About 80 years ago, the noted English journalist and thinker, G.K. Chesterton, came into the Catholic Church. Surprised by his conversion, some of his friends asked him, "Why?" Chesterton answered, "To get my sins forgiven."
The forgiveness of sins begins with baptism. We enter the baptismal font creatures of God and emerge disciples of Jesus Christ. Our relationship to God changes because we are in Christ. That baptismal relationship cannot be abolished, but it can be broken, become merely formal, no longer life-giving, if we deliberately sin grievously after baptism. For the forgiveness of sin after baptism, Christ has given the Church another sacrament, a "second baptism." In the sacrament of penance or reconciliation, Christ uses the ordained priest and the ministry of the Church to get rid of people's sins after baptism. Sin confessed and adequately repented is abolished and the sinner can begin again his or her life in Christ. Sin which is not deadly or mortal is also forgiven, of course, through the Eucharist and through asking for forgiveness in our daily prayer.
Jokes are sometimes made about Catholic guilt. But guilt is healthy if it is a sign that one has taken responsibility for one's life and actions. Guilt becomes morbid or obsessive only if one is never able to escape from one's sins. Practicing Catholics acknowledge their failures, as measured by objective moral norms, but they know the forgiveness of God. Only when people feel they cannot be forgiven does life become a horror story.
Penance is the sacrament we need and use all through our lives as Christ's disciples in order to be fully reconciled with God when our sins distance us from him or even break our relationship to him. In the beautiful words of St. Francis de Sales, penance is "the sacrament of reconciled friends." It is the sacrament of ongoing conversion, for there are depths in the personalities of each one of us which have still to be brought under Christ's sway.
We discover where we are in our journey toward holiness in examining our conscience. Such an examination helps us to see us as God sees us. Even though it seems discouraging to dig into our sinfulness and lay it before the Church, it is also liberating to discover how God is working constantly to transform us and how whatever we do, no matter how sinful it might be, can be healed by God's mercy. Re-calling our sins by name, preparing for the sacrament by examining the state of our lives frankly and honestly before God is necessary for conversion, for turning from our sins and back to God. The examination of conscience is thorough when it looks not only at our actions but also at our thoughts and words and omissions (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2041 ff.) and does so using the Gospel and the moral teaching of the Church as a sure and certain norm.
The basic requirement for a good confession, besides consciousness of one's sins, is the intention to return to God, as the prodigal son in the Gospel wants to return to his father (Luke 15: 11-32). What the prodigal son finds on his return is a self-righteous brother, who doesn't believe in forgiveness, and a merciful father, who is eager to forgive. But not even God can forgive someone who is not sorry for his sins. A profound sorrow for our sins and a desire to make amends are part of the contrition necessary to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. Another part of contrition is the resolution, out of the love one has for God, not to sin again. Without such a resolution not to sin again, our contrition can be a mere feeling or sentiment which vanishes as quickly as it comes and leaves us captive to habits of sin.
How does one receive the sacrament of penance? After examining his conscience, the penitent approaches a priest with contrite heart and lays his or her sins before the Church. It is customary to begin the confession of sin by asking the priest for his blessing. Then the penitent says how long it has been since his or her last good confession. Sometimes the priest will read a brief passage of Scripture to remind the penitent of God's desire to forgive our sins. Then the penitent confesses all the grave sins committed since his or her last confession and often adds venial sins that particularly trouble the penitent. Those who have difficulty in confessing should simply ask the priest for help.
The priest hearing the confession may ask a question in order to clarify something that has been confessed. This is not out of curiosity but only to help the penitent make a complete and integral confession. The priest receiving a confession in Christ's name is bound in the strictest way and without exception never to reveal anything he has heard in a sacramental confession. Respect for the penitent's conscience governs the rules for the sacrament. This "seal of confession" enrages some people and has been attacked by enemies of the Church over the centuries. It is being attacked in some state legislatures today.
The priest may give the penitent some spiritual advice. He will ask the penitent to accept some small penance, and then he will wait for the penitent to express sorrow for his sins. This can be done in one's own words, rejecting sin, expressing love of God and one's firm purpose not to sin again. There are, however, set acts of contrition which mention all this, and it is useful to memorize one of them. I still use the act of contrition I learned in the second grade.
The priest then declares: "Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace; and I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." To these words of absolution, the penitent responds "Amen." Here the compassion and boundless mercy of our heavenly Father meet our honest confession and our sincere contrition. We are forgiven and set free. As Pope John Paul II has written in Penance and Reconciliation: "Our faith can give us certainty that at that moment every sin is forgiven and blotted out by the mysterious intervention of our Savior." The absolution is not some general declaration that God forgives sins. It is, rather, an act of Christ which restores full friendship and communion with God by judging the sins and the repentance of the particular penitent who has just confessed. The priest may conclude with a few verses of Scripture or with a prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary on behalf of the penitent whom he tells to go in peace.
Various booklets are available to help one prepare for and receive the sacrament of reconciliation. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has produced an excellent guide, "Celebrating the Sacrament of Penance: Questions and Answers" ( 235-8722). A useful and inexpensive leaflet produced locally is "A Short Guide for Confession," available from the Midwest Theological Forum ( 421-8135). Both leaflets are available also in Spanish.
This Lent, because our country is at war, the sacrament of reconciliation should speak to us more forcefully than ever. Only if we are fully reconciled to God can we become effective peacemakers among ourselves. The world needs peacemakers. The world needs reconciled and forgiven sinners. The world needs saints, and God is eager to make us saints. In an address to Americans several years ago, the Holy Father said, "To those who have been far away from the sacrament of reconciliation and forgiving love, I make this appeal: come back to this source of grace. Do not be afraid! Christ himself is waiting for you. He will heal you, and you will be at peace with God."