In order to accomplish this, the Lord has given us the Sacrament of Reconciliation – the sacrament of an encounter with God’s mercy, where we receive forgiveness of our sins and the graces necessary to not fall into sin again. It is unfortunate that we do not avail ourselves often enough of this great sacrament. I suspect that one of the reasons people stay away from the Sacrament is out of the fear that comes from opening oneself up and that vulnerability that comes from exposing our worst thoughts, words and actions to another. I think sometimes it comes from a failure to recognize sin and the path of destruction it leaves behind it. I also think it comes from our own “rationalization” of sin – the thought that, “it’s not really that bad.” And then there is a fear which comes from not always knowing how to make a good confession, either because we have never been taught or because it has been so long since we have gone that we don’t quite know how to do it. So, I thought that as we continue to reflect on the Sacrament of Reconciliation it would be good to point out a few things that can help us to make a good confession as well as understanding the structure of the sacrament itself.
The celebration is comprised of five main parts – the Sign of the Cross, the Confession of Sins, the Assignment of a Penance, the Praying of an Act of Contrition, the Granting of Absolution. The first step in making a good confession is to simply step into the confessional and begin with the Sign of the Cross, which the priest may begin or do with you. Traditionally people then say, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, it’s been ___ weeks / months/ years since my last confession.” This isn’t done in order to embarrass someone who has not gone in a while, it’s to give the priest an understanding of what timeframe one is talking about when they confess their sins and is also helpful because, if it has been a while, the priest will know if he has to help give some guidance as the celebration unfolds.
The next part is the actual confession of sins, in a future article I will discuss how to do this well and honestly, so, at this point, I will pass on to the Assignment of a Penance. A penance is not a punishment; it’s a sign of the sorrow and resolve that one has to change. It may be a prayer, or it may be some work of charity. Either way, it is the equivalent of a husband giving his wife a bouquet of flowers after an argument - it’s not a punishment, but a visible and tangible sign that he is asking her forgiveness and pledging to begin again. Along with the penance a priest may have a few words of advice to give encouragement and, hopefully, insight, to assist the process of ongoing conversion. Following the penance being assigned, the penitent then prays an Act of Contrition, this may be one that has been learned as child or can be done in your own words. There is always an Act of Contrition available in the confessional, so there is no need to be worried if you have forgotten the one you learned in Second Grade! Finally, the priest raises his right hand and prays the Prayer of Absolution. After the words, “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood” I do not think that there are any words as sweet to the human ears as, “I absolve you from your sins…” What joy fills the human heart when those words are spoken and the weight is lifted from our shoulders! Truly one of God’s greatest gifts to us is the Sacrament of Reconciliation!
(This article is part of a series of articles on The Sacraments which will appear in the bulletin over the course of this year.)