In 1985 the German Bishops’ Conference published an adult catechesis based on the Great Confession of Faith, the Nicene Creed. The editorial committee featured Walter Kasper and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. The following topic was part of its presentation:
Through baptism and confirmation we become a new creation. Through the Eucharist we are united in the most intimate way to Jesus Christ and to one another. Nevertheless, we often experience in painful ways that we fall short in our following of Jesus Christ, that we even place ourselves in contradiction with what we as Christians should be and do according to God’s will. Instead of letting ourselves be led by the Spirit of Christ, we often follow the “spirit of this world”. Yet God’s mercy is greater than all sin and guilt. He offers even those who have fallen into serious sin after baptism another possibility for a change of life and for grace. This is the sacrament of penance. The Church Fathers often speak of it as a second, toilsome baptism, a second plank of salvation after the shipwreck of sin.
The attitude toward the sacrament of penance is now in a deep crisis. There are many causes for this, including many misunderstandings and many unhappy experiences at confession. Above all, though, many today have difficulties in recognizing their own failure as guilt before God, as sin. Many do not even speak of personal sin any more. Too often we look for guilt and failure, if we do so at all, only in “the others”, in our opponents, in the past, in nature, in our disposition, in the environment, or in circumstances. But when man no longer acknowledges his responsibility for himself and for his deeds, humanity itself is in danger.
This situation is all the more alarming because Jesus’ call to conversion is at the center of his message about the coming Kingdom of God. According to Mark, the call to repentance belongs to Jesus’ fundamental proclamation: “Reform your lives and believe in the gospel!” (Mark 1:15). Conversion and penance must be part of every Christian life. “Unless you change and become like little children, you will not enter the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 18:3). According to Jesus, all need this conversion, even the just who think they do not need it. “If we say, `We are free of the guilt of sin’, we deceive ourselves; the truth is not to be found in us” (1 John 1:8).
When Jesus speaks of a conversion, he is thinking chiefly — and in the Old Testament tradition of prophecy — not of external works, such as penance in sackcloth and ashes with fastings, mortifications, weepings, and lamentings, nor is he thinking only of inner self-examination, reflection, and a change of opinions. All these can be meaningful forms for expressing a conversion. But Jesus tells us that we should not make a show of our fasting through a somber face and a gloomy appearance (Matthew 6:16).
What is decisive in a conversion happens in a man’s heart, in the center and the depths of his person.
Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the Lord, your God
This conversion must take effect in doing good and in the concrete fulfillment of God’s will, especially the demands of justice and love. There is no returning to God without returning to one’s brothers and sisters. So the prophet exhorts us:
Wash yourselves clean!
Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes;
cease doing evil; learn to do good.
Make justice your aim: redress the wronged,
hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow
For Jesus, just as for the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist, penance is essential in a real conversion. It is man’s fundamental change of direction, a turning away from evil and turning toward God. In this conversion, man must renounce the deceptive idols with which he thought to secure and fulfill his existence; he must seek the support and substance of his life in God alone. Conversion and faith are two sides of one and the same thing.
Of course, even the prophets encountered the dullness and hardness of man’s heart. Any conversion requires that God bestow a new heart on man (Jeremiah 24:7; 31:33). Conversion is not our work or our achievement. It is God’s gift. It is the grace of being allowed to begin anew. God must first turn to man in gracious mercy before man can turn toward God. Our conversion does not mean bringing God around and conciliating him. On the contrary, it is always a response to God’s preceding reconciliation. The definitive act of reconciliation happened when Jesus shed his blood “on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). In Jesus Christ, in his cross and Resurrection, God has reconciled the world with himself once for all (2 Corinthians 5:18 — 19), establishing peace through the blood of Christ (Colossians 1:20).
Such a conversion happens fundamentally in baptism, which is the sacrament of changed life and of the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). Baptism means a renunciation of evil and a turning toward the salvation that God bestows on us through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. So baptism bestows on us once for all the new life in Christ, which must lead to our resisting sin and living for God (Romans 6:6-14). Conversion or, as we also say, penance is thus a constant task; it characterizes the whole life of the baptized Christian.
Of course, the Church early recognized that even the baptized succumb to temptation and fall away. She also knew, of course, that God is rich in mercy (Ephesians 2:4), bestowing the possibility of a new conversion on any sinner who is ready to change. St. Ambrose says that in the Church there are “water and tears: the water of baptism and the tears of penance”. Since the Church as a whole is “at once holy and in need of purification, [she] follows constantly the path of penance renewal” (LG 8).
The daily penance of Christians takes many forms. Holy Scripture and the Fathers emphasize three of them: fasting, praying, and giving (Tobit12:8; Matthew 6:1-18). They also name reconciliation with one’s neighbor, tears of penance, concern for the salvation of one’s neighbor, intercession of the saints, and love. The living Tradition of the Church has added the reading of Holy Scripture and the praying of the Our Father. There are also other faith-inspired ways for carrying out a change in one’s daily life — for example, change of attitude, common discussion about guilt and sin, gestures of reconciliation, brotherly confession, and brotherly confession.
Even certain forms of leading a spiritual life, such as the examination of conscience, the monastic “chapter of faults”, and discussion with a spiritual director, are forms of expression of penance. Nor should we forget the ethical consequences of a new orientation in life: change of one’s lifestyle, asceticism and manifold renunciation, works of charity, and works of mercy, atonement, and reparation.
All these forms of everyday penance must come together in the common celebration of the Eucharist. It is the “sacrifice which has made our peace with you” (Third Eucharistic Prayer), since it is the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ offered once for all. Assisting at Mass and especially receiving communion bestow forgiveness for everyday sin and preserve us from serious sins (DS 1638; NR 570). We are reminded of this by the fact that the celebration of the Eucharist begins with an act of penance. There are also other liturgical forms for the forgiveness of sins. Examples are the penance service, reflection and prayer, intercession the Church’s liturgy of the hours, and reading and meditation on Scripture
The penitential seasons and penitential days of the Church (Advent, Lent, Fridays) are special focal points of the Church’s penitential practice (SC 109-10). These times are particularly suited for spiritual exercises, days of recollection, penitential liturgies, fasting, and charitable deeds.
All the forms of penance enable the sinner to let himself be formed anew by the Spirit of Jesus Christ and to express this Spirit both in a personal penitential attitude and in works of penance. Every form of Christian penance must be moved at least incipiently by faith, hope, and love. So they all share a basic structure. Its elements are insight into one’s guilt, contrition for the deed committed or omitted, confession of guilt, willingness to change one’s life (including making reparation of damages), asking for forgiveness, receiving the gift of reconciliation, thanks for the forgiveness imparted, and living a life of new obedience. We travel the road of penance not as individuals, but in community with all members of the Church. This ecclesial dimension is best expressed in the sacrament of penance, where personal penance is sacramentally concentrated.
The Gospels tell us that Jesus forgave individuals their sins: “Your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5; Luke 7:48). He also gave this authority “to men” (Matthew 9:8). The Church as a whole is to be a sign and an instrument of reconciliation. But this authority is given in a special way to the apostolic office which has been entrusted with the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). The apostle has been sent as an ambassador “for Christ, God as it were appealing through us. We implore you … be reconciled to God!” (2 Corinthians 5:20). The Church traces the authority to forgive sins granted to the ecclesiastical office back to the Risen Lord himself:
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
If you forgive men’s sins,
they are forgiven them;
if you hold them bound,
they are held bound”
With Jesus himself, the forgiveness of sins always had a communal aspect also. Jesus reconciles sinners to God by taking them up into the meal fellowship with himself and with one another. The sinner isolates himself from God and from his brothers; through his sin, the community of God’s people is disrupted and his own life in holiness is injured.
That is why the sinner is excluded from full communion with the Church (1Corinthians 5:1-13; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; 7:10-13). He can no longer partake fully of the Eucharist, the sacrament of unity and of love. In penance, the person changing his life must travel again along the way by which reconciliation first came to him. He must reconcile himself with his brothers in order to attain a new communion with God. Conversely, through the forgiveness of God, we are, “at the same time, reconciled with the Church”, whom we have wounded by our sins and who cooperates with our conversion through love, example, and prayer (LG 11).
The communal structure and ecclesial dimension of penance is best expressed in Jesus’ words to Peter: I will entrust to you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven. Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). These words hold for the Church as a whole (Matthew 18: 18). The words “binding and loosing; mean that whoever is excluded (to bind is to banish) from the community is also excluded from communion with God. Whoever is taken up into the community again (the banishment is removed, “loosed”) is also taken up by God into communion with him. Renewed reconciliation with the Church is the way to reconciliation with God, This was well expressed in the public penance of the ancient Church. So too the formula of sacramental absolution that has been obligatory since 1975 says, “Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace.”
In its details, the sacrament of penance has had a long, complicated, and varied history. But the basic structure of this sacrament has always been twofold. Penance consists, on the one hand, of the acts of a changed life made possible by grace: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. On the other hand, it consists of the action of the Church. The ecclesiastical community under the leadership of the bishop and of the priests offers forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus Christ, laying down the necessary forms of satisfaction, praying for the sinner, and doing penance on his behalf, in order finally to impart to him full ecclesial communion and the forgiveness of his sins. The sacrament of penance is at once a thoroughly personal, individual act and an ecclesial, liturgical celebration.
So the Council of Trent teaches that the actions of the penitent in contrition,. confession, and satisfaction are “as it were, the matter of this sacrament,” while priestly absolution is its form (DS 1673; NR 647-48). The fruit of this sacrament is reconciliation with God and with the Church. It is often connected with peace and joy of conscience and with great consolation (DS 1674-75; NR 649).
We must still describe the individual elements of the sacrament of penance more exactly. For the penitent, contrition occupies the first place. Contrition is the “pain of soul and the detestation of sins committed, with the resolution to sin no more from then on”. Contrition is called “perfect” when it is motivated by the love bestowed by God (contrition out of love). It has the power to forgive venial sins; it also brings forgiveness of serious sins when it is connected with the firm resolution to make a sacramental confession. Contrition is called “imperfect” when it is motivated by a consideration of the hideousness of sin or by fear of eternal damnation and other punishments (contrition out of fear). Such an unsettling of one’s conscience can be a beginning that is later perfected by the gift of grace, especially by the imparting of the forgiveness of sin in the sacrament of penance. Of itself, though, contrition out of fear does not have the power to bring forgiveness of sins (DS 1676-78; N 650-51).
Confession of guilt, even considered in purely human terms, has a liberating and reconciling effect. By confession, man owns up to his sinful past, assumes responsibility for it, and opens himself anew for God and. for the community of the Church, thus opening the way for a new future. The Church teaches that confession is an essential and irreplaceable part of the sacrament of penance, by which the penitent subjects himself to God’s gracious judgment (DS 1679, 1706; NR 652, 665).
For that reason, it is necessary to confess those serious (or mortal) sins that the penitent remembers after careful examination of his conscience; the confession must adequately describe their concrete situation according to number, kind, and circumstances (DS 1707; NR 666). According to Church law, “all the faithful who have reached the age of discretion are bound faithfully to confess their grave sins at least once a year” (CIC can. 989). Although the confession of daily (or venial) sins, which do not exclude us from. communion with God, is not necessary, the Church recommends it. This so-called devotional confession is a great help for personal formation of conscience and growth in the spiritual life. It should be included at least in the observance of the Church’s penitential seasons.
In satisfaction, we make appropriate reparation for the damage caused by sin and for any scandal caused by it (e.g., restitution of stolen goods,’ restoration of another’s good reputation). At the same time, satisfaction gives us practice in a new way of life; it is a remedy against weakness. Penance should correspond so far as possible to the gravity and kind of sins. It can include prayer, sacrifice and renunciation, service to one’s neighbor, and works of mercy. Satisfaction is not some arbitrary act by which we earn forgiveness. It is rather the fruit and sign of a penance already affected and bestowed by the Spirit of God.
The priestly absolution in the sacrament of penance is something more than a proclamation of the gospel of the forgiveness of sins or a declaration that God has forgiven sins. It receives the sinner back into full ecclesial communion. And so it is a judicial act, as the Church’s teaching says, and belongs only to the one who is able to act in the name of Jesus Christ for the whole Church community (DS 1685, 1709-10; NR 668-69). The sacrament of penance is, of course, a gracious judgment in which God, the merciful Father, turns lovingly to the sinner through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.
The confessor is equally judge and physician. He should act as a father and a brother. He represents Jesus Christ, who shed his blood on the cross for the sinner. That is why the confessor should proclaim and interpret the message of forgiveness for the penitent, should help him to a new life by counsel, should pray for him, do penance on his behalf, and above all bestow on him the forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus Christ.
The new order for the “celebration of penance” (1974) provides three forms of the sacramental penitential celebration.
The celebration of reconciliation for individuals. Even this form should have a certain liturgical shape — a greeting by the priest, reading of a scriptural text, confession of sin, imposition of penance, prayer, priestly absolution, concluding doxology, and liturgical dismissal with priestly blessing. If pastoral reasons require it, the priest can omit or abbreviate some parts of the rite. The following parts, however, must always be preserved in their entirety: the confession of sin and the acceptance of the imposition of penance, the summons to contrition, the formula of absolution, and the dismissal. If there is danger of death, it is enough for the priest to say essential words of absolution: “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the, Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” In practice, however, this renewed form of the sacrament of penance has not yet been generally implemented.
The communal celebration of reconciliation with confession and absolution of individuals. In this form, individual confession and individual absolution are connected with a common penitential celebration as preparation and as common thanksgiving. The individual confession is thus embedded in a liturgy of the word with scriptural reading and homily, common examination of conscience and general confession of sin, praying of the Our Father and common thanksgiving. This common celebration expresses more clearly the ecclesial dimension of penance.
The communal celebration of reconciliation with general confession and general absolution. This form is permitted only when there is grave necessity, such as danger of death, It can also be used when there are not sufficient confessors to hear the confession of individuals in a fitting way within an appropriate amount of time, so that the faithful through no fault of their own would have to go without the grace of the sacrament and holy communion for a long time. This form presupposes the resolution to confess serious sins individually as soon as possible. The decision on whether there is grave necessity belongs to the diocesan bishop, in consultation with the other members of the bishops’ conference (CIC can. 961).
We should distinguish penitential liturgies in the narrower sense from these three sacramental forms of penance. The liturgies are an expression and a renewal of the conversion that took place at baptism. The people of God celebrates them in order to hear the word of God, which calls us to a change and renewal of life and which announces the redemption from sin through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
A penitential celebration usually includes an opening (song, greeting, and prayer), readings from Holy Scripture (with interspersed songs or silences), a homily, a common examination of conscience, and a prayer for the forgiveness of sins (especially the Our Father). Sacramental absolution is not included. These penitential liturgies should thus not be confused with the celebration of the sacrament of penance.
Still, they are very useful for conversion and purification of the heart. They can foster the spirit of Christian penance, help the faithful to prepare for their individual confessions, deepen the sense of the communal character of penance, and lead children to penance. Such services can bring forgiveness of venial sins when there is a genuine spirit of conversion and of loving contrition. They should therefore have a place in the life of every community, especially during the Church’s penitential seasons.
The Church’s doctrine and practice of indulgences is closely connected with the sacrament of penance. An “indulgence” is the remission of the temporal punishment due to sins, the guilt of which has already been forgiven. An indulgence presupposes a personal conversion, the reception of the sacrament of penance (if serious sin is present), and the reception of communion (in the case of a plenary indulgence). An indulgence is granted by the Church, from the treasury of the merits of Jesus Christ and the saints, to those who perform certain assigned works (such as certain prayers or visits to pilgrimage Churches).
The doctrine and practice of indulgences is difficult for many Christians today to understand. In order to understand it more deeply, one must grasp its historical roots and its greater context.
Generally speaking, there have been indulgences in the Church from the beginning. As regards details, indulgences have a long history. In the ancient Church, the intercession of confessors (those who had borne great sufferings in the persecutions) played a great role. Since the temporal punishments for sin were “served” in the ancient Church by punishments of a specified length, indulgences were often spoken of in terms of “days”.
In their present form, indulgences date from the eleventh century. Since the early Middle Ages, they have often been connected with certain works of piety — participation in a crusade, pilgrimages to holy sites, certain prayers or good works. Examples are the Portiuncula Indulgence, the Jubilee Indulgence on the occasion of a Holy Year, and the All Souls Indulgence.
Indulgences were also often connected with financial donations for ecclesiastical purposes. This led to great abuses, especially in the Middle Ages. These abuses were an occasion for the beginning of the Reformation. In consequence, the Council of Trent thoroughly reformed the practice of indulgences and eliminated the abuses.
It maintained in principle, however, that indulgences are exceedingly beneficial for the Christian people. It therefore condemned those who declared indulgences to be useless or who denied the Church the right to confer indulgences. The Council wished rather to limit indulgences according to the ancient, proven custom of the Church, and to exclude all acquisitiveness (DS 183 5; NR 688-89). A doctrinal deepening of the teaching on indulgences and a practical renewal for the present were achieved by Pope Paul VI in his Apostolic Constitution on the Revision of Indulgences (1967).
For a deeper understanding of the doctrine of indulgences underlying the practice, one must first be clear that sin has a double consequence. Serious sin breaks communion with God and forfeits eternal life (the eternal punishment of sin). But it also wounds and poisons the union of man with God, as well as man’s life in the human community (the temporal punishment of sin). Neither punishment of sin is “dictated” externally by God; both follow intrinsically from the very essence sin. The remission of the eternal punishment of sin is effected in the forgiveness of the guilt and the restoration of communion with God.
Yet the temporal consequences of sin remain. The Christian must strive to accept these temporal punishments of sin from God’s hand in patient endurance of suffering, distress, toil, and finally in conscious acceptance of death. He should struggle to throw the “old man” and to put on the “new man” through works of mercy and of love as well as through prayer and different forms of penance (Ephesians 4:22-24).
The Church offers the Christian another path to tread in the gracious communion of the Church. The Christian who purifies and sanctifies himself with the help of God’s grace does not stand alone. He is a member of the body of Christ. In Christ, all Christians are one great communion. “If one member suffers, all members suffer with it” (1Corinthians 12:26). What is called the treasury of the Church or the treasury of grace is communal participation in the goods of salvation that Jesus Christ and the saints with the help of his grace have earned.
In granting an indulgence, the Church speaks on behalf of the individual Christian with her authority to bind and: loose as conferred on her by Jesus Christ. The Church authoritatively assigns the penitent a portion of the treasury of merits of Christ and the saints for the remission of sin’s temporal punishment. In doing so, the Church wants not only to aid the individual, but also to spur him on to works of piety, penance, and love. Since the faithful departed who are in a state of purification are also members of the one communion of saints, we can support them by way of intercession as they suffer the temporal punishment for their sin.
In Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution mentioned above, the essence of the treasury of the Church is interpreted very fittingly. “It is not like a sum of goods which were amassed in the course of the centuries after the manner of material riches. Rather, it consists in the infinite and inexhaustible value that the atonement and merits of Christ, the Lord, have before God…. The treasury of the Church is Christ the Redeemer himself insofar as the satisfaction and merits of his work of redemption have their permanence and validity in him. Furthermore, the truly immeasurable, inexhaustible, and always new value that the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all the saints possess before God also belong to this treasury. They have followed in the footsteps of Christ, the Lord; by his grace, they have sanctified themselves and completed the work entrusted to them by the Father. Thus have they worked their own salvation and contributed also to the salvation of their brothers in the unity of the mystical body” (NR 691).
A particular problem is posed by what is called a plenary indulgence, which is the remission of all the temporal consequences of sin. If it is to be effective in this perfect way, it presupposes a perfect disposition of a kind very infrequently found, except when a Christian gives his whole life back into the hands of God, his Creator and Redeemer, in the hour of death. The sacrament of the anointing of the sick and the indulgence for the dying have their place here.