All of us, through Baptism and Faith in Christ, have been washed, sanctified, and justified by the blood of Christ, in His name and in the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:3-10). This new life which made us sons and daughters of God and heirs to eternal life, is weakened and sometimes lost through our human frailty. But God in His unbounded love and mercy has provided us forgiveness and reconciliation through the sacrament of Confession. Baptism cancels Original Sin. The sacrament of Confession cancels the sins - mortal and venial - committed after Baptism. This sacrament of Confession is the ordinary way, established by Our Lord, to obtain the forgiveness of sins. It would therefore be foolish as well as presumptuous, says the Pope, arbitrarily to wish to disregard the means of grace and salvation which the Lord has provided, and to claim forgiveness while doing without the sacrament which was established by Christ precisely for forgiveness (Reconciliation and Penance 31).
It is important to clarify that even though the sacrament of Penance is linked with the Eucharist, nevertheless in the economy of grace willed by Christ, the Eucharist is not given to us in order to forgive mortal sins. The Eucharist is properly the sacrament of those who are in full communion with the Church in the grace of God (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1395).
We must approach Holy Communion with pure hearts, with souls free from mortal sins. This is what St. Paul clearly indicated when writing to the Corinthians:
"Whoever eats this Bread or drinks this Cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the Body and Blood of the Lord" (1 Cor. 11:27).
In line with this admonition of St. Paul is the principle clearly stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Anyone conscious of grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion" (1385). Let us remember the words of Christ:
"If you are bringing an offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back, and present your offering" (Mt. 5:23).
The sacrament instituted by Our Lord for the remission of sins has remained substantially the same throughout the course of centuries. It is known by different names and is called:
- The sacrament of Reconciliation. Through it we are reconciled to God, to the Church, and to our neighbour.
- The sacrament of Conversion, because it realises the appeal of Jesus to turn from our evil ways and return to the Father.
- The sacrament of Penance, because it implies a sincere sorrow for our sins and a firm purpose of amendment.
- The sacrament of Confession, because it is a personal acknowledgement of our sins to a priest.
- The sacrament of Pardon, resulting in forgiveness and peace.
(Catechism of the Catholic Church 1422-24)
Every Christian must be firmly convinced that "individual and integral confession and absolution are the sole ordinary means by which the faithful, conscious of grave sin, are reconciled to God and Church. Only grave physical or moral impossibility can excuse from such confession, in which case reconciliation can be obtained in other ways " (Canon Law 960).
It is not in conformity with faith to reduce the forgiveness of sins to a private and individualistic contract between the conscience of the faithful and God. Of course, sin is not forgiven without personal repentance, but its remission is subordinate to the fulfilment of the positive will of Christ who tied the remission of sins to the ecclesial ministry, or at least to the serious desire to have recourse to it as soon as possible, when it would not be immediately possible to make a sacramental confession.
Equally erroneous is the opinion of those who, while not denying the positive value of the sacrament of Penance, conceive of it as something superfluous, since they suppose that the Lord's pardon would have been given once for all on Calvary. Sacramental application of divine mercy, they think, would not be necessary for the recovery of grace.
It must be emphasised that the sacrament of Penance is not an act of psychological therapy, but a supernatural reality destined to produce in hearts serenity and peace from this fount of grace.
Therefore, "All those of whom it is required by virtue of their ministry in the care of souls are obliged to ensure that the Confessions of the faithful entrusted to their care are heard when they reasonably ask, and that they are given the opportunity to approach individual Confession on days and times set down for their convenience" (Canon Law 986:1). It is particularly recommended that in places of worship confessors are visibly present at advertised times, and that times be adapted to the real circumstances of penitents, and that confessors be especially available before Mass, and even during Mass, in order to meet the demands of the faithful" (Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Letter, The Celebration of the Sacrament of Penance 2). It is important to remember that it is an act of genuine charity and true pastoral justice that the faithful, when they have the proper interior disposition, have the right to receive personally the sacramental gift. (Canon Law 213; 343:1)
According to the law of the Church, there could be some occasions when the faithful cannot make individual and integral Confession to a priest. They may then have General Absolution. The conditions established by the Church for this exceptional kind of Confession are clearly stated.
- If the danger of death is imminent, and there is no time for the priest or priests to hear the Confessions individually, as, for example, in battle.
- If there is a serious need, as when there are not enough confessors to hear a great number of penitents individually and the faithful would therefore be deprived of sacramental grace or Holy Communion through no fault of their own. This situation is present when some of the faithful are living in isolated places where a priest cannot visit them, or, very rarely, when time is very limited. Nevertheless, we recommend very strongly to our priests who visit these particular places that they try their best to hear as many individual Confessions as possible before giving general absolution.
A situation like this also arises in our large parishes when on occasions like Christmas and Easter a large number of people come from distant places or from villages spread out in the desert and practically inaccessible to priests. These people are entitled to get general absolution, not those who live near the church, who come often for services, and have the opportunity to make individual Confession.
Instructions on this point are very clear, and the Bishop is called to be very responsible in their application (Canon 361:1).
There are some very important conditions for receiving this general absolution validly:
- The faithful must be prepared with appropriate exhortation and examination of conscience.
- They must be sincerely sorry for their sins, have a firm purpose of avoiding them in the future, and make an act of contrition.
- Those who have received general absolution are obliged to confess individually to a priest as soon as possible, failing which they cannot receive another general absolution unless there is a just cause - when they do not have the possibility of meeting a priest in order to make a private Confession, for example.
Next: How to Make a Good Confession
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