But why can't I ask God directly for forgiveness?
At the monastery, we sing Psalm 50 (“Have mercy on me my God in your love”) every day at Lauds. The office of Compline is always preceded by the recitation of the Confiteor or “I confess to God” (usually said in chapter), and the verse Converte nos Deus salutaris noster / Et averte iram tuam a nobis (“Bring us back, God, our salvation / and forget your resentment against us” Ps 84:8). And St. Benedict stipulates that the Pater should be recited at the end of each office, at least in a low voice.
But in his love for us, Christ wanted to institute a sacrament through which we could receive his forgiveness, in which he wants to give us his forgiveness in a privileged way. Like all the sacraments, the sacrament of reconciliation makes us participants in the mystery of Christ, which culminates in his Passover. Here, we participate primarily in the struggle against evil and liberation from sin, and in the correlative gift of the Creator Spirit, who “washes away what is unclean, […] heals what is wounded, […] makes straight what is crooked”, and makes us cry out to the Father with the truth of a new heart: “Abba, Father”. Far from the pettiness of an apothecary’s account or a purely external amnesty, far too from a simple half-hearted request for forgiveness, the sacrament unfolds the full richness and power of the mystery of the Redemption, and brings about an ever fuller fulfillment of it, so that we receive all its fruits: it’s far more exciting! When I receive the sacrament in faith, not only do I know that I’ve been forgiven, that I’ve been freed from my sin, that I’ve been restored to my filial relationship, but also that, with and in Christ, I’ve truly conquered evil. Then, truly, I can set out again in peace and joy to lead a new life!
It’s not because of a legal obligation, but because only the Paschal Mystery can save us from sin and the death that comes with it, that the sacrament of Penance is the only ordinary means for the remission of mortal sins.
It’s also important to recognize that sin doesn’t just disturb my relationship with God. When a Christian sins, the whole Church is wounded and soiled. The sacrament therefore re-establishes communion with the whole Church, with each and every one of our brothers and sisters. The celebration of the sacrament, even if discreet or secret and unknown to all, is a feast for the whole Church.
Finally, the presence of the Church (at least through the presence of the priest) assures me that I’m not alone in my sin. I have brothers who pray for me and on whom I can lean in my spiritual battle; brothers, too, through whom Christ lifts me up.
But since I haven't committed any serious fault...
It’s true that recourse to the sacrament of penance is absolutely necessary only in the case of mortal sin (serious fault, committed with full knowledge of the cause, and with a perfectly free will): in this case, it’s imperative to go to confession before receiving communion.
However, the Church encourages regular confession, even for minor faults (venial sins). Frequent recourse to the sacrament leads to a greater delicacy of conscience, and therefore to a purer, more joyful love.
So it’s a good idea to find a regular confessional rhythm. It’s also a good way to prepare for the major feasts of the year. In any case, the Church recommends confession at least once a year.
If, nevertheless, I see no sin to accuse, it’s certainly a sign that my love has grown cold and my relationship with God has grown distant, for he who truly loves recognizes and regrets all the annoyances he has imposed on the one he loves. The more I love, the greater and more serious the slightest wounds inflicted on love will seem to me. So if I don’t see any sin in myself to accuse, perhaps it’s urgent for me to get back to reading the Word of God, to contemplating Christ on the cross, to make a good examination of conscience and… to go to confession!
My sin is too great, I cannot be forgiven. I am not worthy of God's forgiveness.
In the fourth chapter of his Rule, St. Benedict lists the “instruments of the spiritual art”: little commandments, often taken from Scripture, that should help the monk to follow Christ. Remarkably, the list ends with this instrument: “Never despair of God’s mercy” (RB 4:72). As if to say to us: “If you have done nothing of what is written before, at least do not forget this last instrument, and you will be saved!
So, if I’m not worthy of God’s forgiveness, it’s a sure thing! According to Saint Paul, it’s even proof of God’s love for us: “The proof that God loves us is that Christ, while we were still sinners, died for us” (Rom 5:8). On the other hand, to believe that our sin is too great for God to forgive is to reduce the infinite power of God’s mercy to our own small measure: “Before him we will set our hearts at rest, if our hearts condemn us, for God is greater than our hearts, and knows all things” (1 Jn 3:19-20).
But it’s true that we can only have the assurance of forgiveness if we look at the evil we’ve committed by putting ourselves face to face with God and under his gaze.
The risk is great, in fact, of measuring the evil I’ve committed against the yardstick of a law alone, or worse, against my ideal, the ideal of the person I’d like to be but am not. Then I can no longer believe in forgiveness. For the law condemns and denounces sin, but it cannot forgive it. And I find it hard to forgive myself for not living up to my own standards. And that’s how remorse is born, the suffering that the guilty party inflicts on himself, that he constantly sustains, and that makes him despair of forgiveness, because he can’t give it to himself.
Contrition, though a “very great regret”, is not remorse. It is not a regret felt by the sinner when he looks at himself, but when he looks at God’s love. Contrition, which arises in the face of the mercy always offered, is the regret of having scorned the Father’s love, of having bruised the Son, of having vexed the Spirit; from this regret arises the desire to repair the wounded relationship and to cultivate love for God and one’s brothers and sisters with renewed fervor, so as never to offend them again.
The evil I have done then becomes a sin in the full sense of the word: a wound in a loving relationship. And so it becomes forgivable, because I can finally receive forgiveness from another, from the one who loves me and whom I would like to love: forgiveness can only be received from another. I can then accept to be lifted up by another who loves me infinitely. I’m no longer alone in the face of a fault that undermines me.
Yes, the more serious and burdensome a sin is, the more it needs forgiveness, and the more it prepares us to receive the mercy God never ceases to give us. As the saying goes, “For every sin, there is mercy”: in fact, according to philosopher Rémi Brague, this is the very definition of sin.
The sacrament is useless because I'm bound to fall again. Besides, I always accuse myself of the same sins...
It’s true that our weakness often causes us to fall back into the same sins, especially when the force of habit becomes harder to uproot. However, such an argument is not enough to render recourse to the sacrament of reconciliation useless.
Firstly, because this sacrament is a sacrament of conversion. We don’t promise never to fall again, but to cultivate anew, with renewed fervor, a loving relationship with God and our brothers and sisters, and to flee from future occasions of sin. The sacrament accompanies and strengthens us in our fight against sin, in our spiritual battle against our perverse tendencies. To renounce recourse to the sacrament because we keep falling back into the same rut is to renounce conversion and, by the same token, to renounce freedom. Let’s be sure that God cannot resign himself to seeing us enslaved by our tendencies and habits, so let’s lean on him!
God never refuses forgiveness to those who sincerely ask for it, even after many falls and relapses. He has commanded us to forgive “seventy times seven” (cf. Mt 18:21) those who have offended us; how could He not do the same, and even much more? It’s true, however, that forgiveness must be sought each time with true repentance, a genuine desire not to do it again, and a firm resolve to take the means to do so.
But you have to go even further. To believe that it’s always the same – and therefore pointless – because I always accuse the same sins, is to believe that novelty can come from me! In fact, it’s surely best if I don’t invent new ways of offending God between each confession!! No, nothing new can come from me: it lies, instead, in the love always offered, in the forgiveness always given, and in the new man, fashioned by God, who each time renews himself in the image of the Creator. Each confession, in which I accuse myself of my habitual and very ordinary failings, gives God the opportunity to carry out his extraordinary work of renewal: renewal of my heart, renewal of the Church, renewal of the world.
There is one final point to be made here about “sins of habit”. I may regularly fall back into the same sin, sometimes a serious one, against which I am fighting, or would like to fight. In that case, there’s a very real risk of focusing my self-examination on this single point, of seeing only this sin… Each time I confess, it’s a good idea to try not to accuse only this sin (even if I must also accuse it): my relationship with God doesn’t lie in this point alone, and it’s likely that I’m wounding love in many other areas – sometimes even more serious – to which my one-sided struggle prevents me from paying attention. Perhaps it’s by diversifying my struggle that I’ll be able to break out of the habit that makes me suffer so much.
And why should we blame our faults, since God, who knows everything, already knows them?
Of course, God knows everything, and we could even say that he knows our sins better than we do – he knows them in his crucified flesh! And yet, during the sacrament of penance, it’s not enough for me to acknowledge that I’m a sinner; I have to acknowledge my sin, my sins, each and every one of them.
Because my actions – whether good or bad – carry weight in God’s eyes. Because God truly loves me, he doesn’t want to forgive me “in general”, he wants to forgive and heal each and every one of the failings by which I have wounded love, and which I recognize as such. He wants me to become aware of these acts, and thereby acquire regret and contrition. The forgiveness of sins is therefore as much the work of God’s justice as of his mercy: the sacrament of reconciliation is indeed the tribunal of mercy. There can be no true forgiveness without this combination of justice and mercy, and it is only on this condition that the relationship of love can be rebuilt and even strengthened.
What’s more, in the sacrament, it’s not faults – still less errors or malfunctions – that I accuse, it’s sins. A fault is a failure to comply with a law or rule; a sin is a wound inflicted on love, which is why I can only become aware of it in a relationship with a person, to whom I can ask forgiveness. By the same token, sin can only be forgiven if I take personal responsibility for it, if I acknowledge that I have personally wounded a loving relationship in which I was involved: in other words, God can only forgive sins that I acknowledge as such.
It’s also worth noting that, in confession, we ourselves learn to forgive! For forgiveness cannot be indifference; it can never minimize or deny offenses: on the contrary, it is always the recognition of a wound and the path to healing, the acknowledgement of evil done and the will to overcome evil with good.
Why does the Church no longer accept the celebration of the sacrament with collective confession and absolution, which used to make confession easier?
The answer to this question needs to be qualified, because in reality, the question is based on a false assertion. In fact, it’s not entirely accurate to say that the Church no longer accepts the celebration of the sacrament with collective confession and absolution.
That’s not right, because the Church provides for very specific cases in which this form of sacramental celebration can be used. It is true that she has been led to specify the strict and, all in all, very rare conditions under which absolution can be given collectively without individual accusation, as this is truly an extraordinary form of celebration (danger to life is the best-known circumstance).
But the statement on which the question is based isn’t right either, since it implies that the Church would have widely permitted this form of celebration and then gone back on this possibility. In fact, cases of permission have always been very strict, even if a misunderstanding of this teaching may have led to greater openness here and there. What’s important to understand is the reason for this Church discipline.
This is because reconciliation is a sacrament – and whatever the sacrament, the Church always confers it on each of her sons and daughters personally (even when the celebration is communal), because the sacrament is truly an encounter of grace that each Christian experiences with the Triune God. This is how we baptize every catechumen, give communion to every one, confirm every confirmand, lay hands on every ordinand or sick person, and how every couple exchanges consents at their wedding. The same applies to penance: every penitent has the right to confess his or her own sins and to receive God’s forgiveness personally, to meet God personally in the sacrament. This aspect is perhaps even more important in the sacrament of reconciliation: since what is celebrated there is the resumption of a dialogue and a relationship, we can say that the dialogue between the penitent and the confessor (who takes the place of Christ) has the value of a sacramental sign.
When the Church allows collective absolution, it’s always because the number of confessors is too small to meet each penitent in an emergency situation. It should not be the laziness of confessors that deprives penitents of their fundamental right to a personal encounter with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit!
It is true, however, that the practice of collective confession might actually appear easier for the penitent. However, what we have said in response to previous questions shows that the truth of the sacrament would be flouted. This is why anyone who has benefited from collective absolution without individual confession should, as soon as possible, go and accuse the serious sins he or she remembers.
I haven't been to confession for a long time and I'm a bit scared.
Then it will surely be a beautiful encounter with God’s mercy, perhaps long deferred but finally realized! Don’t be afraid, Christ is waiting for you with open arms! And the sacrament will enable you to leave with enthusiasm. How beautiful it is to rediscover God’s friendship! What joy in heaven for a single sinner who is converted!
If you don’t know how to confess, or don’t know how to confess very well, it’s no problem: just ask the priest to help you. He’s used to it, and he’ll gently guide you to a good confession. If you’re scared or worried, tell him too!
I had a very bad experience with a previous confession, and I don't want to do it again!
It’s true that confession is a costly act, and that a bad experience can make it difficult to return to the confessional. But does an unhappy experience really justify renouncing the merciful love offered in the sacrament? It can be helpful to know why I had a bad confession experience. In this area, it’s difficult to give a general answer, as experience is always eminently personal: the best advice we can give here would be to go and find a priest to unravel the question, but we can try to give a few pointers.
The first bad experience may be that of disappointment: I expected a lot from the sacrament, and I didn’t feel the joy I’d hoped for, my life wasn’t made any easier or more peaceful afterwards than before… Here we need to remember that a sacrament, while it is a sensitive sign that transmits grace, is also a mystery of faith, and that faith doesn’t always show through in terms of emotions, nor does it take away all the difficulties of everyday life. The certainty of forgiveness increases my freedom and my capacity to love in truth; yet my psychology may not feel it, and worries remain. My sin is removed, and I’ve found friendship with God again, but the consequences of my sin sometimes pursue me.
The life of faith is from time to time a walk in the night, but a walk towards the light, and a walk in the company of a God who loves us, even when we feel nothing.
But a bad experience can also come from bad contact with the confessor. For the confessor is a man too, with his faults, his moments of fatigue, his mood swings, his weaknesses, his shyness perhaps. And the encounter between two human beings is not always easy the first time around. Especially when the priest doesn’t know the penitent, his discourse can “fall by the wayside” – which is why it’s a good idea to briefly present the penitent’s state of life before beginning confession (you don’t say the same thing to a religious as to a married man, a child or a grandmother). The penitent may find himself hurt or disappointed, but such an experience should not call into question recourse to the sacrament: it’s simply better to change confessors!
We could add that the sacrament of forgiveness can also become, in this case, the place to exercise forgiveness ourselves vis-à-vis a somewhat deficient or harsh instrument of God, or one that we don’t understand: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, we pray in the Our Father.
But the bad experience could also be due to the penitent’s inner disposition. Perhaps hesitant about the resolutions to be taken, he listened with a skeptical ear to the confessor’s encouragement. Perhaps not seriously regretting the sins committed, he may have misjudged the priest’s severity. Could this experience simply be a call to conversion?
Perhaps, finally, the bad experience comes from imposing a penance that is too harsh. And it’s true that in this area, there have always been confessors who were more severe than others! The important thing here is to understand the meaning of this satisfaction. Obviously, it’s not about the price to be paid for forgiveness: forgiveness has no price, and the ransom has been paid for the multitude, once and for all, by Christ dying on the cross.
But satisfaction seeks to repair the effects of sin, and provides the incentive to lead a renewed Christian life from now on. Reparation can be primarily material, since true repentance requires, as far as possible, that the damage or scandal caused by sin be stopped or repaired: for example, justice demands that what has been stolen be returned, or that the scorned truth be re-established. But reparation also takes place in the penitent’s heart: it’s a question of breaking the evil habits or attachment to evil that sin may have given rise to. Above all, satisfaction has a positive aspect: it’s about manifesting and increasing love for God and one’s brothers and sisters.
It can take the form of prayer, renunciation, service to others or works of mercy. As one of the three acts of the penitent, it is an integral part of the sacrament and must be performed. This is why the penitent should not hesitate to let the priest know if he has not understood what has been imposed on him, or if he is unable to perform it (for example, if he does not know the prayer he is asked to recite!) However, it should not be regarded and performed as a legal obligation, but as a requirement of love.
But won't the priest judge me? And won't what I say be used against me?
The priest himself is a sinner who knows his own weakness and sinfulness, and who must himself have recourse to the sacrament of reconciliation. He knows man’s misery from the inside out, and is therefore ill placed to judge the man to whom Christ will forgive all his sins.
But above all, it is in the name of Christ that he receives the penitent, and he knows that it is to Christ himself that the penitent accuses himself through him. This has two consequences. The first is that the confessor must strive to look upon the person who comes to him with the love of Christ: a love that is both merciful and demanding. Merciful love, because Christ knows what is in man, and came to heal and save him by dying on a cross: “I did not come to judge the world, but that through me the world might be saved” (Jn 12:47). But it’s also a demanding love, because otherwise it wouldn’t be true love: love wants the other person to grow and become better. Christ’s love therefore does not judge the sinner, but judges sin and denounces it, so that man may turn from his evil ways and obtain eternal life. Such must be the look, the kindness and the love of the confessor for the penitent.
The second consequence is that what is said in confession cannot, under any circumstances, be repeated or used. The priest cannot use it, either in favor or to the detriment of the penitent, for in reality it is not to him that the confession of sins is made, but to Christ through him.
Church law nevertheless provides that the penitent – or, for that matter, the confessor – may request that the sacrament be celebrated in a confessional with a grille, which better preserves discretion as to the penitent’s identity.
What are the conditions for receiving the sacrament of penance?
As with all sacraments – apart from baptism, the “gateway to the sacraments”! -The first condition for recourse to the sacrament of reconciliation is to be baptized and a member of the Catholic Church (for Christians belonging to other Churches or ecclesial communities, special conditions are laid down by Church law).
Since this sacrament is that of confession, it is necessary to know oneself as a sinner and to be ready to acknowledge one’s sins. The priest cannot give absolution (forgiveness) for sins that do not exist or that have not been confessed! That’s why it’s a good idea to prepare yourself with an examination of conscience, in which you identify all your shortcomings with regard to God, your neighbor and yourself; this is not introspection, but a re-reading of your life in the light of God’s love. The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes (cf. Mt 5:3-12) can help us to do this, but it’s always a good idea to let ourselves be enlightened by the Word of God: “For the word of God is living, effective and sharper than any two-edged sword; it penetrates to the point of division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and can judge the feelings and thoughts of the heart. There is no creature, therefore, that remains invisible before it, but everything is naked and uncovered in the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Heb 4:12).
But since this sacrament is also the sacrament of penance, it’s not enough to acknowledge sin: we must also regret it, and resolve to make amends if possible, and, with God’s grace, sin no more. Go,” says Christ to the forgiven sinner, “and sin no more” (Jn 8:11).
So it’s not possible to receive forgiveness (and it would be a lie to ask for it) if I don’t choose to make amends, to convert and to flee from near occasions of sin. This doesn’t mean that I won’t fall again, it means that I have the firm will not to fall again, and that I’m ready to take all the means at my disposal. It means that I choose in truth to commit myself to a renewed relationship of love with God by leaving whatever in my life stands in the way of this relationship.
Sadly, this is why certain situations make it impossible to receive the sacraments – the painful case, for example, of remarried divorcees. In these circumstances, too, it can be a good idea to meet regularly with a priest and the Church community, since such a state in no way detracts from the Church’s love and concern for all her children.
Where to confess?
Only the priest (or bishop) can confess: he then takes the place of Christ, welcoming, listening to and forgiving the penitent in the name of Christ. All words spoken during the celebration of the sacrament remain secret: the confessor may never, under any circumstances, repeat what he has learned on this occasion. Confession must therefore be requested from a priest.
How to confess?
The sacrament of Penance is made up of three acts performed by the penitent, and the priest’s absolution. The acts of the penitent are: repentance, confession or manifestation of sins to the priest, and the intention to make reparation and perform works of reparation. (Catechism of the Catholic Church n°1491).
The liturgy of the sacrament will therefore be the shaping of these four elements. To this must be added the reading of the Word of God, which can be done at the appropriate moment, before or after the confession of sins.
It begins with the priest welcoming the penitent. At this point, it’s a good idea for the penitent to give a brief description of his or her state in life (married, religious, single, student, retired…), which will enable the priest to adapt his discourse.
After the sign of the cross, the penitent may say to the priest: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned“. And the confessor responds with these or similar words: “May God give you his light to confess your sins, as well as his love for you“.
The penitent can then begin by reciting the Confiteor (“I confess to God”), followed by the penitent’s acknowledgement and confession of his or her sins. If necessary, the priest can help the penitent.
The priest can then give advice on how to start a new life or grow in the Christian life. He also gives the penitent satisfaction (or penance), which is not just reparation for the sin committed, but a help in living a new life and a remedy for overcoming weakness. It should be noted, however, that the penitent who has caused damage or scandal should be led to make proper reparation for it. Satisfaction can take the form of prayer or renunciation, or service to neighbor and works of mercy.
If the penitent does not understand the proposed penance or is unable to perform it (for example, if he does not know the prayer the confessor is asking him to recite), he should not hesitate to tell the confessor about it at once!
The penitent is then invited to express his or her contrition. Several formulas are proposed; we will only mention the most traditional here: My God, I am very sorry to have offended you, because you are infinitely good, infinitely lovable, and sin displeases you. I firmly resolve, with the help of your holy grace, to offend you no longer and to do penance.
The priest then extends his hands (or right hand) towards the penitent and gives him absolution from all his sins:
May God our Father show you his mercy; through the death and resurrection of his Son, he reconciled the world to himself, and sent the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins: Through the ministry of the Church, may he give you forgiveness and peace. AND I, IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER AND OF THE SON AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT, FORGIVE YOU ALL YOUR SINS.
The penitent replies: Amen.
The confessor can add this concluding prayer here: May the Passion of Jesus Christ, our Lord, the intercession of the Virgin Mary and all the saints, all the good you do and the painful you endure contribute to the forgiveness of your sins, and increase your grace so that you may live with God.
Or he may simply invite thanksgiving and joy, and dismiss the penitent with these or similar words: Go in the peace and joy of Christ.
Penitent: Blessed be God now and always.
or: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
The penitent: Eternal is his love.
Priest: The Lord has forgiven you. Do the same.