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What Everyone Should Know About:

The Sacrament Of Penance

by St. Alphonsus M. Liguori


Penance is a sacrament in which, by the absolution of a confessor, sins committed after Baptism are forgiven. For priests have received from Jesus Christ the power of forgiving sins, as appears from the words: Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained (John 20:23). Therefore the Council of Trent excommunicates all that say that this sacrament has not the power to forgive sin. By this sacrament the sinner recovers not only the divine grace, but also the merits of the good works performed in the state of grace, which he had lost by sin. The soul also receives additional strength to resist temptations; for the same Council says that by justification (being rendered just through repentance and forgiveness) we are renewed in the spirit of our mind (session 6, chap.6). All these graces we receive through the merits of the Passion of Jesus Christ.

Examination of Conscience

This examination consists in making a careful search in order to call to mind the sins committed since the last confession made with the required conditions.

In this search many fail by too detailed an examination, and many others by not examining enough. The former are the superscrupulous, who are always examining their conscience and are never satisfied; thus they can neglect to excite true sorrow for their sins and a firm purpose of amendment. Moreover, their scruples render the sacrament so distasteful that going to confession appears to them like going to be martyred. This examination for confession need not be made withextreme carefulness and effort. It is enough for the penitent to apply attention to discover all the sins committed since his last confession. This care and effort must be proportioned to the situation of the penitent. If he has been a long time absent from confession and has fallen into many mortal sins, greater care and effort are necessary. Less is required if he has been lately at confession and has committed but few sins. If, after making a careful search, a person forgets a certain sin, but has a general sorrow for all his sins, the one that he has forgotten in confession is pardoned, and he is only bound to confess it at his next confession. When a confessor tells a superscrupulous penitent to make no further examination and never again to confess what he has now told, the penitent should be silent and obey the confessor. St. Philip Neri used to say: "Let all who desire to advance in the way of God obey their confessor, who is in the place of God. He who acts thus may be sure that he shall not have to render to God an account of the actions which he performed through obedience."2 And St. John of the Cross said that "to (unreasonably) mistrust what a confessor says, is pride and a want of faith." The great reason of this is because Our Lord said to His ministers: He that heareth you heareth Me (Luke 10:16).

But would to God that all were scrupulous! Generally such souls have a tender conscience; let them be obedient, and they are safe. The misfortune is that most Christians have not many scruples. They commit numberless mortal sins, which they forget; and afterwards they scarcely confess the sins that occur to them at the moment of confession. Thus it sometimes happens that they do not accuse themselves of half their sins. Confessions made in this manner are fruitless. It would be even better to omit making them. The historian Victor Rossi reports that a young man who had usually made his confession in this way, sent for a confessor at the hour of death; but before the confessor arrived, a devil came and showed the young man a long list of sins omitted in his past confessions through carelessness in examining his conscience.

The poor youth despaired of salvation and died without making his confession.

He died on the Cross for our sins.

Good Christians make an examination of conscience and an act of contrition every evening. There was a devout monk lying at the point of death one day. When his Superior came and told him to make his confession, he answered, "Blessed be God! For thirty years I have made an examination of conscience every evening and have made my confession every day as if I were at the point of death."

My friends, when you are preparing for confession, go to a retired part of the Church. Then, first of all, thank God for having waited for you till that moment and beg Him to make known to you the number and grievousness of your sins. Then start going over in your mind the places you have frequented, the persons with whom you have kept company, and the dangerous occasions in which you have been since your last confession. Examine in this manner all the sins committed during that time by thoughts, by words and by deeds; above all, examine yourself on the sins of omission, particularly if you are the head of a family, a public official, or in any similar situation in which persons do not generally accuse themselves of sins of omission. But to make the examination in a more orderly manner, it is better for those who have committed different kinds of sin to examine themselves on the Ten Commandments, and see what commandment they have violated and whether the violation has been grievous or venial.

He who has had the misfortune of having committed a mortal sin must go to confession immediately; for he may die any moment and be damned. You may say, "I will go to confession at Easter or Christmas." And how do you know that you will not die suddenly in the meantime? "I hope in God that I shall not!" But should it happen, what must become of you? How many have kept saying "later on, later on," and are now in hell; because death came upon them and they were not able to make their confession.

St. Bonaventure reports in his life of St. Francis (chap.11), that while the saint was going about and preaching, a gentleman gave him lodging in his house. Moved with gratitude, St. Francis recommended him to God; and the Lord revealed to the saint that the gentleman was in a state of sin, and that his death was at hand. The saint instantly called him and had him go to confession to a priest, the companion of the saint. Soon afterwards the gentleman sat down to dinner, but before he could swallow the first mouthful, he was struck down with sudden death.

A similar misfortune befell a sinner who was damned on account of having delayed his confession. (St.) Bede (Eccles. Hist. Angl., L.5 C.15) relates that this man, who had once been fervent, fell into tepidity and mortal sin and delayed confession from day to day. He was seized with a dangerous illness, and even then put off his confession, saying that he would afterwards go to confession with better dispositions. But the hour of vengeance arrived. He fell into a deadly swoon in which he thought that he saw hell open under his feet. After he had come to his senses again, the persons who stood around his bed begged him to make his confession, but he answered, "There is no more time. I am damned!" They continue to encourage him. "You are wasting your time," said he; "I am damned. I see hell opened; there I see Judas, Caiphas, and the murderers of Jesus Christ. And near them I see my place, because like them, I have despised the Blood of Jesus Christ by delaying confession so long." Thus the unfortunate man died in despair without confession and was buried like a dog outside the church without having a prayer offered for his soul.

With regard to venial sins, it is useful to confess them; for the absolution of a confessor remits them. But there is no obligation to confess them; for, according to the Council of Trent, the pardon of them may be obtained by other means without confession — such as by acts of contrition and of charity, or by saying the "Our Father" with devotion.

Are venial sins also remitted by the use of holy water? Yes; not directly, but indirectly by way of impetration; for the Church, by the blessing of the water, obtains for the faithful who use it help toward repentance and love by which sins are canceled. Hence, after taking holy water, it will be useful instantly to make an act of sorrow or of love for God, so that the Lord may, in consequence of those acts, forgive all venial sins that remain on the soul. Holy water helps also to dispose us to devotion and to banish the temptations of the devil, particularly at the hour of death. Surius tells us of a dying monk who asked his prior to send away a blackbird from the window. The prior sprinkled the window with holy water, and then the bird, which was really the devil, flew away. It is also mentioned by Father Ferrerio that a monk of Cluni at the hour of death saw his room full of devils, but on sprinkling the place with holy water they immediately disappeared.

Continued In Next Issue:

 Sorrow — Purpose of Sinning No More — The Confession