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Reconciliation: The Sacrament of Conversion

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Confession, Reconciliation, Penance, whatever one may call it, this Sacrament of the Catholic Church is often misunderstood, by Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Protestants have the assumption that it's enough to confess just to God, while many Catholics assume that confession to a priest is an outdated formality. The purpose of this article is to explain what the Catholic Church teaches about the Sacrament of Reconciliation (I will occasionally use the other terms such as penance, confession, etc.), as well as to give some historical and personal insight into this under utilized Sacrament. This is not the final word on Reconciliation, but hopefully it will provide a nice overview of the sacrament of confession, especially for newcomers.

Growing up as a Protestant, I was always taught that if a person sinned, he was supposed to just tell God that he was sorry. No more, no less, unless of course I got caught and was punished. Then the issue was more complicated! Otherwise, my actions were between God and me. It was no one else's business. Although this is the typical position of many Protestants, it is not the reality of the historical Church. This Sacrament has a history that goes back to Jesus and continues to the present day.

History

Penance was instituted by Christ after the resurrection when he breathed on the disciples and said: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:23). Matthew 16:15-20 also mentions a similar theme where Jesus gives Peter the keys and the authority to bind and loose. The book of James gives witness to the early form of public confession, as well as to its healing power (James 5:13-18).

Yes, that's right. In the early Church, confession and penance were very public affairs. A person, after committing a grave sin, would ask the bishop for penance and would publicly live the life of a penitent (in an order of penitents), meaning exclusion from communion, as well as a strict course of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. After this period, sometimes lasting years, the person was forgiven and allowed to return to normal Christian life. However, there were limitations. For example, this could only be done once in a lifetime. This system had obvious drawbacks, especially when more and more people became baptized after Christianity became legal under Constantine. A new way of celebrating this Sacrament came to us from the Celtic (or possibly Anglo-Saxon) peoples.

The monks of the British Isles had a system that lacked both an order of penitents and the requirement of only one penance in a lifetime. They also allowed the sin itself to be kept secret. However, like the methods of the continental and Eastern Church, penance was still public, long, and absolution came only at the end. At some point, confessors started issuing absolution in advance, that is, before the penance was fulfilled. Thus, at this point, we have the beginnings of the current celebration of the Sacrament: confession, absolution, and then doing the penance.

Formally, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) enjoined this method of confession and made it mandatory for Catholics to do at least once a year. The councils of Florence (1431-1439) and Trent (1545-1463) more precisely defined the nature of Reconciliation, even though the practice goes back to the earliest days of the Church and Jesus himself. The emphasis of the Sacrament was expanded with the Second Vatican Council, which emphasized reconciliation and amendment of life and allowed the option of public services of penance (but these must always include auricular (meaning private) confession). However, the basic theology behind the Sacrament has remained the same, namely reconciliation with God.

Source for much of the above information: Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

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The Sacrament Itself

The Catholic Church teaches the primary elements of the Sacrament are contrition, confession, and satisfaction. The sinner confesses his sins and vocalizes his internal repentance. The priest then gives penance and through the power of his ordination, pronounces the words of absolution. Here's a more detailed look at the parts of the sacrament of Reconciliation.

Contrition
The Catholic Catechism, quoting from the Council of Trent, defines contrition as: "sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again" (#1451). In other words, we have to be sorry for our sins and genuinely not want to do them again. We can't enter into the Sacrament confessing adultery, knowing full well that we've penciled in a date with an illicit lover next week. We will fall, perhaps frequently, but we have to intend not to sin and mean it.

The Catholic Church recognizes two types of contrition, perfect and imperfect. Perfect contrition means that we are sorry for our sins because we love God above all else and recognize that we've offended him. Imperfect contrition is a sense of being sorry that comes from imperfect motives, i.e. fear of hell or recognizing how awful our sin is. Even imperfect contrition is enough for us to receive forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. However, all forgiveness requires genuine sorrow.

Confession
This is simply taking responsibility for our sins. By giving voice to our sins with sincere sorrow, we own up to what we have done wrong. Confession in the Catholic Church is not like the politician's "mistakes were made." On the contrary, it is an owning up to our own responsibility in our sinfulness by naming specific shortcomings. We must tell the priest all the mortal sins (see FAQ) we have committed since our last confession. We only compound our sinfulness by lying about our sinful behavior.

Before confession we are expected to do an "examination of conscience," where we reach deep into our souls and recall the sins we have committed. It is helpful to do this everyday, so as to not forget the sins we committed on Monday by the time Confession comes around on Saturday. The examination process should be honest and open, and done in a spirit of prayer as we recall our genuine sins. There are good handbooks out there that ask probing questions to help us recall and identify our sins. However, we must be careful not to be over-scrupulous, finding sins where they are not. We must rely on our well-formed consciences (some are not well-formed) to guide our examinations.

In confession, we speak of ourselves in the first person. Catholic doctrine teaches that if a person commits a mortal sin (i.e. willfully and deliberately does something gravely sinful), he must go through the Sacrament of reconciliation in order to receive forgiveness and receive the Body and Blood of Christ at communion.

In the Catholic Church we confess our sins to a priest. This practice seems strange to many Protestants who think that it is just between us and God. But, is it really? Why is confessing to a priest necessary? Here are a few reasons.

1. Our mortal sins not only cut us off from God, but also from the Church. Sin does not happen inside a vacuum. What we do has consequences outside of ourselves, even if it is just weakening the bonds of charity with our fellow Christians. Even private, secret sins lead to spiritual degeneration, which affects our brothers and sisters. Confession to a priest recognizes and heals this dimension of sin.

2. It is the method God uses to forgive his people. As discussed earlier, since the beginning, confession of sins has never been just between the Christian and God, but between the Christian and God and the Church. Confession restores us to God and the Church when we act wrongly and willfully cut ourselves off from the love of God and his Church. Jesus gave the Church power to forgive or retain sins and this is how the Church has exercised the ministry of forgiveness.

3. Confession to a priest is a natural impulse. Look at all the confession that goes on in the world: to bartenders, psychologists, reporters, friends, and even total strangers. Carl Jung, the famous psychologist, noted that in mostly Catholic Vienna, his clients were mainly Protestants and Jews. He attributed this to the fact that Catholics had confession and had no need for his services. There is something natural and healthy about getting our failings off of our chest. People pay big bucks to tell others their faults in what are often non-secretive environments. In the confessional, a person gets her sins forgiven free of charge and in absolute secrecy. The priest is forbidden under pain of excommunication to divulge anything heard in a confession.

4. Confession to a priest keeps us on the straight and narrow and helps us grow in holiness. As an evangelical, I often had "accountability partners." This is the evangelical Protestant equivalent of confession (except without the promise of forgiveness and the sworn secrecy). Knowing that we have to confess our sins to another person definitely acts as a deterrent. The priest, in the confessional, keeps us accountable for our actions. When I was a Protestant, my moral life was "self-regulated." Just look at recent attempts at self-regulation in the world: they almost universally fail. My life was no exception. I sinned with impunity because I knew I could just ask for forgiveness later with no consequences or accountability. Confession is not a panacea for sinful behavior, but I can attest in my life, that, in addition to the grace God gives me through it, it serves as a little voice in my head that often asks: "do you really want Fr. X to hear about this on Saturday?"

Absolution
After the confession, the person will make an "act of contrition" which is an outward prayer in front of the priest that affirms the person's inward state of being sorry. Then the priest will give counsel and assign a penance. Finally, the priest says the words of absolution and we are forgiven, a cause of great rejoicing! The priest is not the source of forgiveness, God is. However, the priest, ordained in valid apostolic succession, acts as God's ambassador, and is the instrument God has chosen to use by which he forgives our sins. The absolution remits the guilt and the eternal punishment of mortal sin (in other words, we're no longer in danger of hell). So, why does the priest assign us penance and why is this necessary?

Satisfaction
When we sin, we offend God and his justice. An offense against justice requires some kind of satisfaction. It's like when a person steals, even if he is completely forgiven, justice requires him to make reparation. The Bible is full of examples of temporal punishment for sin: Adam and Eve, David, Solomon, etc. Penance, then, is our way of making reparation for our sins. This is not earning our salvation since we are not in danger of hell after the absolution. It is simply making reparation to God for our wrongs we have done. The Catholic Church does not burden people with excessive penances and the priest usually assigns a few prayers or an act of charity. The early Church, as noted above, strongly believed in the concept of penance. The councils of Laodicaea (A. D. 372) and Carthage IV (397) even mandated satisfaction be imposed on penitents. So, although some of the Reformers thought penance was a new invention, this was actually not the case. The Catholic Catechism explains penance well:

Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must "make satisfaction for" or "expiate" his sins. This satisfaction is also called "penance" (#1459).

My Experiences with Confession

Reconciliation at Our Lady of Consolation Shrine, photographed by Jonathan Bennett

Now for a more personal perspective...Theological issues aside, the whole idea of confession to a priest frightened me as it frightens many others. Although I was highly misinformed (see FAQ for more questions and misunderstandings), it was nonetheless a stumbling block to my conversion to Catholicism. I didn't know how I would get the courage to go in the confessional, especially for the first time, and show the light of day to those sins that had been buried for years. It's no surprise that Protestantism did away with confession. It's certainly an easier system, although one that does a great injustice to our Lord's command to "be perfect" and St. Peter's injunction to "be holy." Nevertheless, I wasn't about to confess to a priest. Sure, I kept doing the same sins over and over again and made no real headway towards holiness but it was between God and me and no one else's business.

My first experience with auricular confession was as an Anglican. I went into the confessional, however, terribly unprepared and never quite understood what confession was really about. I think this had to do with the Anglican system, which didn't really have a cogent theology of confession. Although the priest said an absolution, he did the same thing in the weekly service with just a general confession. Confession was a good spiritual practice I was told, but not required. So, like my earlier attempts to be accountable, I just gave up on it. After all, why not just confess my sins directly to God and rely on the general absolution? That would save a lot of effort. I confessed about 7 times as an Anglican and then never did it again.

Although my conversion story explains more, I felt drawn to the fullness of the Catholic Church and I met with a priest to discuss joining. As an already baptized Christian, I was required to go through first confession. The old anxiety returned. But I knew that the Catholic Church was true and confession was a part of that. Now, I just had to build up the courage to do it. The first thing I did was what all people preparing for first confession (or any confession) should do: pray and pray hard. I knew that this was ordained by God and was practiced by my Christian ancestors (and many of them had to do it publicly!), so I could do it too with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Since I was a unique case (coming from an Anglican background), I didn't have to attend RCIA and was to be received/confirmed in a month from my meeting. Most of that time was spent learning more about the Catholic Faith, but also mentally and spiritually preparing for confession. I read several good books to help me better understand the Sacrament (see Reading List at the conclusion of this article). I found a good examination of conscience and probed my past for all those times I had willfully and deliberately disobeyed God. Although I relived some of the past, I also aired it out, which was freeing in its own way.

Then, the day of confession came. I prepared a list about 4 pages long! I wanted to get everything off my soul. I just decided I would go in and do it, putting aside my fears. And sure enough, with God's help I did. I did my first confession "face to face" and was expecting to see cringes and looks of judgment and horror from my priest! Nope, none of that, just the relaxed and assuring face of my pastor who had probably heard most of this before (see FAQ). I was amazed how easily I read the sins from my paper. It was as the Catechism said: owning up to my sins. I wasn't wallowing in guilt or despair, but was feeling more freed with each word. Sins that had given me anguish, some for 10 years, were leaving my soul and heart, never to return. After the confession, father gave me penance. I figured I deserved a million Hail Mary's or a mission trip to Chad. Nope, just a few simple prayers. And then came the words that touched me in a million ways "...I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

All I could think and say was "Wow!" I felt spiritually like a load had been taken off. I, like many Christians, had often doubted my forgiveness. Now, I doubted no more. I knew that I was forgiven. I had experienced the grace of God. I also felt light as air. This is something that many people report after their first confessions (especially if it's the first time ever or first time in years). I could not stop smiling and was amazed at the healing power of the Sacrament. Now, I had no more fear of confession. I had felt its liberating power, the freedom from sin.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation has become an important part of my life and I go regularly. I still will occasionally get a few butterflies in my stomach, but I am generally at ease now. Confession has been life changing for me. I still struggle with sin (don't we all?), but I can say with complete honestly that God has greatly aided me in my struggles through this Sacrament. Through the grace of the Sacrament and the accountability it provides, God has strengthened my resistance to temptation. I still sin of course, but as a Catholic I know that God does not instantly perfect us. However, he does take us on the journey to holiness, of which confession is a major component. I can say now, that I am on that journey, however long and winding the road is. I encourage all people to enter into the journey in the Catholic Faith.

Other Churches and Christian Communities and Confession

What do other groups think about confession? It varies greatly. The Orthodox Church considers confession a sacrament and it is conducted in a similar fashion as the Catholic Church and has similar elements. The Catholic Church considers Orthodox confession and absolution to be "valid" like all their sacraments.

Protestant communities, however, vary widely on their opinion of confession. Likewise, without universally valid apostolic succession, the Catholic Church considers Protestant absolutions to be invalid, at least in an objective sense. Of course, we pray that God forgives all who sincerely call upon him whether Christian or non-Christians. However, the question is largely moot since by and large, Protestantism rejects confession to a priest/minister. Although Martin Luther liked confession and considered it a valid and commendable practice, he made it optional and for all practical purposes it fell out of use among most Lutherans. Anglicans generally rejected auricular confession at the start of their break from the Catholic Church, although it made a comeback with the high church revival known as the Oxford Movement. Today, confession in the Anglican Church is generally rare, due either to evangelical or low-church theology (which sees no need for confession to a priest) or a broad-church teaching that denies the traditional nature of sin.

Other Protestant groups, especially the independent groups whose lineage from the Catholic Church is more broken and distant, usually take a position that auricular confession is both unnecessary and generally not useful.

Confession FAQ

1. When do I need to go to confession?
There are several instances when confession is necessary. First, every Catholic is required to go once a year if he or she has committed a mortal sin. However, this is the bare minimum and will not be enough for most of us to fully live the Christian life. Second, every Catholic should go to confession when he commits a mortal sin since that means he has separated himself from God. Third, every Catholic must go to confession before receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in communion if she is aware of having committed a mortal sin. Fourth, even for people who are unaware of a mortal sin, going to confession once a month is a great spiritual practice, if only to confess venial sins and receive the grace to stay free from mortal sin in the future.

2. Ok then; what is a mortal sin?
St. John speaks of sins that lead to death and sins that don't lead to death (1 John 5: 16-18). Thus, the Catholic Church speaks of mortal (leading to death) and venial sins (not leading to death). Mortal sins cut us off from God and lead to hell (which is a cutting off from God), while venial sins merely weaken charity. In order for a sin to be mortal, it must have three components: grave matter (in other words be classified as a serious sin), full knowledge (we must know what we're doing is wrong, i.e. it is cutting us off from God), and complete consent (we must freely choose to commit the sin). In other words, mortal sins are serious sins that are done willfully and with some deliberation, that separate us from God. Without these three elements, the sin isn't mortal. If we commit a mortal sin, we should say an act of contrition (see FAQ Question #13 below) and get to confession as soon as possible. As an example, using God's name in vain, done quickly in the heat of the moment is likely not mortal? Why? While the act has grave matter, because it comes out so quickly almost as a reflex, it likely is done without deliberation, therefore it usually does not meet the criteria as mortal. However, even if it is venial, it is still a sin!

3. Ok, then can a person be forgiven without confession?
The Catholic Church teaches that perfect contrition can forgive mortal sins, if it includes the firm resolution to receive the Sacrament of reconciliation as soon as possible. However, one must still go to confession before receiving Holy Communion except in very grave situations (like life or death situations). Perfect contrition means that we are sorry because we have offended an infinitely good and loving God. There is also imperfect contrition, also called attrition, which is being sorry for our sins because of the fear of hell, or because the sin is so hateful in itself. Imperfect contrition cannot forgive grave sins, but makes a person ready to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. We should always strive for perfect contrition.

4. My sins are so bad, can I be forgiven? I mean what if the priest has never heard of anyone committing my sins? They're pretty bad. And won't the priest yell at me?
Everyone can be forgiven. St. Paul persecuted the Church and yet the Lord accepted his repentance and God will forgive you, no matter how heinous your sins are (or how heinous you perceive them). Besides, it's a bit arrogant to think we're the only ones committing certain sins! I'm sure the priest has heard it before. The priest may hold you accountable, but he's not going to give you a guilt trip or yell at you like a child (at least he shouldn't). Sometimes, he may say some things that make you uncomfortable, but God's truth often does that. Change often requires us to be uncomfortable. Most priests are pastoral people who understand that confession is not easy and will try to make you as comfortable as possible while still lovingly reminding you of God's expectations.

5. I don't like the "confessional." It's too scary for me. What are my other options?
Most Catholic parishes now offer an opportunity for face to face confessions. Some people prefer this option because it is less formal and it relaxes them. Some people prefer the anonymity that comes from the confessional. Either is acceptable.

6. Does the Catholic Church still teach confession is necessary?
Yes, yes, and yes! See FAQ question #1 for when confession is required.

7. Should or Can a Protestant go to a Catholic confession?
Generally the answer is no. At least the Protestant cannot receive priestly absolution (unless the Protestant is officially preparing for reception into the Catholic Church in which case he will do "first confession" before reception). In grave situations (e.g. on the deathbed), a Protestant can receive the Catholic Sacraments so long as a minister of his own community is not available, he asks for it, has the right disposition, and believes in the sacraments in the Catholic way. So, in short, if a Protestant wants to go to confession and receive priestly absolution, he needs to become Catholic.

8. So, are you saying Protestants can't have their sins forgiven?
No. The Catholic Church teaches that a Catholic is objectively forgiven in the Sacrament of confession and has assurance of this because it is the Church Christ established. We do not, however, say where God doesn't work forgiveness of sins. He is not bound by his Sacraments. The Church believes God gives grace and salvation to Protestants (through the Catholic Church) and we hope and pray that all non-Catholics who come to him with perfect contrition will be forgiven. However, the only objective assurance of forgiveness comes with priestly absolution from those in valid apostolic succession.

9. How should I confess? Like a grocery list?
Some people, myself included, like to examine our consciences and make a list of our sins. I prefer this way because I can remember what I want to confess. This is especially good for people who get nervous during confession. When confessing, simply name the sin committed, be somewhat specific, but don't go into the gory details, and give the number of times that sin was committed. When confessing mortal sins it is important to confess all mortal sins in number and kind. Some details are important to add for pastoral advice, e.g. "I fornicated 3 times" is a lot different in practice than "I fornicated 3 times with my brother's wife." Both are sinful, but clearly the latter has wider implications that the priest will need to address (e.g. healing of family relationships).

10. What if I forget to confess a mortal sin?
Sometimes this happens, when we leave the confessional without having confessed a mortal sin. Sometimes one just forgets, or skips over something on his or her list. Either way, so long as we do not intentionally withhold a sin, the absolution is still effective, and we may receive communion. However, we are expected to confess that mortal sin the next time we confess. In fact anytime you remember a past mortal sin you may have omitted to confess, just bring it up next time you are in the confessional. However, if a pattern of forgetting mortal sins develops it may be a good idea to do a better and/or daily examination of conscience, and think about writing your sins down for easy recall.

11. Come on, confession to a priest isn't biblical...is it? Where exactly in the Bible is confession?
To reiterate (see above for more), some basic biblical texts are Matthew 15:15-20 and John 20: 21-23. These indicate that Jesus gave the apostles the authority to forgive sins. Jesus didn't say everyone should go directly to God. In other words, he didn't give all Christians the authority to declare their own absolution, but rather gave it to the apostles, men who had the authority to forgive. As Catholics, we believe that the apostles appointed successors who passed on this authority to the present day. Matthew 9:8 also speaks of the authority to forgive sins being given to "men" too, not just God or Jesus. James 5:13-18 is a witness to the practice of public confession (confess your sins to "one another" not "confess your sins directly to God").

12. Ok, well where in the early Church is the Sacrament of Reconciliation?
References to confession and penance can be found in many Church Fathers including Origen, St. Ignatius, St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, etc. Here are a couple relevant quotes:

The Didache (circa AD 70-100):
...thou shalt confess thy transgressions in the Church, and shalt not come unto prayer with an evil conscience. This is the path of life...But on the Lord's day, after that ye have assembled together, break bread and give thanks, having in addition confessed your sins, that your sacrifice may be pure (4:14 and 14:1, emphasis mine).

St. Ignatius of Antioch (AD 110):
For where there is division and wrath, God doth not dwell. To all them that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop (Letter to the Philadelphians, Chapter 8, emphasis mine). For many more quotes see: Confession

13. Can you provide a good act of contrition that will help me learn perfect contrition?
Yes. This act of contrition is good to say on a regular basis:

O my God,
I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee,
and I detest all my sins,
because I dread the loss of heaven,
and the pains of hell;
but most of all because they offend Thee, my God,
Who are all good and
deserving of all my love.
I firmly resolve,
with the help of Thy grace,
to confess my sins,
to do penance,
and to amend my life. Amen

14. How do I prepare for confession, and what am I to do once I am in the confessional?
The best way to prepare for confession is to do an Examination of Conscience. Use the questions contained in the examination to guide your confession.

One common way to confess is to do it in this order:

1. Walk in the confessional, and if the option is offered, decide whether you will confess to the priest face-to-face, or anonymously behind the screen
2. Pray the sign of the cross (often the priest will say it with you)
3. Tell the priest how long it has been since you last confessed (e.g., "it has been three weeks since I last confessed")
4. Name your sins, listing mortal sins and the number of times you committed them (include venial if you want). Many people finish their confession with something like, "for these and all past sins, I am truly sorry"
5. The priest then usually provides some type of counsel, and gives you some penance to do (e.g., "say three 'Our Fathers' for the pope's intentions")
6. The priest asks you to say an "Act of Contrition" (see above)
7. The priest absolves you of your sins. You will cross yourself as he mentions the persons of the blessed Trinity
8. The priest may say something to the effect of "your sins have been forgiven, now go in peace." Many Catholics thank the priest for his time.

Reading List

On Confession:
Catechism of the Catholic Church (includes large section on all the Sacraments)
Pardon and Peace: A Sinner's Guide to Confession by Fr. Francis Randolph (excellent book, especially for first confessions)
How to Make a Good Confession: A Pocket Guide to Reconciliation With God

On Examination of Conscience
New St. Joseph People's Prayer Book (has section on penance that includes a good examination)
A Contemporary Adult Guide to Conscience for the Sacrament of Confession by Fr. Richard J. Rego (the best examination I've ever seen; especially helpful for those needing to know the line between venial and mortal sins; check your local Catholic Bookstore for availability)

Last updated on 3-14-2008