While hearing confessions recently, I had a few quiet moments awaiting the next penitent. I picked-up the official Rite of Penance in the confessional and began reading through the introduction. There the Rite describes in a concise way the four required elements of a good confession, what I’m calling here the “four steps to forgiveness.” They are: contrition, confession, penance and absolution.
Regarding contrition, the Rite says: “The most important act of the penitent is contrition, which is ‘heartfelt sorrow and aversion for the sin committed along with the intention of sinning no more.’” In other words, as we approach the Sacrament of Penance, we need to be truly sorry for our sins and determined to avoid them in the future. Our confession can’t be just words on our lips; it has to signal a change in our hearts. And even though we’re all prone to repeat some sins over and over, we still have to be sincere about doing better in the future.
The second key step to forgiveness is confession, the verbal declaration of our sins. The Rite explains, “The Sacrament of Penance includes the confession of sins, which come from true knowledge of self before God and from contrition for those sins.” A good examination of conscience is important in preparing for confession, and in confronting our sins, we need to be honest – with ourselves, with the priest and with God – so that we can enter and leave the confessional with a good, clean conscience. No need to be scrupulous, though. After a sincere confession, we can always be certain of God’s understanding, mercy, forgiveness and love.
In describing the act of penance, the Rite says that, “True conversion is completed by expiation for the sins committed.” It goes on to say that “the kind and extent of the expiation must be suited to the personal condition of the penitents.” We can’t really make adequate restitution to God for offending him. But the little penances we’re assigned – the familiar Our Fathers, Hail Marys, or other gestures – are symbols of our sorrow.
And the last step to forgiveness is the absolution. In pronouncing absolution, the priest speaks in the person of and in the name of Christ, and thus brings about the reconciliation of the sinner with God. “God uses visible signs to give salvation and to renew the broken covenant,” the Rite explains. And having heard the comforting words of forgiveness, the penitent can leave the confessional in true peace of mind and heart.
Something to think about: In Confession, Jesus has given us a beautiful, powerful and life-changing sacrament.
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