The Sacrament of Penance,
All of Your Questions Answered
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1867
Q. What is confession?
A. An express, contrite, but secret self-accusation, before a duly authorized priest, of, at least, all the grievous sins committed after baptism, as far as we can recall them to memory, in order to obtain their remission by the priest's absolution. The words of St. John are to be understood as referring to this sacrament when he writes: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all iniquity." 1 John, i. 9.
We say that confession is an express self-accusation, in order to show that the penitent is bound to confess his sins, as he believes them to be, in the Divine sight, without palliation, exaggeration, diminution, disguise or concealment. We have further stated confession to be a secret accusation, in order to distinguish it from the public penitential accusation, at times practised in the primitive Church, but which, on account of scandal, was in course of time abolished. The accusation for sacramental confession is to be made in secret. We have said that every known and remembered grievous sin, at least, is to be confessed; for whoever willingly and knowingly conceals but one grievous sin has made his accusation in vain, and instead of obtaining the benefits to be derived from this saving sacrament, incurred the enormous guilt of sacrilege. As regards venial sins, they may be confessed, and this accusation is accompanied with great spiritual advantages; yet we are not bound by any precept to confess them, and they may be washed away without confession by acts of contrition and penance, and by the merits of Christ's Passion. Should a person, however, not be sufficiently instructed to enable him accurately to distinguish a mortal from a venial transgression, he is bound to lay his doubts before his confessor, in order that he may not incur the guilt of grievous sin by culpable ignorance. Venial sins are, moreover, confessed in the tribunal of penance, as an act of humility, and in order to draw down greater and richer graces on the recipient, particularly when one is so happy as to lead a life undefiled by mortal sin. In this case, however, we must be very careful to excite true contrition and a firm purpose of amendment; for without sincere contrition there can be no remission of sins, either in or out of the tribunal of penance. Thus whoever confesses venial sins alone, and repents not heartily of at least one of them, draws upon himself, by his confession, the guilt of sacrilege.
Q. May sins once confessed be repeated, and the grace of the sacrament obtained?
A. Certainly; supposing that one should have been so happy as to fall, since the last confession, into no sin: for contrite self-accusation of sins once committed, alone is necessary for the validity of the sacrament. This self-accusation may be as frequently repeated as we wish. The grace of the sacrament consists in its effacing the stains of sin when our consciences are thereby defiled, or in imparting, when this is not the case, new treasures of sanctifying grace, as water cleanses us from the stains contracted or, when we are free from such, serves to promote the cleanliness of the body; and again, as one light dispels the darkness of a room, but if a second be added the light will be much increased.
Q. When is it particularly advisable to renew our selfaccusation of sins once committed?
A. When we have not to accuse ourselves of sins, or at least of mortal sins consented to since the last confession, it is well in this cass, in order to obviate all fears respecting true contrition, to add at the end of our accusation: "I include and accuse myself of this or that grievous sin, into which I unfortunately fell." The sin is then specified. We are, however, to be on our guard against repeating, in detail, the sins committed against the sixth commandment, provided they have, once been confessed, with due dispositions, as this might, perhaps, lead to a new carnal temptation. Should any one wish to renew their self-accusation on this point, it is to be done in general terms.
Q. When does it become incumbent on us to repeat the sins once confessed?
A. When we wish to receive the sacrament of penance, and have not since its last reception incurred the guilt of either a mortal or a deliberate venial sin; as also when making a general confession, or when we have reason to fear that our former confessions were not accompanied with the due dispositions.
Q. What is general confession, and what class of persons have recourse to it?
A. General confession is a detailed and full accusation of all the sins committed since we arrived at the age of reason. A confession of this kind should be made by those who approach for the first time the table of the Lord, those who are entering on a new state of life, and those who find themselves admonished either by serious illness or advanced age to prepare for their passage from this land of exile-to their eternal home.
Q. On whom is general confession incumbent?
A. On all those who have not sincerely and contritely confessed their evil deeds, and particularly such as are the slaves of evil habits.
It will, moreover, be found a salutary custom, after having made a good general confession, to make a confession annually of all the faults committed since the general confession: this will be found highly conducive to a knowledge of ourselves, and will also serve as a security for the validity of our ordinary confessions. General confessions, however, proceeding from scruples or mistaken devotion are neither to be commended nor practised.
It is much better to confess frequently, with careful preparation, and earnestly to strive to progress in virtue, to think of the good which we can and should yet perform, instead of morbidly brooding over the evil once committed, and now unfortunately beyond the power of recall.
Q. Who instituted the sacrament of penance?
A. Jesus Christ, who expressly declares: "Whose sins ye shall forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins ye shall retain, they are retained." John, xx. 3.
By these solemn words, Jesus Christ appointed the Apostles and their successors in the holy ministry, the priests and bishops, as judges in matters of conscience, possessing the power of retaining or remitting sins according to right and justice. The appointment of this judicial tribunal likewise imposes on the faithful to the end of time the obligation of entirely and sincerely revealing the wounds of conscience. For how could the Apostles and their successors duly exercise the powers granted them, if they were not made acquainted with the spiritual infirmities and miseries of those who apply for the exercise of this saving power? Christ, however, never gave to the Apostles, or never does to their successors, any revelation as to the spiritual condition of those who have recourse to them for the remission of sins; this being denied the judges, it follows that the applicant must disclose the state of his conscience to him from whom he solicits aid. The necessity of this obligation becomes apparent from the solemnity with which Christ imparted this power to His Apostles. He breathed upon them and said: "As the Father hath sent me, so also do I send you. Receive ye the Holy Ghost; whose sins ye shall forgive," &c. The import of these words is evidently this: "As I have received from the Father the power to forgive sins, so also ye, by the power of the Holy Ghost, whom I impart to you." Had not these words made it a duty for the faithful to disclose to the Apostles the state of their conscience, the stupendous power thus conferred would have been a vain, though pompous declaration, for why confer authority which can neither be exercised at all, or, at least, in any rational manner? Had Christ merely conferred on His Apostles the power to forgive sins, the case would be different, but this was not the only authority with which He invested them; He likewise expressly empowered them to retain guilt. The exercise of a power of this nature necessarily supposes a thorough knowledge of the disposition of the heart and the state of the conscience, and not merely of the exterior, which is so often deceptive. The penitent may, indeed, be a hypocrite, or he may conceal or gloss over his guilt; in this case, however, he must describe to himself all the dread consequences involved by the receipt of an invalid absolution, obtained from the priest on false pretences.
Q. Has confession been practised ever since the times of the Apostles?
A. It has; we find this practice alluded to in Holy Writ. St. James exhorts us: "Confess ye your sins one to another" that is, those who have fallen into sin, to those who have the power to free them from their guilt ( James, v.). In the Acts we find that many of the faithful came and confessed, and acknowledged what they had done. Acts, xix. 18. The tribunal of penance was, indeed, less frequently resorted to in the primitive ages of the Church, when the first Christians were characterized by such distinguished purity of life, than after the lapse of ages and increasing degeneracy of the people had cooled the first fervor of charity. The small number of priests and bishops, whose whole time and attention was devoted to the announcement of the Gospel, likewise precluded the possibility of confessions being practised as at present. That confession was in use in the times of the Apostles, is clear from what we have cited; particularly, when the testimony of Scripture is taken into account, in conjunction with what tradition and history have to offer on the subject.
Q. How do the Fathers of the first centuries express themselves on this head?
A. They speak of confession as a duty generally known and complied with, the origin of which may be traced to the times of the Apostles. Tertullian, who flourished in the second, century, writes of confession of sin made to a priest, and adds: "Some there are who shun this, as an exposure of self, and defer it from day to day, being more afraid of the shame than desirous of a cure, like to those who affected by some malady conceal it from the physician, and thus perish, falling victims to false shame." De Poenit. 9 and 10. Nothing can be more explicit than the words of Tertullian.
St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, observes: "I entreat ye, beloved brethren, every one of ye confess his sins, whilst yet life is spared to the sinner, and his accusation may be received; whilst satisfaction may be made and absolution obtained (Cyp. Tract, de Lapsis.)". Origen writes on the same subject: "Behold, Scripture teaches that we should not conceal sin in our bosoms. Those who suffer from indigestion, or the presence of diseased matter in the stomach, feel relieved when they have vomited it up; so those who have sinned and conceal their guilt within themselves are internally oppressed, as it were suffocated, by the poisonous effluvia of sin: When the sinner, however, becomes his own accuser, when he denounces himself and confesses, he vomits forth the crime and removes the cause of his malady (Orig. Hom. ii. in Ps. 37.)." St. Basil teaches: "We must reveal our guilt to those who are intrusted with the administration of the mysteries of God (St. Bas. in Resp. ad Quest. 228)." St. Ambrose warns us: "Some are anxious to be admitted to penance so as to have communion speedily dispensed to them. Such persons rather seek to bind the conscience of the ministers of reconciliation, the priests, than to free themselves; for their own consciences are not eased, and those of the priests burthened; for the command, ' Set not holy things before swine,' is not observed (Lib. 2 de Poenit.)." St. Augustine admonishes the faithful of his time to approach the tribunal of penance, saying: "Do penance as the Church prescribes, in order that the Church may pray for you." Let no one say to himself, "I do it secretly before God. He from whom I expect pardon knows it, as I do myself." To what purpose, then, the following words: '"Whatsoever ye shall loose upon earth shall be loosed in heaven?' Have the keys been delivered to the Church in vain? Has the Gospel been set at nought, and Christ's words proved futile, of no avail ( Horn. 49, 50)? St. Chrysostom assures us "that whoever is ashamed to confess his sins to a priest, but is not ashamed to commit them, in the sight of God, if he does not confess and repent, shall be covered at the last dread day with shame and confusion, not before one or two individuals, but before the whole world (Orat. de Muliere Sam)." St. Leo the Great says: "The manifold mercy of God so aids human frailty, that not only by the grace of baptism, but also by the remedy of penance, the hope of life eternal may again be secured, so that those who have profaned the grace of regeneration, being judged by their own judgment, may obtain remission of their sins; and herein has it pleased the Divine goodness to decree that mercy and pardon are only to be obtained by the mediation of the priests. The Mediator between God and man, "the man Christ Jesus," imparts to the ministers of the Church the power to impose the satisfaction of penance on those who confess, and again admit them, purified by this atonement, to pass to the reception of the other sacraments through the gate of reconciliation. The Council of Trent pronounces this dogma in the following solemn decision:
"If any one deny that sacramental confessions is divinely instituted and necessary for salvation, let him be anathema." Sess. xiv. can. 6; and, again: "If any one shall say, that in order to receive the remission of sin, according to divine institution, it is not necessary to confess each and every mortal transgession which after due and assiduous examination can be remembered, let him be anathema." Can. 7. This divine institution and constant practice of confession since the time of the Apostles, is also most clearly and amply proved from the fact, that according to the doctrine and practice of the Church, it is not only the laity who are bound to have recourse to penance, but also priests and bishops, and even the Pope himself. The priesthood, however, would never have submitted to an act in itself so painful and humiliating, had not confession been ordained by Christ himself, and continually practised in the Church from the primitive ages. If confession had been introduced by mere human agency, history would surely be able to point out the date of its introduction, as well as the name of him who possessed such magic influence or boundless power over men as to induce them willingly to submit to that which costs human pride so severe a struggle. History is, however, silent on this subject: no trace of the introduction of confession is to be discovered; it follows, therefore, that the practice of confession is coeval with the existence of the Church. According to the very correct principle of Tertullian, "that which is universally practised in the Church, and whose origin and introduction cannot be pointed out, must be regarded as an apostolic institution or ordinance (Lib. de Prcescript.)." We know exactly, for instance, when and by whom public penances were done away with; and when Catholic apostates, under the name of Protestants, declared against confession; but we do not know by what Pope or council confession was introduced, or has any one as yet been able to discover it. The introduction of such a practice would certainly have excited general attention, supposing it to be introduced by human caprice or policy in the course of ages. And would not the great ones, the proud ones of the earth, on whom this duty is as binding as on the lowliest mendicant, rebel against it? Can it be supposed they would tamely and silently have submitted to an innovation so humiliating and so painful. The eastern sectaries who severed themselves in the primitive ages from the communion of the Church, fully agree with her in practising confession as necessary and salutary for the obtaining of life eternal. The Greek schismatic Russians of today, as well as those earlier sects, may be adduced to prove the truth of our position, that confession is not a known invention or ordinance introduced in progress of time into the Church, but a divine institution.
Q. Has Christ made self-accusation in the tribunal of penance a condition for the remission of sin, as well as a means of atonement?
A. Yes; the sinner having presumed insolently to rise ill rebellion against his Lord and Master, by the commission of sin, it is just and proper that he should be obliged to humble himself before Christ's representatives:
1. In order to pluck out more effectually the root of all evil within us, which is pride, and to excite and confirm in our hearts those dispositions which form the fundamental condition of our reconciliation with the divine majesty, viz., humility, and sincere and humble contrition.
2. To inspire us with dread of falling or relapsing into sin, which even here below has produced consequences so humiliating and painful.
3. To assist, by confession, in arriving at self-knowledge, and to encourage and incite us to make more rapid and successful progress in the way of virtue by the admonitions, intrusions, and paternal exhortations of the confessor.
4. In order not to expose us to the danger of deluding or deceiving ourselves in so momentuous a matter which might easily occur were we constituted sole judges of our own interior.
Our dear Lord wills, furthermore, for our consolation and encouragement, that our reconciliation with Him be confirmed and attested by the judicial sentence of His anointed minister. Even the heathens have some idea of this, as we learn from Seneca, who advises us to unbosom ourselves to a judicious and virtuous friend; to lay open before him our infirmities and evil propensities, and also our falls, in order that we may live in unblemished morality. Sincere and thinking Protestants cannot deny, and do frankly acknowledge the beneficial effects resulting from a secret self-accusation made to the minister of God. Leibnitz, one of their clearest and most profound thinkers, unhesitatingly declares that nothing is more admirable and divine in the Catholic Church than the practice of confession. Syst. Theolog.
Q. May not the practice of confession be accompanied by abuses?
A. It certainly may; but this is not to be imputed to the sacrament, but to the unworthy and ill-disposed recipient.
Q. What are the qualities of a valid confession?
A. It must be, 1. Entire; 2. Sincere; 3. Explicit; 4. Contrite; 5. Humble and respectful.
Q. When may confession be termed entire?
A. When we accuse ourselves of all the grievous transgressions--at least, which we can call to mind; with their number, kind, and such circumstances as alter the nature of the crime.
Q. Are we bound to mention the number of times we may have fallen into any particular sin or sins?
A. We are, as far as we can remember and are capable of exactly determining. We have also to mention the number of persons with whom we have sinned, or whom we may have injured, for God wills that we confess every sin committed. This includes the number of sins; for each renewed transgression, even should it be of the same commandment, is a new sin. If we are not able to determine the number of times we have committed any sin, we are to specify it as nearly as possible; to state how often we have daily, weekly or monthly committed it, and whether or not it be a sin of habit.
Q. What circumstances are we obliged to mention, in order that our confessions may be entire?
A. 1. Those which change the nature of sin; for instance, unlawful intercourse, whether with a single person or one married: in the latter case, it is not only impurity, but likewise adultery.
2. Those which render a transgression mortal which is in itself venial; for instance, if we wore aware that an individual could be so incensed by a slight affront as to break forth, into blasphemous language and imprecations, or that by the utterance of a slight falsehood we should materially and grievously injure our fellow-man in his good name or property, and yet did not shrink from the act.
3. It is, in general, advisable to state what is calculated to enable the confessor to obtain a clearer insight into the state of the penitent's conscience, so that he may be the better able to guide and advise him. Long narrations, accompanied by the mention of names, and all irrelevant matters are, however, to be guarded against.
The confessional is intended for contrite self-accusation, and not for long stories and useless digressions. No mention is to be made of others--at least, by name. We are, moreover, to guard against confessing other people's faults, instead of our own.
Q. When is confession sincere?
A. When we accuse ourselves precisely as we think the sin is in the Divine sight, and with the same candor as if we were confessing to the all-knowing Judge, without concealment, palliation, exculpation or embellishment, false excuses, exaggeration or diminution.
Q. What consequences attend an intentional concealment of even one mortal sin, the number of mortal transgressions, or the circumstances which change their nature?
A. The whole act is invalid, and, far from obtaining the remission of the sins of which we have accused ourselves, we but add to our crimes the fearful guilt of sacrilege.
Q. What considerations should the penitent make use of, in order to put false shame to flight, and enable himself candidly to lay open the state of his conscience?
A. 1. That there exists no cause for us to be ashamed. St. Chrysostom observes, it is shameful to sin, but honorable before God and His representative contritely to acknowledge the evil done. The confessor is certainly well aware of the great self-denial required, in order to confess our sins and frailties, and must, therefore, when he sees that the penitent humbly and sincerely acknowledges his faults, be filled with gratitude toward God, who assists him in the performance of this act, and admiration and sympathy for his penitent, whose heart he beholds stirred with love, contrition and humility towards God, and confidence in him. He rejoices when the penitent freely unbosoms himself to him, and thus places greater trust in him than in any earthly friend, and he feels himself honored that God has chosen him as an instrument of His mercy to remit to the contrite penitent his guilt, rescue him from impending perdition, snatch him from the jaws of hell, and unlock again for him, the prodigal, the golden gates of his Father's glorious mansion, the heavenly Jerusalem.
2. Should this sincerity be wanting, the whole confession is null, and tends only to add the guilt of sacrilege to the other transgressions, the absolution pronounced being null and void.
3. That it is better to confess secretly to a priest, delegated by Divine authority, the sins committed, than to carry constantly about with one the undying worm of conscience; to live in constant danger of eternally perishing, which would inevitably be our lot should a sudden and unprovided death overtake us.
4. That it is better that one individual should be made acquainted with the fault into which we have fallen, than that it should be made manifest on the last day to the whole world as a sin unconfessed and unrepented of.
5. That since we must, sooner or later, prevail on ourselves to acknowledge our transgressions sincerely, unless we are prepared to renounce all hopes of salvation, it is more prudent to do it at once, rather than after having long been lashed by remorse of conscience and exposed to the peril of eternal damnation.
6. That the priest is strictly bound, under pain of mortal sin, to keep inviolably secret whatever has been disclosed to him under the sacramental seal; that he is not even permitted to mention the sins confessed to the penitent himself out of the confessional, and is to prefer death, like St. John Nepomucenes, to a violation of the sacramental seal. Moreover, that God so wonderfully provides for this secrecy that priests, even in delirium, or when laboring under mental diseases, still observe perfect silence concerning the disclosures made in the confessional. Even apostate priests respect the secrecy of the confessional. Luther and the other reformers, although they sneered at, condemned and rejected the use of confession, are not known to have violated the secrecy it imposed.
Q. What is to be done, should one experience peculiar difficulty in confessing some particular sins?
A. We may request the priest's permission to commit the matter in question to writing; it is, however, better to call to mind the four last things, to take courage, and simply and humbly to confess our sins; even though the priest should reproach us severely and sternly, we should continue, candidly, to enumerate our sins; he certainly intends whatever he may say, or impose upon us, for our greater good; and is much edified and consoled by our sincerity and humility.
Q. What is to be done when we are at a loss how to express ourselves in regard to some matter of confession?
A. We are to notify it to the priest, who will not fail to lend his assistance.
Q. What are we to do when we have omitted some grievous fault?
A. 1. Should this omission have been unintentional, either from forgetfulness, or from not being aware of the fault in question, we have to repeat it in the next confession, should we have no opportunity of confessing before approaching the holy table.
2. Should this omission have been culpable, induced by false shame, or want of proper self-examination, we are bound to state the number of confessions made during the concealment, and likewise to repeat each of them.
Q. When may confession be termed clear and explicit?
A. When the faults committed are confessed in a manner so intelligible and precise, that the priest can hear and fully understand the disclosures made; it does not, therefore, suffice to couch our self-accusation in general terms, or to make it unintelligible, by speaking in an ambiguous manner, leaving the nature of the sin undetermined; for instance, where we do not specify whether the sin was one of thought, or desire, or what particular exterior act against the Divine law we have committed. Care, however, is to be taken not to raise the voice too high, so that those without the confessional may not hear, and be scandalized at our sins. Confession must, finally, be contrite and humble, as those dispositions of the heart are requisite as we have said when treating of contrition; attention must, further, be paid to express ourselves as modestly as the nature of the sin, in question, will permit.
Q. In order that confession may possess these qualities, by what should it be preceded; and how should we prepare for it?
A. We should humbly and fervently implore of the Divine clemency, the grace to discover the extent of guilt, humbly to acknowledge and resolutely to amend. 2. We should withdraw as much as may appear necessary to us, from the cares of business, from worldly pursuits and pleasures, in order to prepare with recollection and fervor, our reconciliation with God by penance. Those who confess frequently, are wont to live in the presence of God, and they who often and lovingly visit Christ in the adorable sacrament, will find but little difficulty in preserving recollection of spirit in the hurry of their daily avocations. 3. Let us call to mind that the confession in question may be the last we shall make, and let us endeavor to perform this holy act with the fervor, humility and contrition, we should wish to have, if required immediately after to appear before the tribunal of the Omniscient Judge, the dread avenger of sin, the loving Father and forgiver of sinners and humble penitents. 4. We are then seriously and carefully to examine our conscience.
Q. In what does examination of conscience consist?
A. In the earnest and sincere examination of what we may have thought, wished, uttered, done, or omitted since arriving at the use of reason, or since the last confession.
Q. How should we proceed in this examination, in order that it may be properly made?
A. We are to recall to mind when we last confessed, consider whether our confession was accompanied by any defect, either in the accusation, contrition, or restitution. If the penance was performed, and how; if and into what new faults and sins we have fallen, in thoughts, words, works and participation in the sins of others. We are to examine ourselves regarding the commandments of God; the precepts of the Church; the seven capital sins, and the duties imposed by our calling.
Q. With what degree of strictness should this examination be made?
A. With the same degree of exactitude, that a reasonable and prudent individual, would devote to any affair of the very first importance.
Q. What length of time should we allot to this examination?
A. That depends on the capacity of the persons in question and the manner of life led. There are persons who have a retentive memory, there are others who experience difficulty in recalling the past; there are persons who lead a very uniform life, others are immersed in cares and perplexities, and overwhelmed by business and exposed to distractions without end; some have to encounter few temptations, others have much to suffer from interior and exterior seductions; some frequently examine their conscience and approach the tribunal of penance, others without a care or thought for spiritual things adding sin to sin, and, perhaps, not within the lapse of years resorting to the confessional. The first class need a comparatively short time for the examinaiton of conscience; the second requires more time. No one, however, should go to excess in this respect. We are only required to give the same care and attention to this, that we should to any other serious business; should some fault occur to our recollection after confession, notwithstanding our having duly examined ourselves, we have only to mention it in the next confession. God never requires impossibilities of us; further, confession is not intended as a rack for the contrite sinner, but to give him consolation and peace of heart, as says the Council of Trent, Sess. xiv. c. 3. The penitent should place confidence in his ghostly father, who will not fail to assist, by proposing questions, to which he should candidly reply.
Q. What faults, in particular, are we to guard against in the examination of conscience?
A. We are to guard against a light and superficial examination. 2. We should never seek to excuse and palliate all our faults, but judge them in our own case as severely as we should had they been committed by others. 3. That we estimate our sins according to the law of God and the teaching of morality, and not according to the prejudices and false maxims of infidels and worldlings, who consider nothing reprehensible, excepting murder and theft. 4. It is not sufficient to examine ourselves, solely, concerning the sinful words or works committed, we should carefully scrutinize our thoughts and desires, and also to endeavor to discover in how far we have been a stumbling-block to our fellow-men, how we have been accessory to other's sins. 5. We are to seek, to ascertain the number of our grievous transgressions, and earnestly reflect on the most efficacious means of amendment, as also on the sources and occasions of our faults, so as in future to stop the one and avoid the other; finally, what measures are to be taken in order to repair the damage ourselves or others have sustained from our sins, in order to avoid further evil consequences.
Q. What tends to facilitate this re-examination of conscience?
A. Daily and careful scrutiny of our acts, words, thoughts and omissions, together with frequent confession.
Q. What is to be done after having completed the examination of conscience?
A. To excite contrition for all known and unknown transgressions, accompanied by the sincere and firm purpose of amendment. Should the penitent be obliged to wait a considerable time before the confessional, let him meditate on the sufferings and death of Christ; think of death, the poor souls in purgatory, how gladly they would wait some hours, and how fervently they would employ them, could they enjoy the happiness and privilege of confessing; recite the Penitential Psalms, keep a strict guard over the senses, particularly the eyes, and commend himself to the protection of our blessed Mother Mary and the guardian angels. Should any thing be heard of others' confession, he who has accidentally heard it is as strictly bound to secrecy as the priest to whom the disclosure was made. It would be a grievous sin to speak of what one has thus accidentally learned. Care should, therefore, be taken not to place one's self too near the concessional. It were also better to apprise the confessor of the fact, should the penitent's accusations be overheard by other persons. On entering the confessional, we should cast ourselves, in spirit, with Mary Magdalene, at the bloodstreaming feet of the Redeemer, as if present on Calvary; recall to mind the last judgment in which all that has not been effaced by the sacraments shall be made manifest. We should then sign ourselves with the sign of the cross and say:
"Father, pray give me your blessing in order that I may entirely and truly confess my sins: I, poor sinful creature, accuse myself before the Almighty God, and you, Father, as God's representative, of the following sins:" to be then mentioned. Should we be happy enough to have preserved ourselves free from every deliberate fault, we are to notify it to the priest, and accuse ourselves of some sin of our former life. Should we have but venial faults and imperfections to confess, we add: "I accuse myself of this sin committed in my former life." The confession is then concluded in the following terms: "For these and all the sins of my whole life, I am most heartily sorry, I hate and detest them, because I have thereby offended God, the Supreme and most amiable Good; I am fervently resolved never more to sin, and carefully to avoid all occasion of relapse; I humbly beg pardon of God, and salutary penance and absolution of you, my Father." The instructions given by the confessor are then to be attentively heard, and the questions he may think proper to ask candidly and respectfully answered. Care must be taken to hear distinctly and to understand the penance imposed, and in conclusion, the confession, contrition and purpose of amendment are again to be united with the infinite merits of our Redeemer, praying and bleeding for us on the cross, to which our crimes have nailed Him. While the sacred words of absolution are being pronounced, we should represent to ourselves our Saviour's heart opening, as it were, to receive us, and wash us with the blood flowing from it; we should invoke the name of Jesus, our deliverer, with sentiments of faith, humility and confidence. After confession, we should devote some time to returning thanks, and implore grace to avoid sin for the time to come. We are to perform the penance imposed upon us with as little delay as possible, reciting it with downcast eyes and clasped hands. These acts should be performed with a heart stirred by the most grateful emotions, full of fervor and devotion. We should further endeavor, on leaving the Church, to preserve recollection of spirit, as a necessary condition for a worthy communion.
Q. What is to be done when the priest refuses, or defers absolution?
A. We should humbly submit to the decision of our spiritual father, and faithfully perform whatever he may impose upon us, in order to prepare and dispose ourselves for receiving absolution.
Q. What is sacramental satisfaction?
A. It is, so to speak, the indemnification or reparation the penitent has to offer to the outraged majesty of God, by his penitential works, conformably to the decision of the confessor and in union with the infinite merits of Christ.
Q. Why does God require this satisfaction of the converted sinner, pardoned and cleansed by the merits of Christ?
A. The wisdom and justice of God demands this, in order, to prevent those, who, after baptism, fall into sin from becoming careless or presumptuous, which might easily occur were the sinner required neither to do nor suffer any thing, in order again to be reconciled to Him, whom he has wantonly and ruthlessly offended, for Christ, Himself, assures us that if we do not penance, we shall all perish. Luke, xv. 13. Further, we are to bear in mind that these penitential works, to be imposed by the confessor, derive all their efficacy from the infinite merits of Christ, with which they are to be united.
Q. How is the satisfaction imposed in the confessional, distinguished?
A. It may either be coercive or healing. The first consists in works of a penitential character, and require self-denial; these are calculated to chastise the sinner and serve as a reparation for the offence his sin has offered to the Divine Majesty; for instance, prayers, fasting, almsgiving and other good works. Healing penance, on the contrary, consists in practices calculated to insure the avoidance of all occasions of sin, and to guard him against relapse. As to the reparation we owe our neighbor, should we have injured his reputation, or the restitution to be made in case we have defrauded or otherwise injured him in his property, as also the removal of scandals and enmities, these belong rather to the indispensable conditions for true conversion than to satisfaction.
Q. What is to be observed about the penance imposed in the confessional?
A. It is to be humbly and willingly accepted and conscientiously performed.
Q. When the penance is not performed is confession thereby rendered invalid?
A. When we fully and sincerely intend performing the penance imposed, but afterwards neglected so doing, the confession already made does not become null, but still we commit a sin of which we shall have to accuse ourselves in the next confession, particularly when the penance in question was imposed for grievous sins confessed. Satisfaction is termed the complement of confession. It were a bad sign, and the cause of serious doubt as to whether our confession were made with the due dispositions, were we slothfully and lightly to postpone performing the penance enjoined, or altogether neglect it. It is best to commence it, if possible, immediately after confession, and do what may be done at once, the remainder as soon as we possibly can. It must be eventually done, and the sooner, therefore, the better.
Q. What is to be done, when the penance imposed appears too difficult?
A. We should earnestly consider how light the satisfaction imposed in the tribunal of penance is, when compared with the enormity of sin, as an offence against the Divine Majesty, the severity and length of the penitential exercises, imposed on penitents, in the first ages of the Church; the austerities practiced by the saints and by holy persons, even in our own times, in atonement of sin. Should there, however, exist a moral impossibility to perform some satisfactory work enjoined, we are respectfully to acquaint our father confessor with the fact, and request him to give another in its stead.
Q. Why are the penitential exercises imposed in our times so easy of performance?
A. It is the indulgence of a wise mother towards the frailty of her children. The Church justly apprehends, that if she adhered to the rigor of her early penitential code, it would deter sinners from repentance, or should they approach the tribunal of penance they might neglect performing the penance enjoined. Our holy mother the Church, therefore, in consideration of our weakness, prefers imposing by her ministers light, satisfactory works, and advising the penitent to take voluntarily upon himself more arduous and painful ones, by which, alone, the sinner can escape temporal chastisements, to be borne either here on earth, or hereafter in the flames of purgatory.
Q. Do there then remain temporal punishments to be borne after the guilt and eternal punishment of sin has been remitted in the tribunal of penance?
A. Yes, certainly.
Q. Whence do we derive this knowledge?
A. From the testimony of Holy Scripture and the teachings of the Church.
Thus when Nathan said to the penitent David: "The Lord also hath taken away thy sin." He adds: "Nevertheless, the child that is born to thee shall surely die (2 Kings, xii. 13, 14.)!" Moses was also pardoned the doubts he entertained of the fulfillment of the Divine prophecy; yet, in punishment thereof he was debarred from entering into the land of promise. Deut. i. 38. Does not the whole earth remain, even after our redemption is accomplished, a valley of tears, of bitterness, affliction and toil, in consequence of the sin committed by our first parents, in Paradise? This is, moreover, the express teaching of the holy Church; the Council of Trent solemnly declares it in the following terms: "If any one assert, that to every sinner after the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted, that no load, whatever, of temporal punishment remains to be canceled here on earth, or hereafter, in purgatory, before entering the kingdom of heaven, let him be anathema (Trid. Sess. 1. can. 30, c.). And so it behoveth the Divine justice, wisdom and goodness, as the Council further defines. "Verily, did it behove the Divine justice, that those who sinned ignorantly before baptism, should be restored to grace in a different manner from those who, once delivered from the servitude of sin and Satan, after having received the gift of the Holy Ghost knowingly defile the temple of God, and hesitate not to sadden the Holy Ghost. But it also behoves the Divine goodness that sins be not remitted entirely without satisfaction, lest on the next occasion, considering sin but a slight evil, we may again relapse into, perhaps, greater transgressions without fear and as it were, presumptuously, against the Holy Ghost, and thus heap up treasures of anger for the day of judgment. For these menacing chastisements of satisfaction, doubtless, inspire fear of sin, hold us back as with a bridle, and render us more cautious and vigilant for the future. They also heal the remains of sin and destroy the evil inclinations incurred by sin, by the practice of the opposite virtues. Con. Trid. 1. c.
Q. By what means may these temporal punishments be canceled here on earth?
A. Partly by the satisfaction imposed in the tribunal of penance, by the patient bearing of sickness, poverty and other afflictions of life; further, by voluntary prayers, penitential practices, particularly by the exercise of the spiritual and temporal works of mercy: finally, by obtaining indulgences. In this sense the Apostle says: "I fill up those things that are wanting of the suffering of Christ in my flesh," Coloss. i. 26, that the full efficacy of His redemption be applied to us.
Q. Where shall we have to undergo these temporal punishments if they are not cancelled on earth?
A. In purgatory.
Q. Which is to be preferred: to do penance here for our sins, or suffer for them hereafter, in the flames of purgatory?
A. We should prefer to suffer for them here on earth, for the penitent thus secures himself against relapses into sin, when he has learned to overcome himself, resolutely and firmly; further, because the penitential works undertaken here, are not to be compared to the pains of purgatory; to which we shall have to submit hereafter. Were Christians to reflect on the example of the first Christians, on the austerities practiced by the saints, and particularly on the fearful torments awaiting them in purgatory, they would certainly be more assiduous in the practice of penance, at least, they, would cease to complain of the penance imposed in the sacrament. To such slothful and effeminate individuals the words once addressed by Naaman, the Syrian, to his lord, may be properly applied: "If the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, surely thou shouldst have done it: how much rather what he hath now said to thee, wash and thou shalt be cleansed (4 Kings, v. 13.)?" How trifling is the toil of the short journey, compared to the burthen of leprosy. How gladly should the sinner here satisfy the Divine justice, principally by the excellent virtue and power of sacramental penance, when he considers how great are the pains of purgatory! Whoever reflects, maturely, upon the subject, will not fail to exclaim, as did the penitent Augustine: "Here burn, O Lord, here cut, but spare me in eternity!"
Q. Which are the principal effects of the valid and worthy reception of the sacrament of penance?
A. 1. It effects a perfect remission of the guilt of sin, and delivers us from the eternal punishment thereby entailed. 2. It imparts to those who have grievously sinned instantaneous restoration to the state of sanctifying grace, or increases it in those who have not forfeited it by mortal transgressions. 3. It elevates those reconciled to God to the ineffable dignity of His children, if, unhappily, they have become children of Satan, by mortal sin; or it renders them, if already children of God, more similar to their Divine Father and more amiable and lovely in His Divine sight. 4. It affords joy and exultation to all the saints and angels of God in heaven, and particularly to the most tender and loving hearts of Jesus and Mary. 5. It produces tranquillity, consolation, and many powerful graces in the penitent's heart for a new and better life, and inspires the confessor with joy and hope, as also all who truly love God and us, and who perceive in our conduct the effects of this sacrament, so rich in grace. 6. It procures, for those reconciled with God, the merit of their former good works, lost by sin. 7. It imparts to them that ineffable peace of conscience, of which Jesus Christ says: "the world can neither give nor take it away," and of which Saint Paul testifies "That it far surpasseth all the joys and delights of the world." Phil. iv. and St. John xiv. 29. This, however, only holds good on condition of our not again relapsing into sin.
Q. What will be found the best preservative against relapses into sin?
A. 1. The faithful observance of the rules laid down by our confessor for the regulation of our conduct, with his admonitions and warnings. 2. The careful avoidance of sin and its occasions. 3. Living and acting in the presence of God. 4. The vigilant guard of our senses, particularly our eyes and tongues. 5. Frequent prayer, particularly mental prayer, fervent thoughts, short ejaculations and aspirations to God during the day. 6. The remembrance of the four last things, particularly certain and approaching death. 7. Frequent worthy confession and communion. 8. All the practices calculated to preserve us from temptation, or to aid us in withstanding it. These have been enumerated in treating of the sixth petition of the Lord's prayer.
Practice.--Hast thou properly understood and duly reflected on all that has been said of the sacrament of penance? "Do this and thou shalt live." Confess frequently, but with the due dispositions, for this sacrament certainly produces the most beneficial spiritual effects that can be conceived. It is, as it were, the beacon on the gloomy shore of thy path to eternal happiness, diffusing cheerful and radiant light over the whole weary way. Choose as confessor and counselor in matters of conscience an experienced and zealous priest. Fix, as he may direct, the time for thy confession, and adhere faithfully thereto. Confess at least monthly, and, if possible, more frequently. We read of saints who were wont to confess daily with great spiritual benefit, and-this holy practice wonderfully added to their glory in heaven by the increase in sanctifying grace thereby obtained. Endeavor, then, to go to confession as often as you possibly or conveniently can, and on the other hand to avoid the faults and defects which prevent those beneficial results and seriously injure the soul.
The utility of frequent and well made confession consists principally in the knowledge we obtain of ourselves, and in the increase of sincere humility and contrition of heart; in the greater purity of conscience, in the perfect purity of intention and the more careful avoidance of occasions of sin; in the increase of sanctifying and active grace, so that assisted by both, we may rapidly increase in zeal by virtue and all the practices of Christian perfection. The faults which impede these beneficial results, and which are to be shunned with peculiar care, are a superficial examination of conscience, when one confesses rather as a matter of custom, without a fixed, definite and firm purpose of amendment; a morbid anxiety in examination of conscience, and want of confidence in Christ's infinite merits, joined with which we are in faith to prepare for the reception of this important sacrament. Therefore, let me impress once more upon thy heart, confess frequently, very frequently, with the due dispositions, as thou hast been directed in this instruction, and as thy confessor may think proper to advise, and be assured the great affair of thy salvation will be secure now and in the hour of thy death.
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