The Rite of Penance Introduction outlines the sacrament. The initial understanding is that a penitent operates from a posture of conversion:
6. Followers of Christ who have sinned but who, by the prompting of the Holy Spirit, come to the sacrament of penance should above all be wholeheartedly converted to God. This inner conversion embraces sorrow for sin and the intent to lead a new life. It is expressed through confession made to the Church, due expiation, and amendment of life. God grants pardon for sin through the Church, which works by the ministry of priests. [See Council of Trent, sess. 14, De sacramento Paenitentiae, cap. 3: Denz-Schon 1673-75 (the ed. typica erroneously cites cap. 11).]
I suppose this underscores the notion that the sacrament is not a magical thing, something that will work for just anyone who wants instant forgiveness. The essential portions of the sacrament follow. Please note the need for a change in terminology in Catholic circles. If we’re talking about “confession” as part of the experience of penance or reconciliation with God, that’s accurate and appropriate. To speak of it as an interchangeable term for the experience of the sacrament would be like calling the US “Carolina” or a human body “heart.” Essential elements of either, but not the whole story.
The first element of the sacrament is the deep sorrow the penitent feels for sin committed:
The most important act of the penitent is contrition, which is “heartfelt sorrow and aversion for the sin committed along with the intention of sinning no more.” [Ibid., cap. 4: Denz-Schon 1676.] “We can only approach the kingdom of Christ by metanoia. This is a profound change of the whole person by which we begin to consider, judge, and arrange our life according to the holiness and love of God, made manifest in his Son in the last days and given to us in abundance” (see Heb 1:2; Col 1:19 and passim; Eph 1:23 and passim). [Paul VI, Ap. Const. Paenitemini, 17 Feb. 1966: AAS.58 (1966) 179.] The genuineness of penance depends on this heartfelt contrition. For conversion should affect a person from within toward a progressively deeper enlightenment and an ever-closer likeness to Christ.
Here is a thorough and careful definition of confession:
The sacrament of penance includes the confession of sins, which comes from true knowledge of self before God and from contrition for those sins. However, the inner examination of heart and the outward accusation must be made in the light of God’s mercy. Confession requires on the penitent’s part the will to open the heart to the minister of God and on the minister’s part a spiritual judgment by which, acting in the person of Christ, he pronounces his decision of forgiveness or retention of sins in accord with the power of the keys. [See Council of Trent, sess. 14, De sacramanto Paenitentiae cap. 5: Denz-Schon 1679.]
Notice the role of the confessor including the need to make a spiritual judgment.
Making amends in a spirit of changing one’s life. Note the emphasis, that it is necessary for an act of penance to really be remedial and constructive.
c. Act of Penance
True conversion is completed by expiation for the sins committed, by amendment of life, and also by rectifying injuries done. [See ibid. cap. 8: Denz-Schon 1690-92. Paul V1, Ap. Const. Indulgentiarum doctrina, nos. 2-3.] The kind and extent of the expiation must be suited to the personal condition of penitents so that they may restore the order that they have upset and through the corresponding remedy be cured of the sickness from which they suffered. Therefore, it is necessary that the act of penance really be a remedy for sin and a help to renewal of life. Thus penitents, “forgetting the things that are behind” (Phil 3:13), again become part of the mystery of salvation and press on toward the things that are to come.
In the ancient tradition, the act of penance would be completed, then the absolution given. Note the importance given to the connection to the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, one finds the full expression of God’s forgiveness of the penitent.
Through the sign of absolution God grants pardon to sinners who in sacramental confession manifest their change of heart to the Church’s minister; this completes the sacrament of penance. For in God’s design the humanity and loving kindness of our Savior have visibly appeared to us [See Ti 3:4-5.] and so God uses visible signs to give salvation and to renew the broken covenant. In the sacrament of penance the Father receives the repentant children who come back to him, Christ places the lost sheep on his shoulders and brings them back to the sheepfold, and the Holy Spirit resanctifies those who are the temple of God or dwells more fully in them. The expression of all this is the sharing in the Lord’s table, begun again or made more ardent; such a return of children from afar brings great rejoicing at the banquet of God’s Church. [See Lk 15:7, 10 and 32.]
There’s a great quantity of material here, but it’s important to recall these four essential portions of the sacrament. As Catholic believers, do we have strong experiences of each of these? If not, what prevents this? And which of these might be weak in pastoral and sacramental practice in our parishes, and in the Church at large?