RP 7: Need and Benefit


This section touts the variety of benefits and graces provided by the sacrament of penance. According to Catholic tradition, believers commit both grave sins and venial sins. Note that grave sin always implies a withdrawal from God, and an experience of loss. Even venial sins impair one’s “full freedom.”

7. Just as the wounds of sin are varied and multiple in the life of individuals and of the community, so too the healing that penance provides is varied. Those who by grave sin have withdrawn from communion with God in love are called back in the sacrament of penance to the life they have lost. And those who, experiencing their weakness daily, fall into venial sins draw strength from a repeated celebration of penance to reach the full freedom of the children of God.

Trent has the medicine: an examination of conscience then a full confession as the list of transgressions is remembered:

a. To obtain the saving remedy of the sacrament of penance, according to the plan of our merciful God, the faithful must confess to a priest each and every grave sin that they remember after an examination of conscience. [See Council of Trent, sess. 14, De sacramento Paenilentiae can. 7-8: Denz-Schbn 1707-08.]

I’m not sure this following sub-section quite covers the experience of “devotional confession.” I’ve heard confessors putter over penitents who return with the same minor sins. What I don’t hear is the frequency with which clergy urge these penitents to conformity with Christ. Do they recommend spiritual direction? Do they suggest greater acts of charity? Do they urge contemplative prayer so as to open the penitent to greater attentiveness? It would seem that 7b and following is prescribing exactly this for regular celebrants of the Rite of Penance.

b. Moreover, the frequent and careful celebration of this sacrament is also very useful as a remedy for venial sins. This is not a mere ritual repetition or psychological exercise, but a serious striving to perfect the grace of baptism so that, as we bear in our body the death of Jesus Christ, his life may be seen in us ever more clearly. [See 2 Cor 4:10.] In confession of this kind, penitents who accuse themselves of venial faults should try to be more closely conformed to Christ and to follow the voice of the Spirit more attentively.

In order that this sacrament of healing may truly achieve its purpose among the faithful, it must take root in their entire life and move them to more fervent service of God and neighbor.

The celebration of this sacrament is thus always an act in which the Church proclaims its faith, gives thanks to God for the freedom with which Christ has made us free, [See Gal 4:31.] and offers its life as a spiritual sacrifice in praise of God’s glory, as it hastens to meet the Lord Jesus.

Any thoughts on this? Any confessors willing to weigh in?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Liturgy, Rite of Penance, Rites. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to RP 7: Need and Benefit

  1. radial says:

    Hi — I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate these posts about various documents such as the GILH and the instructions for the Rite of Penance. They provide a lot of insight into the ‘whys’ behind a what we do in church. Thank you for the all the work involved in posting the documents and your commentary.

  2. FrMichael says:

    “I’ve heard confessors putter over penitents who return with the same minor sins. What I don’t hear is the frequency with which clergy urge these penitents to conformity with Christ.”

    I’m sorry, I don’t understand this part of your post. How do you hear what any confessors say to penitents other than yourself?

    Much more than the other sacraments, I find that the quality of this sacrament is heavily tied not only to the recipients, but to the minister. There are plenty of times that I’m at a loss to give a proper penance and default to repetitions of Our Fathers/Hail Marys. There are other times where the Spirit leads me to give a specific penance that unlocks a closed door within the penitent.

  3. Liam says:

    Fr Michael

    Do you ever assign such repetitions to be said with a specific intention(s) or a specific visualization to be kept in mind (in other words, a both/and approach)? In my experience, the priests that I have found more insightful in the confession have tended to do things like that, even if it’s merely to pray them for the repose of the forgotten souls in Purgatory – the penance then is automatically drawn into a larger world than the penitent’s self-absorption.

  4. Todd says:

    “How do you hear what any confessors say to penitents other than yourself?”

    I don’t. Thankfully. But I do hear priests bemoan the quantity of “devotional” confessions. What I don’t know–again, nobody tells me–is what kind of penances confessors give to penitents committing minor sins. Just a curiosity.

  5. John Heavrin says:

    Attempting to be snark-free, I ask: is it not improper for a priest to discuss even in general terms what he does or what happens within his confessional? As in, what types of penances he gives, etc.? Just asking.

    I don’t know if the “seal” is still construed this broadly, but I’ve heard that once it extended not only to the contents of a confession, but to whether a particular person’s confession had been heard at all. Discussing what happens in the confessional even in general terms seems potentially problematic, it occurs to me.

    Also, I believe it to be the case that whatever a penitent is bound by the seal should he chance to overhear another person’s confession in whole or in part…I’m sure I’ll be corrected here if that is not the case. Seems self-evident; I myself have overheard bits of confessions and certainly consider myself bound.

  6. John Heavrin says:

    Strike the “whatever” in the last paragraph above, please.

  7. Liam says:


    Yes, we are bound by the seal if we overhear another’s confession.

    But discussing confessions as a general matter and discussing one assigns penances in a general way is not the least bit problematic. I mean, we can even see when Mr H goes into the confessional with Fr I. The seal is strong and wide, but not that scrupulous.

  8. John Heavrin says:

    A lawyer will correct me, but I believe under the priest-penitent privilege, a priest cannot be compelled to reveal not only what he heard in a confession, but whether he heard one, or to discuss in general terms the “types” of things he might have heard from time to time, etc. That’s the law, not a theological discussion. I think if I were a priest, I wouldn’t really want to “go there” even in general terms.

  9. John Heavrin says:

    If Mr. H is seen going into the confession, then one who saw could testify that he saw him. But if nobody saw him, I don’t believe a priest could be compelled to answer: “Did you hear Mr. H’s confession?” Even if followed by “Now, I don’t want to know what he said, heavens no. I’m just asking, did you hear his confession.”

    Perhaps I’m wrong though and a priest would be forced to give an answer.

  10. Liam says:


    A priest cannot disclose that he heard any individual’s confessions. He may, however, freely disclose that he hears confessions of (unidentified) individuals at a regularly appointed hours. I don’t believe he is barred from saying if he has heard deveotional confessions in a general way – he may even discuss his approach and recommendations re the scrupulous (this is, in fact, a *favorite* topic of discussion addressed by the very orthodox priests over at EWTN). But none of this is tied to an individual’s confession; it is about the confessor’s method, not the penitent’s sins.

  11. John Heavrin says:

    Just my personal belief: on this particular matter, the line between prudence and imprudence is a thin one. There’s something almost…prurient about discussing even in general terms what goes on behind closed confessional doors.

    If you want to know what a priest says and does in confession, there’s an obvious way to find out: go.

  12. FrMichael says:

    Liam– short answer to your question: yes.

    John H– the seal of the confessional is stated in canons 983 and 984. As you can see, it is based completely upon the protecting the individual penitent. I certainly was trained that this protection extended even to the point of refusing to answer whether a specific person made a confession or not.

    I don’t think a general blog discussion such as this, which has no potential of being linked to specific penitents, is problematic.

    Also note that the seal is described canonically only in terms of the confessor and interpreter. Naturally, of course, any other person who inadvertantly hears parts of a confession has a moral obligation to remain silent as well.

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