My dear brethren,
Tomorrow is Septuagesima Sunday, the beginning of the penitential time preparing for Easter. So, it is very fitting to continue our series of sermon on the Sacraments, speaking now on the Sacrament of Penance. This is a very important Sacrament in the Christian life, very useful to fully overcome sin and live a fervent life.
Indeed, the whole doctrine on the Sacraments is a doctrine of life: Baptism is the new birth, birth to eternal life. Confirmation is the strengthening of that life. The Holy Eucharist is the food of eternal life. I say “eternal life” because that life which we received at Baptism should continue throughout our earthly life unto everlasting life in Heaven. Heaven is the full blossoming of the seed of new life received at Baptism, grown in Confirmation and fed by the Holy Eucharist: “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day” (Jn. 6:55).
However, there is an important, essential difference between the status of the Saints in Heaven, where they cannot lose that eternal life, and our status here below where we can, unfortunately, lose that life received at Baptism. Blessed are those who keep the innocence received at baptism until the Judgement throne of Christ! But unfortunately, there are many who do not keep their baptismal innocence, and by mortal sin precisely fall in spiritual death, losing the spiritual life, Christ no longer living in them (see Gal. 2:20).
But is there no “second chance” for those who have fallen into mortal sin after baptism? There is, and this is the Sacrament of penance.“Then came Peter unto [Jesus] and said: Lord, how often shall my brother offend against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith to him: I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven times” (Mt. 18:21-22). Thus it is clear that God offers His forgiveness more than once, but as often as one comes back to God with a humble and contrite heart God offers his pardon again. “A contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 50:19).
By the Sacrament of penance, sins committed after Baptism are be remitted by the power to forgive sin, which belongs to our Lord Jesus Christ because He is true God and true man. You remember the miracle our Lord did in order to prove this. A man was sick of the palsy; his friends wanted to bring him to our Lord, but could not enter the house where our Lord was because of the pressing crowds. So, they took the man onto the roof, took off the tiles and lowered the man in front of our Lord and all the attendants. It is evident that when these friends were taking off the tiles, everybody was looking at them, saying to themselves: these people are bold! What are they doing? When the man was thus lowered in front of our Lord, “Jesus, seeing their faith, said to the man sick of the palsy: ‘Be of good heart, son, thy sins are forgiven thee’. And behold some of the scribes said within themselves: ‘He blasphemeth’. And Jesus seeing their thoughts, said: Why do you think evil in your hearts? Whether is easier, to say, ‘Thy sins are forgiven thee’: or to say, ‘Arise, and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then said he to the man sick of palsy,) ‘Arise, take up thy bed, and go into thy house!’ And he arose, and went into his house” (Mt. 9:2-7).
Our Lord Jesus Christ himself instituted the Sacrament of Penance when He gave that very same power to His Apostles: “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (Jn. 20:23). If our Lord gave that power to His apostles, it is clearly so that they may use it for the benefit of the faithful. Our Lord said these words on the day of His Resurrection, because the Sacrament of Penance is not so much like a birth, but rather like a spiritual resurrection: those who were dead in their sins after baptism can come back to the life of the soul by the Sacrament of Penance.
In order to understand properly the Sacrament of penance, it is necessary to remember the damage that mortal sin causes in a soul. Mortal sin consists in a spiritual being, angel or man, who severs himself from God by loving the creature too much, by putting one’s ultimate end in a creature rather than in the Creator, by preferring the creature over its Creator, by loving the created good more than the Uncreated Infinite Goodness of God. It is clearly unreasonable to prefer the limited, finite good over the Infinite and unlimited Divine Goodness. That disordered will is itself the very evil of sin, the stain of sin, death of the soul, because it takes away Charity, which is “the bond of perfection” (Col. 3:15) that binds the soul with God. It is also called the “stain of sin”, because it is spiritual darkness, refusal of the light of the truth of the transcendence of God.
Such choice is a grave offence to God, it is a refusal to give Him the honour that is due to the Supreme Being, who deserves to be loved supremely by all spiritual natures. Being such an offence, it calls for a certain chastisement, in order to restore the order of justice: sin must be expiated. Hence there is a certain “due chastisement”, and that debt is also called the guilt. Evil cannot prevail; God will not let evil have the last word! Divine Goodness will have the last word. Hence evil will have to be compensated with such chastisement.
Lastly, sin introduces a grace disorder in our nature, in the powers of our nature, which are thus wounded by sin. That would will need medicine and time to heal. It is easy and quick to destroy; it takes time to heal and to rebuild. If one looks at the history of mankind, it is evident that the great drama of human history is the drama of sin and its disastrous consequences. Thanks be to God the Father Who sent His only-begotten Son to save us from our sins!
Now man can destroy life, but he cannot make up life; he can kill himself spiritually but cannot give himself back spiritual life: there is need of the Mercy of God acting in the soul and changing around the will of the sinner, “converting” him back to God, turning him around from his disordered way back to the right path of life. That divine action within the soul precedes the sacrament of penance; no sinner can merit that grace of conversion. The good faithful can pray to obtain it for the sinners; the ministers of Christ can preach and exhort to penance and conversion; yet unless God gives His grace within the soul itself and changes the heart, their exhortation will only touch the ears and not the hearts. Hence, we see the great saints doing much penance in order to obtain from the Mercy of God such grace for their hearers.
Once a soul is so touched by the grace of God, and starts to see how wrong it was, in its rebellion against God’s Law, then it searches what it can do to obtain forgiveness of his sins and to correct all the evils introduced by sin and heal the wounds of sin. The second chance that is given to such soul is precisely the Sacrament of penance: by a true and deep contrition for the past sins committed after baptism, together with the proper accusation of these sins to the priest and doing the reparation imposed by the priest, such soul can obtain the absolution of its sins and start the healing process.
The Sacrament of Penance is a kind of tribunal: the tribunal of the Mercy of God. The penitent is the accused, the one who has committed the crimes, the sins. The priest is the judge, taking the place of Christ: this is visible in the very words by which our Lord has given that power to his Apostles. The minister of that sacrament indeed must judge whether to forgive or to retain the sins: if he forgives on earth it will be forgiven in Heaven; if he retains them on earth it will be retained even in the next world. No one is a good judge in his own case, because he would have a bias in his own favour. So, one has to submit to the judge appointed by the King. Christ appointed His apostles and their successors as judges in His name, judges of His Mercy, in charge of distributing that merciful judgement that remits sins – but not indiscreetly: the priest must make sure the penitent is properly disposed.
Thus, the minister of the Sacrament of Penance is the priest. Near the end of the priestly ordination ceremony, the bishop had told the newly ordained priest what our Lord Jesus Christ told His Apostles: “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (Jn. 20:23). St Thomas Aquinas explains that this power over the mystical body of Christ derives from the power the priest has over the physical body of Christ in the holy Eucharist: the priest can make the Eucharist, make the Body of our Lord really present, transforming the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ; but the priest can also dispose the faithful to receive worthily that Body of Christ by preparing them through the Sacraments of Baptism and Penance.
Now it is very important to note that the matter of the Sacrament of Penance is not so much the sins committed after Baptism themselves, but it is the acts of the penitent with regards to those sins. These acts of the penitent are three: the three are required: contrition, accusation and satisfaction. In other words, the priest absolves the penitent who is truly contrite of heart for the sins he has committed, and who accused them properly and who makes reparation for them which the priest will impose. If the penitent fails to make these acts, especially if he is not truly contrite for his sins, then the sacrament is invalid by lack of proper matter, and it becomes then an additional sacrilege, to make a bad confession.
These three acts, contrition, accusation and satisfaction, are concerning the sins committed after baptism. For sins committed before baptism, sure, one must be contrite for them and it is good to make reparation for them, out of sorrow for having offended God. But it is necessary to know that God in His generosity forgives all sin and all penalty to sins the first time one comes to Him. So, the sorrow for these past sins is good indeed, and comes from the love of Our Lord whom one had offended before Baptism, but it goes with the joy of gratitude for the forgiveness received. The penance one may do for these sins, as coming from that love for God and desire of union with Christ who paid for these sins by His Precious Blood, is good indeed, but it is not necessary to obtain a forgiveness that has already been fully given. Yet it is good to contribute for the healing of the wound of those past sins. If one dies right after Baptism, one would go straight to Heaven.
However, if one is ungrateful to that first grace of Baptism and loses it by mortal sin, he may return to God by true penance, but the work will be harder: God does offer again His forgiveness, but leave a part of the satisfaction to be done by the repentant sinner, so that if one dies after a good confession, he will go to Heaven, but not straight: he will have to complete his expiation in Purgatory. The time God gives us here below after confession is a time when we can make up for our past sins, by union with the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ, and thus escape Purgatory by doing our penance on earth. The Sacrament of Penance elevates our penances to a great efficacy to obtain the forgiveness of sins and of the penalty due to sin and to heal the wounds of sin.
St Thomas Aquinas explains that penance is a virtue, part of the virtue of Justice, by which we repay that which we had somehow stolen, we make up for our past sins. The virtue of penance is a consequence of the true faith, that shows us the ugliness of sin, the deep evil of sin, and how it offends God’s infinite goodness. It is also a consequence of the faith in the Divine Judgement, as we say in the Creed: “I believe … in Jesus Christ… who shall judge the living and the dead.” It is also a fruit of the hope of obtain the remission of sin, for without such hope penance would be useless. And in order to be truly a virtue, penance has to be informed by charity: to be sorry for our past sins not merely because they deserved Hell, but also and foremost because they offend the Divine Goodness.
Tomorrow I will give some details on the three acts of the penitent, which are like the matter of the Sacrament. Today let us continue the study of the Sacrament of Penance. The form consists in the words of the priest, the judgement of mercy, absolving the sinner from his sins: “I absolve thee from thy sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” Note that the efficacy comes from the invocation of the Name of the most holy Trinity, as in Baptism the little child was baptised in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. The Most-High God is Holy and the first cause of all holiness!The word “absolve” means to free from sin, “for sins are, so to say, the chains by which the soul is bound, and from which it is freed by the Sacrament of Penance” .
In the old Testament, the priests according to the order of Aaron did not have that power: they could merely declare lepers cleansed from their physical leprosy, but had not the power to actually cleanse them, neither in their body nor in their soul. In the new Testament, the priests according to the order of Melchisedech have the power to absolve from sin, actually cleansing the soul. In the Old Testament, big and expensive sacrifices were required; in the New Testament, God asks only the sacrifice of a contrite heart and a humble soul.
At the beginning of the Church, the penance imposed by the Church often preceded the absolution, and could last several months of severe penitential practices. But throughout the years, the Church has reduced these external penances and even taken the habit of giving absolution upon the simple acceptance of the sacramental penance by the penitent before the actual performance of that penance. Yet, we should not deceive ourselves and think that sin is light since many penances are quite light. No, on the contrary, we should be more grateful to our Lord Jesus Christ for granting His forgiveness so easily, and use more frequently and more devoutly this great sacrament, and offering all our sufferings through life as a continued penance for our past sins and for the salvation of the world.
At the beginning of the Church, public penances were required for the public sins, such as apostasy, denying Christ in front of the judge. In particular, three grave sins deserved great penances: apostasy, murder and adultery. In order to encourage the return of the penitents to God, the Church used more and more private confessions with secrecy and private penances: the confessor is absolutely bound by the “secrecy of confession”, and it would be a grave sin for him to reveal what he heard in confession. There is even a martyr, St John Nepomucene, who was put to death because he refused to reveal the secret of confession.
The traditional rites of penance include an attitude of humility on the part of the penitent, who kneels down to accuse his sins. At the beginning of the confession, the penitent should say the “Confiteor – I confess to Almighty God” and strike his chest. It is recommended to say this prayer before entering the confessional, especially when there is a long line of penitents. This disposes the penitent to a greater humility and contrition.
The penitent should approach this sacrament in a spirit of Faith, seeing truly Jesus Christ in the priest. Indeed, the priest truly acts “in the person of Christ”, and thus when he says “I absolve thee from thy sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost,” it is our Lord Jesus Christ Himself Who speaks, it is He who absolves sins; even if the priest is an unworthy minister, it is still Christ who absolves sins through him for the benefit of the contrite penitent.
The fruits of the sacrament of penance is first of all the remission of the sin itself, restoring the life of the soul, cleaning the stain of sin, pouring the charity of the Holy Ghost in the soul, who now loves God more than anything else and whose contrition is thus transformed into a perfect contrition.
The second fruit is the remission of the everlasting penalty due to sin: the sinner will no longer incur Hell fire; it also remits a great part of the temporary penalty due to sin, but there remains a small part which the penitent must do as his satisfaction, as I shall explain tomorrow.
The third and very important fruit of the sacrament of penance is the healing of the soul. Sin introduces disorder in the soul, a wound in the soul, that needs healing, needs medicine. Now this is the particular fruit of that sacrament, to be a remedy for the soul and helps prevent falling again into sin. Hence it is good to go often to confession, and not to wait to fall into mortal sin, but rather to fight against venial sin through the practice of frequent confession: this will obtain the full victory over sin. It would be certainly unwise to wait death before calling for a doctor! Similarly, one should not wait to fall into mortal sin before one would take the remedy of the sacrament of confession. One does not wait to fall in the mud before one takes a shower! Even without falling into mud, one would not wait months and months before one takes a shower! Similarly, one should go to frequent confession, and not wait to fall into mortal sin in order to go to confession. It is a good practice to go to confession at least every month, for instance for the first Friday and Saturday. It is good to go more frequently. Frequent confession is a great means to heal the wounds of sins and to become truly more fervent.
Only our blessed Mother did not need the Sacrament of confession, because she alone is Immaculate. But anyone who ever had a venial sin after Baptism should go to confession. The Church teaches that the Sacrament of confession is necessary for salvation for all those who have fallen into mortal sin after baptism. If one is caught by time and cannot find a confessor, he would need perfect contrition, which does include the will to go to actual confession as soon as possible, and thus have this sacrament “in desire” at least. This is what happened to the Japanese Catholics during the 200 years when they did not have priests and yet persevered in the faith, but this is a very exceptional situation, and the fruit of a very special grace which the Japanese martyrs obtained for the other faithful.
May the Immaculate Virgin obtain for us a great love of this sacrament which restores the beauty of the soul! May she help us to use frequently this sacrament of penance with fervour, to obtain the deep healing of our soul, and may she help us to live henceforth more faithful to the grace of God avoiding sin more carefully, lest we abuse of the mercy of God, which is so much opposed to true love! Amen.
Fr. F. Laisney