What comes to mind when you hear the word penance? We often think of penance as the “punishment” we receive when we go to Confession. That would be true but that definition of penance needs to go a little deeper.
The purpose of penance is not simply punishment. To understand this, let’s look at the sacrament as a whole. It is most commonly called Confession. Of course, confessing our sins is an important part of the sacrament but it is not the only part. There are four parts to the sacrament:
- Contrition – we need to be sorry for our sins and have a genuine desire to do better.
- Confession – Of course, God already knows what we have done but as a sign of our contrition, we are called to speak aloud our sins, admitting our faults and admitting we need God’s help to do better.
- Penance – Penance is not so much a punishment but an expression of our desire to change and do better.
- Absolution – Absolution is God forgiving us through the words spoken by the priest.
So, along with Confession as a common name for the sacrament, we also call it the Sacrament of Penance. The official name of the sacrament is the Rite of Penance. That is not meant to put all the focus on the penance we receive. The word ‘penance’ comes from a Greek word, metanoia, which means conversion. Conversion is what the sacrament is all about. We are called to reflect upon our sins in an examination of conscience and then come to the sacrament to reconcile ourselves to God and desiring true conversion so that we can stop sinning.
I have heard stories of people who, before Vatican 2, would go to Confession at least monthly, if not weekly, to confess their sins, even if they didn’t know of anything they had done wrong. Now, the pendulum has swung the opposite way and most people, it seems, seldom go to Confession. Why?
I think one reason is a better understanding of the sacrament and contrition. If you don’t know of anything you have done wrong, then how can you be sorry for it? (Actually, we can be sorry for sins we are not aware of but that is a definite sense of being sorry) I think this idea is why the pendulum of how often we go to Confession began to swing. But it swung too far. It seems that people have gone from thinking that every little bad action is a sin to thinking nothing is a sin. We still sin.
Other people have stopped going to Confession because, they say that, they don’t need a priest to confess their sins. They confess they directly to God. (I wonder how many of these people really do confess their sins directly to God). Going to a priest for confession can seem awkward to say the least. We don’t like to admit our faults to other people. But there is a therapeutic value to doing this. Some see it as an opportunity to “get things off their chest.” Sometimes talking about our sins can give us a new understanding of why we sin? Then, that new understanding can lead us to real change.
Regarding the topic of confessing our sins to a human person (the priest) let me say this as a priest – I view hearing confessions as an enormous responsbility given to me by God. Does hearing Confessions seem to become “routine” at times? Yes, but I remind myself when a person comes to confess, it is God who becomes present in a powerful way. I remember what the priest who taught this sacrament in seminary said, ‘if you ever start to feel worthy and routine about hearing confessions you need to take a retreat or something.’ It is not something I take lightly. Hearing Confessions reminds me of my own sins and what I need to do better at.
I always pray before I hear confessions for the grace to be a minister of compassion and forgiveness. May God give you a heart filled with contrition that you may always open yourself to the grace God offers in this sacrament.