Penance is the sacrament by which sins committed after Baptism are forgiven through the absolution of the priest.
Penance has the three essentials of a sacrament.
(a) It is a sensible sign; i.e. the words of absolution and act of confession.
Our Lord promised to give Peter the power to forgive sins, saying to him: "And whatever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven" (Matthew 16:19). Christ later made the same promise to the other Apostles saying, "Amen, I say to you , whatever you bind on earth shall be bound also in Heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed also in Heaven" (Matthew 18:18).
(b) It was instituted by Jesus Christ on the first Easter Sunday night.
On the first Easter Sunday night, Our Lord fulfilled His promise to give His Apostles the power to forgive sins. Jesus appeared to His Apostles and said:"'Peace be to you. As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.' When He had said this, He breathed upon them and 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'" (John 20: 21-23).
(c) It confers grace. It is the way by which after Baptism sanctifying grace is restored to the penitent who has committed mortal sin.
The sacrament of Penance is the cure for spiritual illness of sin committed after Baptism. It helps the sinner to detest his sins, and incites him to amend his life in the future.
On the part of the penitent, the sacrament of Penance includes three distinct acts:
A penitent is absolved if he confesses his sins with sorrow and a resolution to atone for them and amend his life.
- (a) contrition of sorrow for his sins;
- (b) confession or telling them to the priest; and
- (c) satisfaction or performance of the penance imposed by the priest.
The practice of confessing to a priest has been continuous in the Church from the time of the Apostles. We read in Holy Scripture that in the time of the Apostles, the Christian converts came to them, and openly confessed their practices (Acts 19-18).
The writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, in the very first centuries of the Christian era, the faithful are often advised and exhorted to confess their sins. Saint Augustine says, "It is not enough that one acknowledge his sins to God, from Whom nothing is hidden; he must also confess them to a priest, God's representative."
Saint John said in encouragement: "My dear children, these things I write to you in order that you may not sin. But if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the just" (1 John 2:1).
The priest forgives sins with the words: "I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."
This is called the "absolution," and is said by the priest over the penitent, with uplifted hand, when he forgives the sins confessed. It is pronounced while the penitent is saying an act of contrition. It is the form of the sacrament.
Only those priests authorized to do so can administer the sacrament of Penance. The power to forgive sins by pronouncing the words of absolution is given to a priest at his ordination. But in order to exercise this power, the priest must have jurisdiction. The bishop gives authority (called "the faculties") to hear confessions in his diocese.
A priest authorized in one diocese must get the faculties in order to hear confessions in any other diocese. Priests are like civil magistrates, who cannot pass sentence on all cases, but only on those for which they have jurisdiction.
The priest refuses absolution to a penitent when he thinks the penitent does not have the necessary dispositions. He may also postpone absolution to a later confession, if he thinks it best to do so.
The confessor is a judge in the confessional; he must act as judge, looking not only into the sins being confessed, but also into the purpose of amendment, into the sincerity of contrition of the penitent, and the satisfaction to be imposed.
Certain grave sins are reserved to the Pope or the bishop for absolution. These are called "reserved cases"; as when one joins Masonry, gets married before a non-Catholic minister, or desecrates a sacred Host. Every Catholic priest, however, even if suspended or excommunicated, has power to absolve all the sins of a dying person.
The restoration or increase of sanctifying grace is the effects of the Sacrament of Penance worthily received.
The sacrament of Penance restores sanctifying grace to the soul that has lost it, and increases it in the soul that already possesses it.
The forgiveness of sins
The sacrament of Penance remits the guilt of sins. All sins can be forgiven in the sacrament of Penance. However many and wicked the sins may be, they are all forgiven if the sinner makes a good confession, even on a deathbed. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all iniquity" (1John 1:9).
The remission of the eternal punishment, if necessary, and also of part, at least of the temporal punishment, due to our sins.
"Unless you repent, you will all perish in the same manner" (Luke 13:5).
The help to avoid sin in future
The sacrament of Penance gives the penitent actual graces and a special strength by which he may overcome temptation and lead a good life. Works of penance are not only for the punishment of past sins; they act as a medicine, as a remedy to weaken the power of evil tendencies.
The restoration of the merits of our good works, if they have been lost by mortal sins.
The sacrament of Penance also gives us the opportunity to receive spiritual advice and instruction from our confessor. Although everybody is free to confess to any authorized priest, each should have a regular confessor.
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