What is the Sacrament of Penance?

Mission Lab

The Sacrament of Penance brings to the Christian God’s merciful forgiveness for any sins committed after Baptism, and it brings the sinner consolation and peace. St. John writes: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

As God’s Son, Jesus had the power of forgiving sins, and He gave His Apostles this power when He appeared to them on the evening of the day of His Resurrection (cf. John 20:19–23). This power to forgive sins has been handed down through the years to the priests of the Church of our day.

The Sacrament of Penance has the form of a criminal trial in a court room before a judge. That is, because of our sins, we must appear before our judge, Jesus Christ, who speaks and acts through his officially ordained representative, the priest. In this “trial”, the sinner is the defendant, the prosecuting attorney who accuses the defendant of his sins, and the attorney for the defense who admits the sinners guilt but pleads for mercy.

Through his priest, Jesus gives a double sentence, a sentence of both life and death. He grants forgiveness and life to the sinner if the sinner is truly sorry for his sins, sincere in his request for forgiveness and reconciliation, firm in his resolve to avoid his sins in the future as best he can, and willing to make practical plans to grow in strength, to resist temptation, to make reparation for his sins, and to grow in holiness.

Jesus also sentences the “old self” to death in order to set the sinner free from his or her weaknesses and tendencies to sin—the seven Capital Sins. Death to the old self takes place through prayer, meditation, and contemplation, the life of asceticism*, and the patient carrying of one’s daily crosses in union with Christ’s Passion and Death.

As a condition for forgiveness, the priest confessor imposes a penance—some prayer or good work—on the sinner, both as a way of making reparation for one’s sins and as a practical help to get started or make progress in the process of putting one’s old self to death.

The penitent must not allow shame, fear, or embarrassment to prevent him from confessing his sins, especially since the priest is strictly bound by the sacramental seal of silence. Through this seal, the priest may never, under any circumstances, even under threat of torture and death, reveal or discuss the sinner’s identity and sin to or with anyone without the sinner’s express permission. This seal is totally sacred and indissoluble and binds the priest under pain of very grave sin and very severe ecclesiastical penalties. Also, the priest confessor may not use his knowledge of the penitent’s sins in any way other than to pray for him and offer sacrifices in reparation for his sins.