The Sacrament of Penance, also known as Confession or Reconciliation, is the method given by Christ to the Church by which individual men and women may be freed from sins committed after receiving Baptism. The goal of this sacrament is the reconciliation of sinners with God through the healing of the soul which has been damaged by acts of sin. Confession of sin is the mark of a true Christian. St. John writes, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9-10).
The Sacrament of Penance is administered in either two ways: publicly or privately. In the Prayer Book services (Morning/Evening Prayer and Eucharist), penance is a component of our corporate worship. First, the priest makes an exhortation to repentance. This is followed by the reciting of the general confession by all present. Finally, the absolution is given by the priest to all “who do truly and earnestly repent of their sins.”
In addition to the sacrament being administered in corporate worship, penance is also administered privately by the priest to individuals whose consciences are troubled by weighty sins. Private penance is helpful in such difficult situations because it can deepen a person’s humility additionally it gives a person struggling with a particularly difficult sin a chance to receive counsel that will be helpful in overcoming that sin in the future.
The Sacrament of Penance consists basically of four acts (note that penance sacramentally applies to the whole activity from the contrition of sins to the absolution of those sins by the priest):
Contrition: First the penitent (the repentant sinner – the root word in “penitentiary”), must be aware of his/her sinfulness and must be truly sorry (contrite) for his/her sins. Another word for repentance is “contrition”. Then with a contrite heart, the penitent repents of his/her sins by making a humble confession to God.
Confession: The penitent confesses all the sins he/she can recall – after examining his conscience – that he/she has not confessed previously.
Act of Penance: In the case of private confessions, the priest-confessor may propose certain actions – penance – for the penitent to perform. This may be saying certain prayers and/or performing some other fitting action. The person who performs this penance thus shows his or her sorrow for his/her sinful acts. This helps him/her to overcome his/her faults, and the harm his sins have caused others – to be reconciled with them and with the Church, and to return to behavior consistent with being a disciple of Christ.
Absolution: After the penitent truly confesses his/her sin and accepts any acts of penance needing to be performed; the priest, by the authority that Christ has given him as the one commissioned through the laying on of hands by the successors to the apostles (see John 20:22-23) absolves the sinner; that is, he grants God’s pardon for the sins.
Penance is a wonderful sacrament given by Jesus Christ to His Church. It is a means by which we sinful, unclean creatures can have our souls and hearts cleansed in order that we can be reassured that He fully forgives those who have a contrite heart and truly confess their sins.