Sacrament of Penance
This article originally appeared on Catholic Apologetics Information and is being used under Section 107 of the Copyright Act. It is for non-profit use to bring about the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart into the world. If you have any questions please contact email@example.com.
Importance Of Instruction On This Sacrament
As the frailty and weakness of human nature are universally known and felt by each one in himself, no one can be ignorant of the great necessity of the Sacrament of Penance. If, there fore, the diligence of pastors should be proportioned to the weight and importance of the subject, we must admit that in expounding this Sacrament they can never be sufficiently diligent. Nay, it should be explained with more care than Baptism. Baptism is administered but once, and cannot be repeated; Penance may be administered and becomes necessary, as often as we may have sinned after Baptism. Hence the Council of Trent declares: For those who fall into sin after Baptism the Sacrament of Penance is as necessary to salvation as is Baptism for those who have not been already baptised. The saying of St. Jerome that Penance is a second plank, is universally known and highly commended by all subsequent writers on sacred things. As he who suffers shipwreck has no hope of safety, unless, perchance, he seize on some plank from the wreck, so he that suffers the shipwreck of baptismal innocence, unless he cling to the saving plank of Penance, has doubtless lost all hope of salvation.
These instructions are intended not only for the benefit of pastors, but also for that of the faithful at large, to awaken attention, lest they be found culpably negligent in a matter so very important. Impressed with a just sense of the frailty of human nature, their first and most earnest desire should be to advance with the divine assistance in the ways of God, without sin or failing. But should they at any time prove so unfortunate as to fall, then, looking at the infinite goodness of God, who like the good shepherd binds up and heals the wounds of His sheep, they should not postpone recourse to the most saving remedy of Penance.
Different Meanings of the Word “Penance”
To enter at once on the subject, and to avoid all error to which the ambiguity of the word may give rise, its different meanings are first to be explained. By penance some understand satisfaction; while others, who wander far from the doctrine of the Catholic faith, supposing penance to have no reference to the past, define it to be nothing more than newness of life. It must, therefore, be shown that the word has a variety of meanings.
In the first place, it is said of those to whom that which was before pleasing is now displeasing, whether the object itself was good or bad. In this sense all those repent whose sorrow is according to the world, not according to God; and therefore, worketh not salvation, but death.
In the second place, it is used to express that sorrow which the sinner conceives, not, however, for the sake of God, but for his own sake, concerning some sin of his in which he once took pleasure.
A third kind of penance is that by which we experience interior sorrow of heart, or give exterior indication of such sorrow for the sake of God alone. To all these kinds of sorrow the word repentance properly applies.
When the Sacred Scriptures say that God repented, the expression is evidently figurative. When we repent of any thing, we are most anxious to change it; and hence when God has resolved to change any thing, the Scriptures, accommodating their language to our manner of speaking, say that He repents. Thus we read that it repented him that he had made man, and also that He was sorry that He had made Saul king.
But an important distinction is to be made between these different significations of the word. The first kind of penance must be considered faulty; the second is only the agitation of a disturbed mind; the third we call both a virtue and a Sacrament. In this last sense penance is taken here.
The Virtue of Penance
We shall first treat of penance as a virtue, not only because it is the duty of the pastor to lead the faithful to the practice of every virtue; but also, because the acts which proceed from penance as a virtue, constitute the matter, as it were, of Penance as a Sacrament, and unless the virtue be rightly understood, the force of the Sacrament cannot be appreciated.
The faithful, therefore, are first to be admonished and exhorted to labor strenuously to attain this interior penance of the heart which we call a virtue, and without which exterior penance can avail them very little.
Meaning Of Penance
Interior penance consists in turning to God sincerely and from heart, and in hating and detesting our past transgressions, with a firm resolution of amendment of life, hoping to obtain pardon through the mercy. Accompanying this penance, like inseparable companion of detestation for sin, is a sorrow and sadness, which is a certain agitation and disturbance of the soul, and is called by many a passion. Hence many of the Fathers define penance as an anguish of soul.
Penance, however, in those who repent, must be preceded by faith, for without faith no man can turn to God. Faith, therefore, cannot on any account be called a part of penance.
Penance Proved To Be A Virtue
That this inward penance is, as we have already said, a virtue, the various commands which have been given regarding it clearly show; for the law commands only those actions that are virtuous.
Furthermore, no one can deny that it is a virtue to be sorrowful at the time, in the manner, and to the extent which are required. To regulate sorrow in this manner belongs to the virtue of penance. Some conceive a sorrow which bears no proportion to their crimes. Nay, there are some, says Solomon, who are glad when they have done evil. Others, on the contrary, give themselves to such melancholy and grief, as utterly to abandon all hope of salvation. Such, perhaps, was the condition of Cain when he exclaimed: My iniquity is greater than that I may deserve pardon. Such certainly was the condition of Judas, who, repenting, hanged himself, and thus lost soul and body. Penance, therefore, considered as a virtue, assists us in restraining within the bounds of moderation our sense of sorrow.
That penance is a virtue may also be inferred from the ends which the true penitent proposes to himself. The first is to destroy sin and efface from the soul its every spot and stain. The second is to make satisfaction to God for the sins which he has committed, which is clearly an act of justice. Between God and man, it is true, no relation of strict justice can exist, so great is the distance that separates them; yet between them there is evidently a sort of justice, such as exists between a father and his children, between a master and his servants. The third (end of the penitent) is to reinstate himself in the favour and friendship of God whom he has offended and whose hatred he has earned by the turpitude of sin. The foregoing considerations sufficiently prove that penance is a virtue.
The Steps Which Lead Up To This Virtue
We must also point out the steps by which we may ascend to this divine virtue. I The mercy of God first goes before us and converts our hearts to Him. This was the object of the Prophet’s prayer: Convert us, O Lord, to thee, and we shall be converted.
Illumined by this light the soul next tends to God by faith. He that cometh to God, says the Apostle, must believe that he is, and is a rewarder of them that seek him.
A salutary fear of God’s judgments follows, and the soul, contemplating the punishments that await sin, is recalled from the paths of vice. To this (state of soul) seem to refer these words of Isaias: As a woman with child, when she draweth near the time of her delivery, is in pain and crieth out in her pangs, so are we become.
Then follows a hope of obtaining mercy from God, encouraged by which we resolve on improvement of life.
Lastly, our hearts are inflamed by charity, whence springs that filial fear which good and dutiful children experience; and thus dreading only to offend the majesty of God in anything, we entirely abandon the ways of sin.
Fruits Of This Virtue
Such are, as it were, the steps by which we ascend to this most exalted virtue, a virtue altogether heavenly and divine, to which the Sacred Scriptures promise the kingdom of heaven; for it is written in St. Matthew: Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. If, says Ezechiel, the wicked do penance for all his sins which he hath committed, and keep all my commandments, and do judgment and justice, living he shall live. In another place: I desire not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live, words which are evidently understood of eternal life.
Penance as a Sacrament
Regarding external penance it will be necessary to show that in it the Sacrament properly consists, and that it possesses certain outward and sensible signs which denote the effect that takes place interiorly in the soul.
Why Christ Instituted This Sacrament
In the first place, however, it will be well to explain why it is that Christ our Lord was pleased to number Penance among the Sacraments. One of His reasons certainly was to leave us no room for doubt regarding the remission of sin which was promised by God when He said: If the wicked do penance, etc. For each one has good reason to distrust the accuracy of his own judgment on his own actions, and hence we could not but be very much in doubt regarding the truth of our internal penance. It was to destroy this, our uneasiness, that our Lord instituted the Sacrament of Penance, by means of which we are assured that our sins are pardoned by the absolution of the priest; and also to tranquilize our conscience by means of the trust we rightly repose in the virtue of the Sacraments. The words of the priest sacramentally and lawfully absolving us from our sins are to be accepted in the same sense as the words of Christ our Lord when He said to the paralytic: Son, be of good heart: thy sins are forgiven thee.
In the second place, no one can obtain salvation unless through Christ and the merits of His Passion. Hence it was becoming in itself, and highly advantageous to us, that a Sacrament should be instituted through the force and efficacy of which the blood of Christ flows into our souls, washes awayall the sins committed after Baptism, and thus leads us to recognise that it is to our Saviour alone we owe the blessing of reconciliation.
Penance Is a Sacrament
That Penance is a Sacrament pastors can easily show from what follows. As Baptism is a Sacrament because it blots out all sins, and especially original sin, so for the same reason Penance, which takes away all the sins of thought and deed committed after Baptism, must be regarded as a true Sacrament in the proper sense of the word.
Moreover and this is the principal reason since what is exteriorly done, both by priest and penitent, signifies the inward effects that take place in the soul, who will venture to deny that Penance is invested with the nature of a proper and true Sacrament ? For a Sacrament is a sign of a sacred thing. Now the sinner who repents plainly expresses by his words and actions that he has turned his heart from sin; while from the words and actions of the priest we easily recognise the mercy of God exercised in the remission of sins.
In any event, the words of our Saviour furnish a clear proof: I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven. The absolution announced in the words of the priest expresses the remission of sins which it accomplishes in the soul.
This Sacrament May Be Repeated
The faithful should be instructed not only that Penance is to be numbered among the Sacraments, but that it is one of the Sacraments which may be repeated. To Peter, who had asked whether pardon could be given to sin seven times, our Lord replied: I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven.
If, then, (the pastor) happens to encounter those who seem to distrust the infinite goodness and clemency of God, let him endeavour to inspire their minds with confidence, and raise them up to the hope of obtaining the grace of God. He will easily accomplish this object by explaining the above and other passages which are frequently met with in Holy Writ; as well as by using the arguments and reasons which may be found in St. Chrysostom’s book On the Lapsed, and St. Ambrose’s books On Penance.
The Constituent Parts of Penance
There is nothing that should be better known to the faithful than the matter of this Sacrament; hence they should be taught that Penance differs from the other Sacraments in this that while the matter of the other Sacraments is some thing, whether natural or artificial, the matter, as it were, of the Sacrament of Penance is the acts of the penitent, namely, contrition, confession and satisfaction, as has been declared by the council of Trent. Now, inasmuch as these acts are by divine institution required on the part of the penitent for the integrity of the Sacrament, and for the full and perfect remission of sin, they are called parts of Penance. It is not because they are not the real matter that they are called by the Council the matter as it were, but because they are not of that sort of matter which is applied externally, such, for instance, as water in Baptism and chrism in Confirmation.
As regards the opinion of some who hold that sins themselves are the matter of this Sacrament, it will be found, when carefully examined, that it does not really differ from the explanation already given. Thus we say that wood which is consumed by fire is the matter of fire. In the same way, sins which are destroyed by Penance may properly be called the matter of Penance.
The Form Of Penance
Pastors should not neglect to explain the form of the Sacrament of Penance. A knowledge of it will excite the faithful to receive the grace of this Sacrament with the greatest possible devotion. Now the form is: I absolve thee, as may be inferred not only from the words, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth shall be bound also in heaven, but also from the teaching of Christ our Lord, handed down to us by the Apostles.
Moreover, since the Sacraments signify what they effect, the words, I absolve thee, signify that remission of sin is effected by the administration of this Sacrament; and hence it is plain that such is the perfect form of the Sacrament. 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. And none the less truly does the priest pronounce the form over the penitent who, through perfect contrition, accompanied by the desire of confession, has already obtained remission of his sins from God.
Several prayers are added, not that they are necessary to the form but in order to remove every obstacle that can impede the force and efficacy of the Sacrament owing to the fault of him to whom it is administered.
How thankful, then, should not sinners be to God for having bestowed such ample power on the priests of His Church! Unlike the priests of the Old Law who merely declared the leper cleansed from his leprosy, the power now given to the priests of the New Law is not limited to declaring the sinner absolved from his sins, but, as a minister of God, he truly absolves from sin. This is an effect of which God Himself, the author and source of grace and justice, is the principal cause.
The Rites Observed in the Sacrament of Penance
The faithful should take great care to observe the rites which accompany the administration o f this Sacrament. In this way they will have a higher idea of what they obtain from this Sacrament, that is, that they have been reconciled as slaves to their kind master, or rather, as children to their best of fathers; and at the same time they will also better understand what is the duty of those who desire, as everyone should, to show their gratitude and remembrance of so great a benefit.
The sinner, then, who repents, casts himself humbly and sorrowfully at the feet of the priest, in order that by there humbling himself he may the more easily be led to see that he must tear up the roots of pride whence spring and flourish all the sins he now deplores. In the priest, who is his legitimate judge, he venerates the person and the power of Christ our Lord; for in the administration of the Sacrament of Penance, as in that of the other Sacraments, the priest holds the place of Christ. Next the penitent enumerates his sins, acknowledging, at the same time, that he deserves the greatest and severest chastisements; and finally, suppliantly asks pardon for his faults.
All these rites have a sure guarantee for their antiquity in the authority of St. Denis.
Effects of the Sacrament of Penance
Nothing will prove of greater advantage to the faithful, nothing will be found to conduce more to a willing reception of the Sacrament of Penance, than for pastors to explain frequently the great advantage to be derived therefrom. They will then see that of Penance it is truly said that its roots ale bitter, but its fruit sweet indeed.
First of all, then, the great efficacy o Penance consists in this, that it restores us to the grace of God, and unites us to Him in the closest friendship.
In pious souls who approach this Sacrament with devotion, profound peace and tranquillity of conscience, together with ineffable joy of soul, accompany this reconciliation. For there is no sin, however great or horrible, which cannot be effaced by the Sacrament of Penance, and that not merely once, but over and over again. On this point God Himself thus speaks through the Prophet: If the wicked do penance for all his sins which he hath committed, and keep all my commandments, and do judgment, and justice, living he shall live, and shall not die, and I will not remember all his iniquities that he hath done. And St. John says: If we confess our sins; he is faithful and just, to forgive us our sins; and a little later, he adds: If any man sin, he excepts no sin whatever, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the just; for he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world.
When we read in Scripture that certain persons did not obtain pardon from God, even though they earnestly implored it, we know that this was due to the fact that they had not a true and heartfelt sorrow for their sins. Thus when we find in Sacred Scripture and in the writings of the Fathers passages which seem to assert that certain sins are irremissible, we must understand the meaning to be that it is very difficult to obtain pardon for them. A disease is sometimes called incurable, because the patient is so disposed as to loathe the medicines that could afford him relief. Ill the same way certain sins are not remitted or pardoned because the sinner rejects the grace of God, the only medicine for salvation. It is in this sense that St. Augustine wrote: When a man who, through the grace of Jesus Christ, has once arrived at a knowledge of God, wounds fraternal charity, and, driven by the fury of envy, lifts up his head against grace, the enormity of his sin is so great that, though compelled by a guilty conscience to acknowledge and confess his fault, he finds himself unable to submit to the humiliation of imploring pardon.
The Necessity of the Sacrament of Penance
Returning now to the Sacrament, it is so much the special province of Penance to remit sins that it is impossible to obtain or even to hope for remission of sins by any other means; for it is written: Unless you do penance, you shall all likewise perish. These words were said by our Lord in reference to grievous and mortal sins, although at the same time lighter sins, which are called venial, also require some sort of penance. St. Augustine observes that the kind of penance which is daily performed in the Church for venial sins, would be absolutely useless, if venial sin could be remitted without penance.
The Three Integral Parts of Penance
But as it is not enough to speak in general terms when treating of practical matters, the pastors should take care to explain, one by one, those things from which the faithful can understand the meaning of true and salutary Penance.
Now it is peculiar to this Sacrament that besides matter and form, which it has in common with all the other Sacraments, it has also, as we have said, those parts which constitute Penance, so to say, whole and entire; namely, contrition, confession and satisfaction. On these St. Chrysostom thus speaks: Penance enables the sinner to bear all willingly in his heart is contrition; on his lips confession; in his actions entire humility or salutary satisfaction.
These three parts belong to that class of parts which are necessary to constitute a whole. The human body is composed of many members, hands, feet, eyes and the various other parts; the want of any one of which makes the body be justly considered imperfect, while if none of them is missing, the body is regarded as perfect. In the same way, Penance is composed of these three parts in such a way that though contrition and confession, which justify man, are alone required to constitute its essence, yet, unless accompanied by its third part, satisfaction, it necessarily remains short of its absolute perfection.
These three parts, then, are so intimately connected with one another, that contrition includes the intention and resolution of confessing and making satisfaction; contrition and the resolution of making satisfaction imply confession; while the other two precede satisfaction.
Necessity Of These Integral Parts
The reason why these are the integral parts may be thus explained. Sins against God are committed by thought, by word and by deed. It is, then, but reasonable, that in recurring to the power of the keys we should endeavour to appease God’s wrath, and obtain pardon for our sins by means of the very same things which we employed to offend His sovereignty.
A further reason by way of confirmation can also be assigned. Penance is a sort of compensation for sin, springing from the free will of the delinquent, and is appointed by God, against whom the offence has been committed. Hence, on the one hand, there is required the willingness to make compensation, in which willingness contrition chiefly consists; while, on the other hand, the penitent must submit himself to the judgment of the priest, who holds God’s place, in order to enable him to award a punishment proportioned to the gravity of the sin committed. Hence the reason for and the necessity of confession and satisfaction are easily inferred.
The First Part of Penance
As the faithful require instruction on the nature and efficacy of the parts of Penance, we must begin with contrition. This subject demands careful explanation; for as often as we call to mind our past transgressions, or offend God anew, so often should our hearts be pierced with contrition.
The Meaning Of Contrition
By the Fathers of the Council of Trent, contrition is defined: A sorrow and detestation for sin committed, with a purpose of sinning no more. and a little further on the Council, speaking of the motion of the will to contrition, adds: If joined with a confidence in the mercy of God and an earnest desire of per forming whatever is necessary to the proper reception of the Sacrament, it thus prepares us for the remission of sin.
Contrition Is A Detestation Of Sin
From this definition, therefore, the faithful will perceive that the efficacy of contrition does not simply consist in ceasing to sin, or in resolving to begin, or having actually begun a new life; it supposes first of all a hatred of one’s illspent life and a desire of atoning for past transgressions.
This is especially confirmed by those cries of the holy Fathers,. which we so frequently meet with in Holy Scripture. I have laboured in my groaning, says David; every night I will wash my bed; and again, The Lord hath heard the voice of my weeping. I will recount to thee all my years, says another, in the bitterness of my soul. These and many like expressions were called forth by an intense hatred and a lively detestation of past transgressions.
Contrition Produces Sorrow
But although contrition is defined as sorrow, the faithful are not thence to conclude that this sorrow consists in sensible feeling; for contrition is an act of the will, and, as St. Augustine observes, grief is not penance but the accompaniment of penance. By sorrow the Fathers understood a hatred and detestation of sin; in the first place, because the Sacred Scriptures frequently use the word in this sense. How long, says David, shall I take counsels in my soul, sorrow in my heart all the day. And secondly, because from contrition arises sorrow in the inferior part of the soul which is called the seat of concupiscence.
With propriety, therefore, is contrition defined a sorrow, because it produces sorrow; hence penitents, in order to express it, used to change their garments. Our Lord alludes to this custom when He says: Woe to thee, Corozain, woe to thee, Bethsaida: for if in Tyre and Sidon had been wrought the miracles that have been wrought in you, they had long ago done penance in sackcloth and ashes.
Names Of Sorrow For Sin
To signify the intensity of this sorrow the name contrition has rightly been given to the detestation of sin of which we speak. The word means the breaking of an object into small parts by means of a stone or some harder substance; and here it is used metaphorically, to signify that our hearts, hardened by pride, are beaten and broken by penance. Hence noother sorrow, not even that which is felt for the death of parents, or children, or for any other calamity, is called contrition. The word is exclusively employed to express the sorrow with which we are overwhelmed by the forfeiture of the grace of God and of our own innocence.
Contrition, however, is often designated by other names. Sometimes it is called contrition of heart, because the word heart is frequently used in Scripture to express the will. As the movement of the body originates in the heart, so the will is the faculty which governs and controls the other powers of the soul.
By the holy Fathers it is also called compunction of heart, and hence they preferred to entitle their works on contrition treatises On Compunction of Heart; for as ulcers are lanced with a knife in order to allow the escape of the poisonous matter accumulated within, so the heart, as it were, is pierced with the lance of contrition, to enable it to emit the deadly poison of sin.
Hence, contrition is called by the Prophet Joel, a rending of the heart. Be converted to me, he says, with all your hearts in fasting, in weeping, in mourning, and rend your hearts.
Qualities of Sorrow for Sin
It Should Be Supreme
That sorrow for sins committed should be so profound and supreme that no greater sorrow could be thought of will easily appear from the considerations that follow.
Perfect contrition is an act of charity, emanating from what is called filial fear; hence it is clear that the measure of contrition and of charity should be the same. Since, therefore, the charity which we cherish towards God, is the most perfect love, it follows that contrition should be the keenest sorrow of the soul. God is to be loved above all things, and whatever separates us from God is therefore to be hated above all things. It is also worthy of note that to charity and contrition the language of Scripture assigns the same extent. Of charity it is said: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart.’ Of contrition the Lord says through the Prophet: Be converted with your whole heart.
Secondly, it is true that of all objects which deserve our love, God is the supreme good, and it is not less true that of all objects which deserve our execration sin is the supreme evil. The same reason, then, which prompts us to confess that God is to be loved above all things, obliges us also of necessity to acknowledge that sin is to be hated above all things. That God is to be loved above all things, so that we should be prepared to sacrifice our lives rather than offend Him, these words of the Lord clearly declare: He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me; He that will save his life shall lose it.
Further, it should be noted that since, as St. Bernard says, there is no limit or measure to charity, or to use his own words, as the measure of loving God is to love Him without measure, there should be no limit to the hatred of sin.
Sorrow For Sin Should Be Intense
Besides, our contrition should be not only the greatest, but also the most intense, and so perfect that it excludes all apathy and indifference; for it is written in Deuteronomy: When thou shalt seek the Lord thy God, thou shalt find him: yet so if thou seek him with all thy heart, and all the affliction of thy soul, and in Jeremias.: Thou shalt seek me and shalt find me, when thou shalt seek me unto all thy heart; and I will be found by thee, saith the Lord.
If, however, our contrition be not perfect, it may nevertheless be true and efficacious. For as things which fall under the senses frequently touch the heart more sensibly than things purely spiritual, it sometimes happens that persons feel more intense sorrow for the death of their children than for the grievousness of their sins.
Our contrition may also be true and efficacious, although unaccompanied by tears. Penitential tears, however, are much to be desired and commended. On this subject St. Augustine has well said: The spirit of Christian charity lives not within you, if you lament the body from which the soul has departed, but lament not the soul from which God has departed. To the same effect are the words of the Redeemer above cited: Woe to thee, Corozain, woe to thee, Bethsaida: for if in Tyre and Sidon had been wrought the miracles that have been wrought in you, they had long since done penance, in sackcloth and ashes. To establish this truth it will suffice to recall the well-known examples of the Ninivites, of David, of the woman who was a sinner, and of the Prince of the Apostles, all. of whom obtained the pardon of their sins when they implored the mercy of God with abundant tears.
Sorrow For Sin Should Be Universal
The faithful should be earnestly exhorted and admonished to strive to extend their contrition to each mortal sin. For it is thus that Ezechias describes contrition: I will recount to thee all my years in the bitterness of my soul. To recount all our years is to examine our sins one by one in order to have sorrow for them from our hearts. In Ezechiel also we read: If the wicked do penance for all his sins, he shall live. In this sense St. Augustine says: Let the sinner consider the quality of his sins, as to time, place, variety and person.
In this matter, however, the faithful should not despair of the infinite goodness and mercy of God. For since God is most desirous of our salvation, He will not delay to pardon us. With a father’s fondness, He embraces the sinner the moment he enters into himself, turns to the Lord, and, having detested all his sins, resolves that later on, as far as he is able, he will call them singly to mind and detest them. The Almighty Himself, by the mouth of His Prophet, commands us to hope, when He says: The wickedness of the wicked shall not hurt him, in what day soever he shall turn from his wickedness.
Conditions Required for Contrition
From what has been said we may gather the chief requisites of true contrition. In these the faithful are to be accurately instructed, that each may know the means of attaining, and may have a fixed standard by which to determine, how far he may be removed from the perfection of this virtue.
Detestation Of Sin
We must, then, in the first place, detest and deplore all out sins. If our sorrow and detestation extend only to some sins, our repentance is not salutary, but feigned and false. Whosoever shall keep the whole law, says St. James, but offend in one point, is become guilty of all.
Intention Of Confession And Satisfaction
In the next place, our contrition must be accompanied with a desire of confessing and satisfying for our sins. Concerning these dispositions we shall treat in their proper place.
Purpose Of Amendment
Thirdly, the penitent must form a fixed and firm purpose of amendment of life. This the Prophet clearly teaches in the following words: If the wicked do penance for all his sins which he hath committed, and keep all my commandments, and do judgment, and justice, living Ice shall live, and shall not die: I will not remember all his iniquities which he hath done. And a little after: When the wicked turneth himself away from his wickedness which he hath wrought, and doth judgment and justice, he shall save his soul alive. Still further on he adds: Be converted and do penance for all your iniquities, and iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions, by which you have transgressed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. To the woman taken in adultery Christ our Lord commanded the same thing: Go thy way, and sin no more; and also to the lame man whom He cured at the pool of Bethsaida: Behold, thou art made whole, sin no more.
Reasons For These Conditions
That a sorrow for sin and a firm purpose of avoiding sin for the future are two conditions indispensable to contrition nature and reason clearly show. He who would be reconciled to a friend whom he has wronged must regret to have injured and offended him, and his future conduct must be such as to avoid offending in anything against friendship.
Furthermore, these are conditions to which man is bound to yield obedience; for the law to which man is subject, be it natural, divine, or human, he is bound to obey. If, therefore, by force or fraud, the penitent has taken anything from his neighbour, he is bound to restitution. Likewise if, by word or deed he has injured his neighbour’s honour or reputation, he is under an obligation of repairing the injury by procuring him some advantage or rendering him some service. Well known to all is the maxim of St. Augustine: The sin is not forgiven unless what has been taken away is restored.
Forgiveness Of Injuries
Again, not less necessary for contrition than the other chief conditions is a care that it be accompanied by entire forgiveness of the injuries which we may have received from others. This our Lord and Saviour admonishes when He declares: If you will forgive men their offences, your heavenly Father will forgive you also your offences, but if you will not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive you your offences.
These are the conditions which the faithful should observe as regards contrition. There are other dispositions which, although not essential to true and salutary penance, contribute to render contrition more perfect and complete in its kind, and which pastors will readily discover.
The Effects of Contrition
Simply to make known those things which pertain to salvation should not be deemed a full discharge of the duty of pastors; their zeal and industry should be exerted to persuade the people to adopt these truths as their rule of conduct and as the governing principle of their actions. Hence it will be highly useful often to explain the power and utility of contrition.
For whereas most other pious practices, such as alms, fasting, prayer and similar holy and commendable works, are sometimes rejected by God on account of the faults of those who perform them, contrition can never be other than pleasing and acceptable to Him. A contrite and humble heart, O God, exclaims the Prophet, thou wilt not despise.
Nay more, the same Prophet declares elsewhere that, as soon as we have conceived this contrition in our hearts, our sins are forgiven by God: I said, I will confess my injustice to the Lord, and thou hast forgiven the wickedness of my sin. Of this truth we have a figure in the ten lepers, who, when sent by our Lord to the priests, were cured of their leprosy before they had reached them; which gives us to understand that such is the efficacy of true contrition, of which we have spoken above, that through it we obtain from the Lord the immediate pardon of all sins.
Means of Arousing True Contrition
To move the faithful to contrition, it will be very useful if pastors point out some method by which each one may excite himself to contrition.
They should all be admonished frequently to examine their consciences, in order to ascertain if they have been faithful in the observance of those things which God and His Church require. Should anyone be conscious of sin, he should immediately accuse himself, humbly solicit pardon from God, and implore time to confess and satisfy for his sins. Above all, let him supplicate the aid of divine grace, in order that he may not relapse into those sins which he now penitently deplores.
Pastors should also take care that the faithful be excited to a supreme hatred of sin, both because its turpitude and baseness are very great and because it brings us the gravest losses and misfortunes. For sin deprives us of the friendship of God, to whom we are indebted for so many invaluable blessings, and from whom we might have expected and received gifts of still higher value; and along with this it consigns us to eternal death and to torments unending and most severe.
The Second Part of Penance
Having said so much on contrition, we now come to confession, which is another part of Penance. The care and exactness which its exposition demands of pastors must be at once obvious, if we only reflect that most holy persons are firmly persuaded that whatever of piety, of holiness, of religion, has been preserved to our times in the Church, through God’s goodness, must be ascribed in great measure to confession. It cannot, therefore, be a matter of surprise that the enemy of the human race, in his efforts to destroy utterly the Catholic Church, should, through the agency of the ministers of his wicked designs, have assailed with all his might this bulwark, as it were, of Christian virtue. It should be shown, therefore, in the first place that the institution of confession is most useful and even necessary to us.
Necessity Of Confession
Contrition, it is true, blots out sin; but who does not know that to effect this it must be so intense, so ardent, so vehement, as to bear a proportion to the magnitude of the crimes which it effaces? This is a degree of contrition which few reach; and hence, in this way, very few indeed could hope to obtain the pardon of their sins. It, therefore, became necessary that the most merciful Lord should provide by some easier means for the common salvation of men; and this He has done in His admirable wisdom, by giving to His Church the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
According to the doctrine of the Catholic Church, a doctrine firmly to be believed and constantly professed by all, if the sinner have a sincere sorrow for his sins and a firm resolution of avoiding them in future, although he bring not with him that contrition which may be sufficient of itself to obtain pardon, all his sins are forgiven and remitted through the power of the keys, when he confesses them properly to the priest. Justly, then, do those most holy men, our Fathers, proclaim that by the keys of the Church the gate of heaven is thrown open, a truth which no one can doubt since the Council of Florence has decreed that the effect of Penance is absolution from sin.
Advantages Of Confession
To appreciate further the great advantages of confession we may turn to a fact taught by experience. To those who have led immoral lives nothing is found so useful towards a reformation of morals as sometimes to disclose their secret thoughts, all their words and actions, to a prudent and faithful friend, who can assist them by his advice and cooperation. For the same reason it must prove most salutary to those whose minds are agitated by the consciousness of guilt to make known the diseases and wounds of their souls to the priest, as the vicegerent of Christ our Lord, bound to eternal secrecy by the strictest of laws. (In the Sacrament of Penance) they will find immediate remedies, the healing qualities of which will not only remove the present malady, but will also have such a heavenly efficacy in preparing the soul against an easy relapse into the same kind of disease and infirmity.
Another advantage of confession, which should not be overlooked, is that it contributes powerfully to the preservation of social order. Abolish sacramental confession, and that moment you deluge society with all sorts of secret and heinous crimes crimes too, and others of still greater enormity, which men, once that they have been depraved by vicious habits, will not dread to commit in open day. The salutary shame that attends confession restrains licentiousness, bridles desire and checks wickedness.
Definition Of Confession
Having explained the advantages of confession, pastors should next unfold its nature and efficacy. Confession, then, is defined: A sacramental accusation of one’s sins, made to obtain pardon by virtue of the keys.
It is rightly called an accusation, because sins are not to be told as if the sinner boasted of his crimes, as they do who are glad when they have done evil; nor are they to be related as stories told for the sake of amusing idle listeners. They are to be confessed as matters of selfaccusation, with a desire, as it were, to avenge them on ourselves.
We confess our sins with a view to obtain pardon. In this respect the tribunal of penance differs from other tribunals, which take cognisance of capital offences, and before which a confession of guilt does not secure acquittal and pardon, but penalty and punishment.
The definition of confession by the holy Fathers, although different in words, is substantially the same. Confession, says St. Augustine, is the disclosure of a secret disease, with the hope of obtaining pardon; and St. Gregory: Confession is a detestation of sins. Both of these definitions accord with, and are contained in the preceding definition.
Confession Instituted By Christ
In the next place, it is a duty of greatest moment that pastors should unhesitatingly teach that this Sacrament owes its institution to the singular goodness and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has ordered all things well, and solely with a view to our salvation.
After His Resurrection He breathed on the Apostles, assembled together, saying: Receive ye the Holy Ghost, whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. Now in giving to priests the power to retain and forgive sins, it is evident that our Lord made them also judges in this matter.
Our Lord seems to have signified the same thing when, having raised Lazarus from the dead, He commanded His Apostles to loose him from the bands in which he was bound. This is the interpretation of St. Augustine. The priests, he says, can now do more: they can exercise greater clemency towards those who confess and whose sins they forgive. The Lord, in giving over Lazarus, whom He had already raised from the dead, to be loosed by the hands of His disciples, wished us to understand that to priests was given the power of loosing.
To this also refers the command given by our Lord to the lepers cured on the way, that they show themselves to the priests, and subject themselves to their judgment.
Invested, then, as they are, by our Lord with power to remit and retain sins, priests are evidently appointed judges of the matter on which they are to pronounce; and since, according to the wise remark of the Council of Trent, we cannot form an accurate judgment on any matter, or award to crime a just proportion of punishment without having previously examined and made ourselves well acquainted with the case, it follows that the penitent is obliged to make known to the priests, through the medium of confession, each and every sin.
This doctrine the pastors should teach as defined by the holy Council of Trent, and handed down by the uniform doctrine of the Catholic Church. An attentive perusal of the Fathers will present passages throughout their works, proving in the clearest terms that this Sacrament was instituted by our Lord, and that the law of sacramental confession, which, from the Greek, they call exomologesis, and exagoreusis, is to be received as true Gospel teaching.
If we seek figures in the Old Testament, the different kinds of sacrifices which were offered by the priests for the expiation of different sorts of sins, seem, beyond all doubt, to have reference to confession of sins.
Rites Added By The Church
Not only are the faithful to be taught that confession was instituted by our Lord. They are also to be reminded that, by authority of the Church, certain rites and solemn ceremonies have been added which, although not essential to the Sacrament, serve to place its dignity more fully before the eyes of the penitent, and to prepare his soul, so that, kindled with devotion, he may more easily receive the grace of God. When, with uncovered head and bended knees, with eyes fixed on the earth and hands raised in supplication, and with other indications of Christian humility not essential to the Sacrament, we confess our sins, our minds are thus deeply impressed with a clear conviction of the heavenly virtue of the Sacrament, and also of the necessity of most earnestly beseeching and imploring the mercy of God.
The Law of Confession
Nor let it be supposed that, although confession was instituted by our Lord, He did not declare its use to be necessary. The faithful must be impressed with the conviction that he who is dead in sin is to be recalled to spiritual life by means of sacramental confession.
Proof Of The Obligation
This truth is clearly conveyed by our Lord Himself, when, by a most beautiful metaphor, He calls the power of administering this Sacrament, the key of the kingdom of heaven. Just as no one can enter any place without the help of him who has the keys, so no one is admitted to heaven unless its gates be unlocked by the priests to whose custody the Lord gave the keys. This power would otherwise be of no use in the Church. If heaven can be entered without the power of the keys, in vain would they to whom the keys were given seek to prevent entrance within its portals.
This thought was familiar to the mind of St. Augustine. Let no man, he says, say within himself: “I repent in secret to the Lord. God, who has power to pardon me, knows the inmost sentiments of my heart.,, Was there, then, no reason for saying “whatsoever you loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven,” no reason why the keys were given to the Church of God? The same doctrine is taught by St. Ambrose in his treatise On Penance, when refuting the heresy of the Novatians who asserted that the power of forgiving sins belonged solely to God.’ Who, says he, yields greater reverence to God, he who obeys or he who resists His commands? God commands us to obey His ministers; and by obeying them, we honour God alone.
The Age At Which The Law Of Confession Obliges
As the law of confession was no doubt enacted and established by our Lord Himself, it is our duty to ascertain, on whom, at what age, and at what period of the year, it becomes obligatory. According to the canon of the Council of Lateran, which begins: Omnis utriusque sexus, no person is bound by the law of Confession until he has arrived at the use of reason, a time determinable by no fixed number of years. It may, however, be laid down as a general principle, that children are bound to go to confession as soon as they are able to discern good from evil, and are capable of malice; for, when a person has arrived at an age when he must begin to attend to the work of his salvation, he is bound to confess his sins to a priest, since there is no other salvation for one whose conscience is burdened with sin.
At What Time The Law Of Confession Obliges
In the same canon holy Church has defined the period within which we are especially bound to discharge the duty of confession. It commands all the faithful to confess their sins at least once a year. If, however, we consult our eternal interests, we will certainly not neglect to have recourse to confession as often, at least, as we are in danger of death, or undertake to perform any act incompatible with the state of sin, such as to administer or receive the Sacraments. The same rule should be strictly followed when we are apprehensive of forgetting some sin, into which we may have fallen; for we cannot confess sins unless we remember them, neither do we obtain pardon unless our sins are blotted out through sacramental confession.
The Qualities of Confession
But since in confession many things are to be observed, some of which are essential, some not essential to the Sacrament, all these matters should be carefully treated. Access can easily be had to works and treatises from which an explanation of all these things can be drawn.
Confession Should Be Entire
Pastors should teach, first of all, that care must be exercised that confession be complete and entire. All mortal sins must be revealed to the priest. Venial sins, which do not separate us from the grace of God, and into which we frequently fall, although they may be usefully confessed, as the experience of the pious proves, may be omitted without sin, and expiated by a variety of other means. Mortal sins, as we have already said, are all to be confessed, even though they be most secret, or be opposed only to the last two Commandments of the Decalogue. Such secret sins often inflict deeper wounds on the soul than those which are committed openly and publicly.
So the Council of Trent has defined, and such has been the constant teaching of the Church, as the Fathers declare. St. Ambrose speaks thus: Without the confession of his sin, no man can be justified from his sin. In confirmation of the same doctrine, St. Jerome, on Ecclesiastes, says: If the serpent, the devil, has secretly and without the knowledge of a third person, bitten anyone, and has infused into him the poison of sin; if unwilling to disclose his wound to his brother or master, he is silent and will not do penance, his master, who has a tongue ready to cure him, can render him no service. The same doctrine we find in St. Cyprian, in his sermon On the Fallen. Although guiltless, he says, of the heinous crime of sacrificing to idols, or of having purchased certificates to that effect; yet, as they entertained the thought of doing so, they should confess it with grief to the priests of God. In fine, such is the unanimous voice and teaching of all the Doctors of the Church.
In confession we should employ all that care and exactness which we usually bestow upon worldly concerns of great moment, and all our efforts should be directed to the cure of our soul’s wounds and to the destruction of the roots of sin. We should not be satisfied with the bare enumeration of our mortal sins, but should mention such circumstances as considerably aggravate or extenuate their malice. Some circumstances are so serious as of themselves to constitute mortal guilt. On no account whatever, therefore, are such circumstances to be omitted. Thus if one man has killed another, he must state whether his victim was a layman or an ecclesiastic. Or, if he has had sinful relations with a woman, he must state whether the female was unmarried or married, a relative or a person consecrated to God by vow. These circumstances change the nature of the sins; so that the first kind of unlawful intercourse is called by theologians simple fornication, the second adultery, the third incest, and the fourth sacrilege. Again, theft is numbered in the catalogue of sins. But if a person has stolen one golden coin, his sin is less grievous than if he had stolen a hundred or two hundred, or an immense sum; and if the stolen money belonged to the Church, the sin would be still more grievous. The same rule applies to the circumstances of time and place, but’ the examples are too well known from many books to require mention here. Circumstances such as these are, therefore, to be mentioned; but those which do not considerably aggravate the malice of the sin may be lawfully omitted.
So important is it that confession be entire that if the penitent confesses only some of his sins and wilfully neglects to accuse himself of others which should be confessed, he not only does not profit by his confession, but involves himself in new guilt. Such an enumeration of sins cannot be called sacramental confession; on the contrary, the penitent must repeat his confession, not omitting to accuse himself of having, under the semblance of confession, profaned the sanctity of the Sacrament.
But should the confession seem defective, either because the penitent forgot some grievous sins, or because, although intent on confessing all his sins, he did not examine the recesses of his conscience with sufficient accuracy, he is not bound to repeat his confession. It will be sufficient, when he recollects the sins which he had forgotten, to confess them to a priest on a future occasion.
It should be noted, however, that we are not to examine our consciences with careless indifference, or to be so negligent in recalling our sins as to seem as if unwilling to remember them. Should this have been the case, the confession must by all means be made over again.
Confession Should Be Plain, Simple, Sincere
In the second place our confession should be plain, simple and undisguised; not artfully made, as is the case with some who seem more intent on defending themselves than on confessing their sins. Our confession should be such as to disclose to the priest a true image of our lives, such as we ourselves know them to be, exhibiting as doubtful that which is doubtful, and as certain that which is certain. If, then, we neglect to enumerate our sins, or introduce extraneous matter, our confession, it is clear, lacks this quality.
Confession Should Be Prudent, Modest, Brief
Prudence and modesty in explaining matters of confession are also much to be commended, and a superfluity of words is to be carefully avoided. Whatever is necessary to make known the nature of every sin is to be explained briefly and modestly.
Confession Should Be Made Privately And Often
Secrecy as regards confession should be strictly observed, as well by the penitent as by the priest. Hence, no one can, on any account, confess by messenger or letter, because in those cases secrecy would not be possible.
The faithful should be careful above all to cleanse their consciences from sin by frequent confession. When a person is in mortal sin nothing can be more salutary, so precarious is human life, than to have immediate recourse to confession. But even if we could promise ourselves a long life, yet it would be truly disgraceful that we who are so particular in whatever relates to cleanliness of dress or person, were not at least equally careful in preserving the lustre of the soul unsullied from the foul stains of sin.
The Minister of the Sacrament of Penance
The Usual Minister
We now come to treat of the minister of this Sacrament. That the minister of the Sacrament of Penance must be a priest possessing ordinary or delegated jurisdiction the laws of the Church sufficiently declare. Whoever discharges this sacred function must be invested not only with the power of orders, but also with that of jurisdiction. Of this ministry we have an illustrious proof in these words of our Lord, recorded by St. John: Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained, words addressed not to all, but to the Apostles only, to whom, in this function of the ministry, priests succeed.
This is also most fitting, for as all the grace imparted by this Sacrament is communicated from Christ the Head to His members, they who alone have power to consecrate His true body should alone have power to administer this Sacrament to His mystical body, the faithful, particularly as these are qualified and disposed by means of the Sacrament of Penance to receive the Holy Eucharist.
The scrupulous care which in the primitive ages of the Church guarded the right of the ordinary priest is easily seen from the ancient decrees of the Fathers, which provided that no Bishop or priest, except in case of great necessity, presume to exercise any function in the parish of another without the authority of him who governed there. This law derives its sanction from the Apostle when he commanded Titus to ordain priests in every city, to administer to the faithful the heavenly food of doctrine and of the Sacraments.
The Minister In Danger Of Death
In order that none may perish, if there is imminent danger of death, and recourse cannot be had to the proper priest, the Council of Trent teaches that according to the ancient practice of the Church of God it is then lawful for any priest, not only to remit all kinds of Sill, whatever faculties they might otherwise require, but also to absolve from excommunication.
Qualifications Of The Minister
Besides the powers of orders and of jurisdiction, which are of absolute necessity, the minister of this Sacrament, holding as he does the place at once of judge and physician, should be gifted not only with knowledge and erudition, but also with prudence.
As judge, his knowledge, it is evident, should be more than ordinary, for by it he is to examine into the nature of sins, and among the various kinds of sins to judge which are grievous and which are not, keeping in view the rank and condition of the person.
As physician he has also occasion for consummate prudence, for to him it belongs to administer to the diseased soul those healing medicines which will not only effect the cure, but prove suitable preservatives against its future contagion.
The faithful, therefore, will see the great care that each one should take in selecting (as confessor) a priest, who is recommended by integrity of life, by learning and prudence, who is deeply impressed with the awful weight and responsibility of the station which he holds, who understands well the punishment due to every sin, and can also discern who are to be loosed and who to be bound.
The Confessor Must Observe The Seal Of Confession
Since each one is most anxious that his sins and defilements should be buried in oblivion, the faithful are to be admonished that there is no reason whatever to apprehend that what is made known in confession will ever be revealed by the priest to anyone, or that by it the penitent can at any time be brought into danger of any sort. The laws of the Church threaten the severest penalties against any priests who would fail to observe a perpetual and religious silence concerning all the sins confessed to them. Let the priest, says the great Council of Lateran, take special care, neither by word or sign, nor by any other means whatever, to betray in the least degree the sinner.
Duties of the Confessor towards Various Classes of Penitents
Having treated of the minister of this Sacrament, the order of our matter requires that we next proceed to explain some general heads which are of considerable importance with regard to the use and practice of confession.
Many of the faithful, to whom, as a rule, no time seems to pass so slowly as that which is appointed by the laws of the Church for the duty of confession, are so removed from Christian perfection that, far from bestowing attention on those other matters which are obviously most efficacious in conciliating the favour and friendship of God, they do not even try to remember the sins that are to be confessed to the priest.
Since, therefore, nothing is to be omitted which can assist the faithful in the important work of salvation, the priest should be careful to observe if the penitent be truly contrite for his sins, and deliberately and firmly resolved to avoid sin for the future.
The Well Disposed Should Be Exhorted To Thanksgiving And Perseverance
If the sinner is found to be thus disposed, he is to be admonished and earnestly exhorted to pour out his heart in gratitude to God for so great and so singular a blessing, and to supplicate unceasingly the aid of divine grace, shielded by which he may securely combat his evil propensities.
He should also be taught not to suffer a day to pass without devoting a portion of it to meditation on some mystery of the Passion of our Lord, and to exciting and inflaming himself to the imitation and most ardent love of his Redeemer. The fruit of such meditation will be to fortify him more and more every day against all the assaults of the devil. For what other reason is there why our courage sinks and our strength fails the moment the enemy makes even the slightest attack on us, but that we neglect by pious meditation to kindle within us the fire of divine love, which animates and invigorates the soul?
The Indisposed Should Be Helped
But should the priest perceive that the penitent is not truly contrite, he will endeavour to inspire him with an anxious desire for contrition, inflamed by which he may resolve to ask and implore this heavenly gift from the mercy of God.
Those Who Seek To Excuse Their Sins Should Be Corrected
The pride of some who seek by vain excuses to justify or extenuate their offences is carefully to be repressed. If, for instance, a penitent confesses that he was wrought up to anger, and immediately transfers the blame of the excitement to another, who, he complains, was the aggressor, he is to be reminded that such apologies are indications of a proud spirit, and of a man who either thinks lightly of, or is unacquainted with the enormity of his sin, while they serve rather to aggravate than to extenuate his guilt. He who thus labours to justify his conduct seems to say that then only will he exercise patience, when no one injures him a disposition than which nothing can be more unworthy of a Christian. Instead of lamenting the state of him who inflicted the injury he disregards the grievousness of the sin, and is angry with his brother. Having had an opportunity of honouring God by his exemplary patience, and of correcting a brother by his meekness, he turns the very means of salvation to his own destruction.
Those Who Are Ashamed To Confess Their Sins Should Be Instructed
Still more pernicious is the fault of those who, yielding to a foolish bashfulness, cannot induce themselves to confess their sins. Such persons are to be encouraged by exhortation, and are to be reminded that there is no reason whatever why they should fear to disclose their sins, that to no one can it appear surprising if persons fall into sin, the common malady of the human race and the natural consequence of human infirmity.
The Careless Should Be Rebuked
There are others who, either because they seldom confess their sins, or because they have bestowed no care or attention on the examination of their consciences, do not know well how to begin or end their confession. Such persons deserve to be severely rebuked, and are to be taught that before anyone approaches the tribunal of Penance he should employ every diligence to excite himself to contrition for his sins, and that this he cannot do without endeavouring to know and recollect them severally.
The Unprepared Should Be Dismissed Or Led To Good Disposition
Should the confessor meet persons of this class entirely unprepared, he should dismiss them without harshness, exhorting them in the kindest terms to take some time to reflect on their sins, and then return; but should they declare that they have already done everything in their power to prepare, and there is reason to apprehend that if sent away they may not return, their confession is to be heard, particularly if they manifest some disposition to amend their lives and can be induced to accuse their own negligence and promise to atone for it at another time by a diligent and accurate scrutiny of conscience. In such cases, however, the confessor should proceed with caution. If, after having heard the confession, he is of the opinion that the penitent did not entirely lack diligence in examining his conscience or sorrow in detesting his sins, he may absolve him; but if he has found him deficient in both, he should, as we have already said, admonish him to use greater care in his examination of conscience, and dismiss him as kindly as he can.
The Pastor Should Show The Wrong Of Human Respect
But as it sometimes happens that females, who may have forgotten some sin in a former confession, cannot bring themselves to return to the confessor, dreading to expose themselves before the people to the suspicion of having been guilty of something grievous or of looking for the praise of extraordinary piety, the pastor should frequently remind the faithful, both publicly and privately, that no one is gifted with so tenacious a memory as to be able to recollect all his thoughts, words and actions; that the faithful, therefore, should they call to mind some sin which they had previously forgotten, should not be deterred from returning to the priest. These and many other matters of the same nature demand the attention of priests in confession.
The Third Part of Penance
Let us now come to the third part of Penance, which is called satisfaction. We shall begin by explaining its nature and efficacy, because the enemies of the Catholic Church have on these subjects taken ample occasion to sow discord and division, to the serious detriment of Christians.
General Meaning Of The Word “Satisfaction,”
Satisfaction is the full payment of a debt; for that is sufficient or satisfactory to which nothing is wanting. Hence, when we speak of reconciliation to favour, to satisfy means to do what is sufficient to atone to the angered mind for an injury offered; and in this sense satisfaction is nothing more than compensation for an injury done to another. But, to come to the object that now engages us, theologians make use of the word satisfaction to signify the compensation man makes, by offering to God some reparation for the sins he has committed.
Various Kinds Of Satisfaction To God
This sort of satisfaction, since it has several degrees, can be understood in various senses.
The first and highest degree of satisfaction is that by which whatever we owe to God on account of our sins is paid abundantly, even though He should deal with us according to the strictest rigour of His justice. This degree of satisfaction appeases God and renders Him propitious to us; and it is a satisfaction for which we are indebted to Christ our Lord alone, who paid the price of our sins on the cross, and offered to God a superabundant satisfaction. No created being could have been of such worth as to deliver us from so heavy a debt. He is the propitiation for our sins, says St. John, and not for ours only but also for those of the whole world. This satisfaction, therefore, is full and superabundant, perfectly adequate to the debt of all sins committed in this world. It gives to man’s actions great worth before God, and without it they would be deserving of no esteem whatever. This David seems to have had in view when, having asked himself, what shall I render to the Lord, for all the things that he hath rendered to me? and finding nothing besides this satisfaction, which he expressed by the word chalice, a worthy return for so many and such great favours, he replied: I will take the chalice of salvation, and I will call upon the name of the Lord.
There is another kind of satisfaction, which is called canonical, and is performed within a certain fixed period of time. Hence, according to the most ancient practice of the Church, when penitents are absolved from their sins, some penance is imposed, the performance of which is commonly called satisfaction.
By the same name is called any sort of punishment endured for sin, although not imposed by the priest, but spontaneously undertaken and performed by ourselves.
Elements Of Sacramental Satisfaction
This, however, does not belong to Penance as a Sacrament. Only that satisfaction constitutes part of the Sacrament which, as we have already said, is offered to God for sins at the command of the priest. Furthermore, it must be accompanied by a deliberate and firm purpose carefully to avoid sin for the future.
For to satisfy, as some define it, is to pay due honour to God: and this, it is evident, no person can do, who is not entirely resolved to avoid sin. Again, to satisfy is to cut off all occasions of sin, and to close every avenue against its suggestions. In accordance with this idea of satisfaction some have defined it as a cleansing, which effaces whatever defilement may remain in the soul from the stains of sin, and which exempts us from the temporal chastisements due to sin.
Necessity Of Satisfaction
Such being the nature of satisfaction, it will not be difficult to convince the faithful of the necessity imposed on the penitent of performing works of satisfaction. They are to be taught that sin carries in its train two evils, the stain and the punishment. Whenever the stain is effaced, the punishment of eternal death is forgiven with the guilt to which it was due; yet, as the Council of Trent declares, the remains of sin and the temporal punishment are not always remitted.
Of this the Scriptures afford many conspicuous examples, such as are found in the third chapter of Genesis, in the twelfth and twentysecond of Numbers, and in many other places. That of David, however, is the best known and most striking. Although the Prophet Nathan had announced to him: The Lord also hath taken away thy sin, thou shalt not , yet David voluntarily subjected himself to the most severe penance, imploring night and day the mercy of God in these words: Wash me yet more from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin; for I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me. Thus did he beseech the Lord to pardon not only the crime, but also the punishment due to it, and to restore him, cleansed from the remains of sin, to his former state of purity and integrity. This he besought with most earnest supplications, and yet the Lord punished his transgression with the loss of his adulterous offspring, the rebellion and death of his beloved son Absalom, and with the other chastisements and calamities with which he had previously threatened him.
In Exodus, too, we read that though the Lord yielded to the prayers of Moses and spared the idolatrous Israelites, yet He threatened the enormity of their crime with heavy chastisement, and Moses himself declared that the Lord would take severest vengeance on it, even to the third and fourth generations.
That such was at all times the doctrine of the holy Fathers in the Catholic Church, their own testimony most clearly proves.
Advantages of Satisfaction
It Is Required By God’s Justice And Mercy
Why in the Sacrament of Penance, as in that of Baptism, the punishment due to sin is not entirely remitted is admirably explained in these words of the Council of Trent: Divine justice seems to require that they who through ignorance sinned before Baptism, should recover the friendship of God in a different manner from those who, after they have been freed from the thraldom, of sin and the devil and have received the gifts of the Holy Ghost, dread not knowingly to violate the temple of God and grieve the Holy Spirit. It is also in keeping with the divine mercy not to remit our sins without any satisfaction, lest, taking occasion hence, and imagining our sins less grievous than they are, we should become injurious, as it were, and contumelious to the Holy Ghost, and should fall into greater enormities, treasuring up to ourselves wrath against the day of wrath. These satisfactory penances have, no doubt, great influence in recalling from and, as it were, bridling against sin, and in rendering the sinner more vigilant and cautious for the future.
Satisfaction Atones To The Church
Furthermore (these satisfactions) serve as testimonies of our sorrow for sin committed, and thus atone to the Church which is grievously insulted by our crimes. God, says St. Augustine, despises not a contrite and humble heart; but, as heartfelt grief is generally concealed from others, and is not manifested by words or other signs, wisely, therefore, are penitential times appointed by those who preside over the Church, in order to atone to the Church, in which sins are forgiven.
Satisfaction Deters Others From Sin
Besides, the example presented by our penitential practices serves as a lesson to others, how to regulate their lives and practice piety. Seeing the punishments inflicted on sin, they must feel the necessity of using the greatest circumspection through life, and of correcting their former habits.
The Church, therefore, with great wisdom ordained that when anyone had committed a public crime, a public penance should be imposed on him, in order that others, being deterred by fear, might more carefully avoid sin in future. This has sometimes been observed even with regard to secret sins of more than usual gravity.
But with regard to public sinners, as we have already said, they were never absolved until they had performed public penance. During the performance of this penance, the pastors poured out prayers to God for their salvation, and ceased not to exhort the penitents to do the same. In this respect, great was the care and solicitude of St. Ambrose, of whom it is related that many who came to the tribunal of Penance with hardened hearts were so softened by his tears as to conceive the sorrow of true contrition. But in process of time the severity of ancient discipline was so relaxed and charity grew so cold, that in our days many of the faithful think inward sorrow of soul and grief of heart unnecessary for obtaining pardon, imagining that a mere appearance of sorrow is sufficient.
By Satisfaction We Are Made Like Unto Christ
Again, by undergoing these penances we are made like unto Jesus Christ our Head, inasmuch as He Himself suffered and was tempted. As St. Bernard observes, nothing can appear so unseemly as a delicate member under a head crowned with thorns. To use the words of the Apostle: We are jointheirs with Christ, yet so if we suffer with him; and again, If we be dead with him, we shall live also with him; if we suffer, we shall also reign with him.
Satisfaction Heals The Wounds Of Sin
St. Bernard also observes that sin produces two effects: a stain on the soul and a wound; that the stain is removed through the mercy of God, while to heal the wound inflicted by sin the remedy of penance is most necessary. When a wound has been healed, some scars remain which demand attention; likewise, with regard to the soul, after the guilt of sin is forgiven, some of its effects remain, from which the soul requires to be cleansed.
St. Chrysostom fully confirms the same doctrine when he says: It is not enough that the arrow has been extracted from the body; the wound which it inflicted must also be healed. So with regard to the soul, it is not enough that sin has been pardoned; the wound which it has left must also be healed by penance.
St. Augustine also frequently teaches that penance exhibits at once the mercy and the justice of God, His mercy by which He pardons sin and the eternal punishment due to sin; His justice by which He exacts temporary punishment from the sinner.
Satisfaction Disarms The Divine Vengeance
Finally, the punishment which the sinner endures disarms the vengeance of God and averts the punishments decreed against us. Thus the Apostle says: If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged; but whilst we are judged, we are chastised by the Lord, that we be not condemned with this world. If all this is explained to the faithful, it must have great influence in exciting them to perform works of penance.
Source of the Efficacy of Satisfactory Works
Of the great efficacy of penance we may form some idea, if we reflect that it arises entirely from the merits of the Passion of Christ our Lord. It is His Passion that imparts to our good actions two greatest advantages: the first, that we may merit the rewards of eternal glory, so that a cup of cold water given in His name shall not be without its reward; the second, that we may be able to satisfy for our sins.
Nor does this lessen the most perfect and superabundant satisfaction of Christ our Lord, but, on the contrary, renders it still more conspicuous and illustrious. For the grace of Christ is seen to abound more, inasmuch as it communicates to us not only what He merited and paid of Himself alone, but also what, as Head, He merited and paid in His members, that is, in holy and just men. Hence it can be seen how such great weight and dignity belong to the good actions of the pious. For Christ our Lord continually infuses His grace into the devout soul united to Him by charity, as the head to the members, or as the vine through the branches. This grace always precedes, accompanies and follows our good works, and without it we can have no merit, nor can we at all satisfy God.
Hence it is that nothing seems wanting to the just. Through their works done by the power of God, they are able, on the one hand, to satisfy God’s law, as far as their human and mortal condition will allow; and, on the other hand, they can merit eternal life, to the fruition of which they will be admitted if they die in the state of God’s grace. Well known are the words of the Saviour: He that shall drink of the water that I will give him shall not thirst for ever; but the water that I will give him shall become in him a fountain of water, springing up into life everlasting.
Conditions for Satisfaction
In satisfaction two things are particularly required: the one, that he who satisfies be in a state of grace, the friend of God, since works done without faith and charity cannot be acceptable to God; the other, that the works performed be such as are of their own nature painful or laborious. They are a compensation for past sins, and, to use the words of the holy martyr Cyprian, the redeemers, as it were, of past sins, and must, therefore, in some way be disagreeable.
It does not, however, always follow that they are painful or laborious to those who undergo them. The influence of habit, or the intensity of divine love, frequently renders the soul insensible to things the most difficult. Such works, however, do not therefore cease to be satisfactory. It is the privilege of the children of God to be so inflamed with His love, that while undergoing the most cruel tortures, they are either almost insensible to them, or bear them all with the greatest joy.
Works Of Satisfaction Are Of Three Kinds
Pastors should teach that all kinds of satisfaction are reducible to three heads: prayer, fasting and almsdeeds, which correspond to three kinds of goods which we have received from God, those of the soul, those of the body and what are called external goods.
Nothing can be more effectual in uprooting all sin from the soul than these three kinds of satisfaction. For since whatever is in the world is the concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life, everyone can see that to these three causes of disease are opposed also three remedies. To the first is opposed fasting; to the second, almsdeeds; to the third, prayer.
Moreover, if we consider those whom our sins injure, we shall easily perceive why all kinds of satisfaction are reduced especially to these three. For those (we offend by our sins) are: God, our neighbour and ourselves. God we appease by prayer, our neighbour we satisfy by alms, and ourselves we chastise by fasting.
As this life is chequered by many and various afflictions, the faithful are to be particularly reminded that those who patiently bear all the trials and afflictions coming from the hand of God acquire abundant satisfaction and merit; whereas those who suffer with reluctance and impatience deprive themselves of all the fruits of satisfaction, merely enduring the punishment which the just judgment of God inflicts upon their sins.
One Can Satisfy For Another
In this the supreme mercy and goodness of God deserve our grateful acknowledgment and praise, that He has granted to our frailty the privilege that one may satisfy for another. This, however, is a privilege which is confined to the satisfactory part of Penance alone. As regards contrition and confession, no one is able to be contrite for another; but those who are in the state of grace may pay for others what is due to God, and thus we may be said in some measure to bear each other’s burdens.
This is a doctrine on which the faithful cannot for a moment entertain a doubt, since we profess in the Apostle’s Creed our belief in the Communion of Saints. For since we are all reborn to Christ in the same cleansing waters of Baptism and are partakers of the same Sacraments, and, above all, are nourished with the same body and blood of Christ our Lord, as our food and drink, we are all, it is manifest, members of the same body. As then the foot does not perform its functions solely for itself, but also for the sake of the eyes, and as the eyes see not only for their own sake, but for the general good of all the members, so also works of satisfaction must be considered common to us all.
This, however, is not true in reference to all the advantages to be derived from satisfaction. For works of satisfaction are also medicinal, and are so many remedies prescribed to the penitent to heal the depraved affections of the soul. It is clear that those who do not satisfy for themselves can have no share in this fruit of penance.
These three parts of Penance, contrition, confession and satisfaction, should be fully and clearly explained.
Duties of the Confessor as Regards Satisfaction
Restitution Must Be Insisted On
Above all, priests should be very careful not to give absolution to any penitent, whose confession they have heard, without obliging him to make full satisfaction for any injury to his neighbour’s goods or character for which he seems responsible. No person is to be absolved until he has first faithfully promised to restore all that belongs to others.
But as there are many who readily promise to comply with their duty in this respect, yet are deliberately determined never to fulfil their promises, these persons should be obliged to make restitution, and the words of the Apostle are to be frequently pressed upon their minds: He that stole, let him now steal no more; but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have something to give to him that suffereth need.
Quantity And Quality Of Penances Should Be Reasonable
In imposing penance priests should do nothing arbitrarily, but should be guided solely by justice, prudence and piety. In order to show that they follow this rule, and also to impress more deeply on the mind of the penitent the enormity of his sin, it will be useful sometimes to remind him of the severe punishments inflicted by the ancient penitential canons, as they are called, for certain sins. The nature of the sin, therefore, will regulate the extent of the satisfaction.
No satisfaction can be more salutary than to require of the penitent to devote, for a certain number of days, some time to prayer, not omitting to pray to God in behalf of all mankind, and particularly for those who have departed this life in the Lord.
Voluntary Works Of Penance Should Be Recommended
Penitents should also be exhorted to undertake of their own accord the frequent performance of the penances imposed by the confessor, and thus so to conduct their lives that, having faithfully complied with everything which the Sacrament of Penance demands, they may never cease earnestly to practice the virtue of penance.
PUBLIC PENANCES SHOULD SOMETIMES BE GIVEN
Should it be deemed proper sometimes to visit public crimes with public penance, and should the penitent express great reluctance of seek to escape from its performance, he should not be listened to too readily, but should be persuaded to embrace with cheerfulness and readiness that which will be salutary to himself and to others.
These things concerning the Sacrament of Penance and its several parts should be taught in such a manner as to enable the faithful not only to understand them perfectly, but also, with the Lord’s help, to resolve to put them in practice piously and religiously.