds between the penitent and God and the penitent and the Church. The acts of penance we undertake in the forms of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the methods in which we atone for our sins and help repair the damage caused.
Who can receive the sacrament? At minimum of once per year, any baptized Catholic who has attained the age of discretion is to go to the sacrament. Confession is only required for mortal sins, however, confession of venial sins is highly commendable and encouraged because it helps form our conscience and ward off evil tendencies (CCC 1457-1458).
Form, Matter, and Minister
Form: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." (CCC 1449)
Matter: confession of sins with true contrition. Contrition is “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again” (CCC 1451, 1455). If any sins are knowingly withheld, they are not forgiven because “the medicine cannot heal what it does not know” (CCC 1456).
Minister: a priest who has been given the faculty to hear confessions by his bishop or superior. “Binding and loosing” was entrusted to the apostles and their successors (bishops). Priests, as bishops’ collaborators, may share that authority. Confession is a juridical act because it reconciles the penitent to God and the Church. Due to that “judicial” part of the sacrament, the priest must be given faculties by his bishop or superior to hear confessions. In normal circumstances, if the priest does not have the proper faculties, the confession is invalid (Code of Canon Law, 966 & 969). However, if the penitent is in danger of death, any priest (even one who has been laicized), can validly hear a confession and absolve sins (CIC 976).
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