Friday, December 21, 2007


Advent is a time of preparation for the arrival of the Messiah. One of the best acts we can do in this direction is to go to the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation.

A Sacrament is a “sensible” (can be perceived by the senses) and “efficacious sign” (it effects what it also signifies) of “grace” (invisible help for our sanctification) instituted by our Lord. The seven Sacraments of our Faith are the normal channels of grace willed by God—“powers that come forth from the body of Christ,” the Church, to continue his ministry down the centuries. The Sacraments fit perfectly with the essence of man as “being incarnate”, a unity of “spiritual soul (form) and material body (matter)”: man receives spiritual helps through material or sensible elements.

Christian philosophy identifies the “essence” (manner of being) of a thing as the combination of its “form” or formal cause (what gives a thing the “act of being” what it is) and its “matter” or material cause (what gives a thing the potency or capacity to become what it is). In the case of the seven Sacraments, the formal cause is the set of words or prayer of the authorized minister (whence, our colloquial “formula”); while the material cause consists in the “sensible” material or action used in the process. Thus, in Baptism, the form is the set of words, “I baptize you in the name of…”, while the matter is obviously the water poured over the person being baptized. In Confirmation, the form consists in the words, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit,” while the matter is the anointing with chrism (consecrated oil) by a laying on of the hand. In the Eucharist, the form consists in the words of consecration (“This is my body…my blood”) while the matter is the bread and wine that is changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. In Holy Matrimony, the form is the exchange of vows of the bride and groom (“I do”) while the matter is their bodies. In Holy Orders, the form is the “prayer of consecration” said by the ordaining Bishop while the matter is the imposition of hands on the head of the ordinand. In the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, the form consists in the prayer of the minister (“Through this holy anointing…”) while the matter is the anointing of the sick person (forehead and hands) with the holy oil.

It it not clear exactly when our Lord instituted the Sacrament of Penance (Confession), but on the evening of the day of His Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (John 20:19-23). It is clearly implied here that the sins must be told to the minister so that they may be forgiven. Thus, the matter of Confession is the sin or sins of the penitent heard by the minister/confessor (“hearing” is indispensable to this being a “sensible” sign); while the form is the set of words uttered by the confessor in absolution (“I absolve you from your sins in the name of…”).

Confession reconciles the sinner with God and with His Church (community), and restores “sanctifying grace”— replaces one in the “state of grace”, of being in Christ—which he may have lost through mortal sin. It also remits at least part of the temporal punishment due, and strengthens the penitent to avoid sin. If sanctifying grace was not lost, it is increased by Confession. Catholics are obliged by Church law to go to Confession at least once a year (as an absolute minimum) and encouraged to do so frequently (many lay people go weekly).

While one’s “perfect contrition” (sorrow for sin because of love for God) forgives even his mortal sins, Church law also commands that he who is conscious of having mortally sinned must first go to Confession before he can receive Holy Communion (because no one could be sure that his contrition were, in truth, “perfect”). Strictly speaking, only mortal sins need be brought to Confession; but even venial sins can be the matter of a good confession (especially when one has no un-confessed mortal sins, as may be the case with those who practice frequent Confession). Mortal sins are mortal (from the Latin, mors, “death”) because they “kill” the divine life in a person by his radical turning-away from God, i.e., with full advertence (knowledge and consent) and in a serious matter.

A good Confession requires prayerful preparation (examination of conscience); contrition or faith-motivated “sorrow” over having sinned (because of love of God, "perfect contrition", or out of fear of losing heaven or of suffering the pains of hell, "imperfect contrition"); “purpose of amendment” (a decision to avoid sin); actual Confession to a priest (withholding no un-confessed mortal sin) and willingness to perform the “penance” (satisfaction) prescribed. The Sacrament does not depend on the “feelings” of the penitent but involves his intelligence and will, thereby protecting him from self-delusion and complacency, on one hand, and uncertainty and despair, on the other. As long as one meets these requirements of a good Confession, he infallibly receives the benefits of the Sacrament.

St. Josemaria writes: “You wrote to tell me that you have at last gone to confession and that you experienced the humiliation of having to open the sewer—that is what you say—of your life to ‘a man’. When will you get rid of that feeling of vain self-esteem? You will then go to confession happy to show yourself as you are to ‘that man’, who being anointed is another Christ—Christ himself—and gives you absolution, God’s forgiveness.” (Furrow, No. 45)