Penance is the sacrament by which sins committed after Baptism are forgiven through absolution by the priest. We must receive the sacrament of Penance:
- Because our Lord Jesus Christ commanded it when He said: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1 : 15). “Unless you repent you will all perish” (Luke 13 : 3).
- Because we need it. It is true that by the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation we are saved. However, it is well known that after Baptism we do not always stay in the state of grace; in other words, we commit sins. As a remedy for these sins after Baptism, the sacrament of Penance has been established.
- Because it increases the grace of the Holy Spirit which we already possess. The greater our knowledge about our sinfulness, the stronger become our desire and willingness to be sanctified and to be saved.
In order to receive this sacrament properly, we must:
- Examine our conscience. We must make a sincere effort to recall to mind all the bad things we have done in thought, in word, or in deed. We can make a good examination of our conscience by reviewing the commandments of God and the precepts of the Church, in order to see whether we have omitted to practice any of God’s commandments or committed any acts against any one of them. In our self-examination we must recall the particular duties of our state of life as citizens, as church members, as sons and daughters, as mothers or fathers, wife or husband, and to ask ourselves how we have conducted ourselves with regard to our duties in these capacities.
- We must be sorry for our sins, expressing to God our grief at having been disloyal to Him. This act of being sorry for one’s sins is called Contrition. Contrition is a very important act of penance. God will not forgive us our sins unless we make a true and sincere contrition. Indeed, if we knew the nature and effect of the thing called Sin we would surely feel a sincere sorrow, because sin is the greatest of all evils with dreadful results. Ill health, poverty, and other material evils last for only a certain time; at death these evils will all come to an end. But evils arising from sin will follow and persecute us into eternity, in addition to the troubles they bring upon us in this life. We can have contrition not only by recalling our misdeeds and feeling sorry for them, but also by praying: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy great mercy; according to Thy abundant compassion blot out my transgression” (Psalm 51 : 1).
- We must have a firm purpose not to sin again. Our day of good resolutions is not necessarily the New Year’s day. On every occasion when doing penance, we must sincerely promise God not to fall again into the same sins. After this sincere resolution, we must honestly avoid sin and everything which causes us to sin.
- The last act of Penance is Confession. Confession is an important part of the sacrament of Penance. There is private confession not only in the Roman Catholic Church, but in all the Ancient Eastern Churches, including the Greek, Russian, and Armenian Churches. The unfortunate fact however, is that in many places it is not practiced. But in Jerusalem it is still practiced. There is a small chapel in the Cathedral of St. James, where an elderly priest sits all during the services. Anyone desiring to go for confession sees the priest at this chapel. The priest draws the curtain and hears the confession.
If we do not feel well physically, we go to a doctor, or if we do not feel good mentally, we would perhaps consult a psychiatrist. Likewise, when we do not feel peaceful in our souls, we should go to a priest to regain our inner peace and spiritual health. That is the aim of confession. Doctors cannot give you the right form of medicine unless they know your trouble. Likewise the priest should know your spiritual troubles in order that he may give his advice or guidance in accordance with your need. Therefore, private confession is based on the teachings of the Gospels and of the Church, as well as on common sense and to the need of our soul.
It is obligatory to go to confession before Holy Communion. That is the rule of the Church.It is true that many Christians do no commit serious sins, or mortal sins, which is the technical word for heavy sins. Nevertheless, we must confess our little sins, too. If, however, somebody says I have no sins, he is lying, as the Scripture says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1 : 18).
Penance, therefore, is the Sacrament through which we receive that sanctifying grace for the soul which we have lost through sin. No matter how grave our sins may have been, they are forgiven if we make a sincere contrition and a good confession.
“If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all iniquity” (I John 1 : 9).
The sacrament of Penance gives the penitent, in addition, a special strength by which he will overcome temptations and lead a good life.
The works of Penance act like a medicine; not only do they cure sins but also weaken the power of evil tendencies, and give new strength to the soul.