RP 18: Confession

mary-the-penitent.jpgNow we come to what the rite actually calls “confession.” I was criticized for advocating accuracy in speaking about the sacrament of penance, and it is true that the catechism writes of no less than five synonyms. In casual discussion with other Catholics, I wouldn’t see it as an issue meriting correction of any kind. By the same token, I’m not in the habit of altering my own vocabulary, even (or especially) with children.

That said, a person who clings to the terminology “confession” might still be rooted in the liturgical poverty of the sacrament. By this I mean the lack of acknowledgement on some of what the penitent receives from God. There’s a lot of focus on unburdening oneself in name from sin. There’s an expectation of receiving absolution. But the penitent and confessor both have an opportunity to receive the proclamation of the Word. Too much emphasis on the sacramental matter might indicate what some have called a horizontal bias in the spiritual life, an expectation that what we place in a confessors ear and hear from his mouth is all that’s essential–instead of part of what’s vital.

Speaking of terminology, notice what the rite calls the act of contrition: “the general confession formulary.” Notice that it is customary, not required.

18. Next comes the penitent’s confession of sins, beginning with the general confession formulary, I confess to almighty God, if this is the custom. If necessary, the confessor assists the penitent to make a complete confession; he also encourages the penitent to repent sincerely for offenses against God; finally he offers practical advice for beginning a new life, and, where necessary, gives instruction on the duties of the Christian life.

A penitent who has been the cause of harm or scandal to others is to be led by the priest to resolve to make due restitution.

Those involved in scandal must change not only their voting records, it seems.

Next, the priest imposes an act of penance or expiation on the penitent; this should serve not only as atonement for past sins but also as an aid to a new life and an antidote for weakness. As far as possible, therefore, the penance should correspond to the seriousness and nature of the sins. This act of penance may suitably take the form of prayer, self-denial, and especially service to neighbor and works of mercy. These will underline the fact that sin and its forgiveness have a social aspect.

The act of penance has some important churchspeak attached to it. It is not only about making amends, but also serve as an assistance for “a new life” and as a strengthening agent in the penitent’s life. Do confessors consider this? How do they address the confession of venial sins in this regard: do they look for ways to strengthen the spiritual life of the penitent in general?

It’s also interesting that the act of penance may cover the matter of the three pillars of Lent. But of special note is the pillar of charity. Speaking from my own experience, this is fairly common among confessors I’ve had while on retreat.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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3 Responses to RP 18: Confession

  1. About the name of this sacrament…

    Yes, you have something of a point about simply calling it “confession,” except that specificity helps in homilies and bulletin and sign messages.

    I’ve thought that you could call it the sacrament of absolution, drawing attention to the gracious “core” of the sacrament, as it were.

  2. FrMichael says:


    “I was criticized for advocating accuracy in speaking about the sacrament of penance,”

    No, you were criticized for stating that Catholics who used the alternative term “Confession” had a deficient understanding of the sacrament, at least in regards to its liturgical nature.

    “That said, a person who clings to the terminology ‘confession’ might still be rooted in the liturgical poverty of the sacrament.”

    True, but likewise someone using the term “Reconciliation” might also be rooted in the liturgical poverty of the sacrament. I don’t think nomenclature has anything to do with how Catholics perceive the liturgical nature of this sacrament. I believe that is more of how they actually experience this sacrament in their own specific parish, both in the confessional as well as the Reconciliation Servies. If the priest treats it as a non-liturgical sacrament (as bizarre as that sounds), then that’s what they will think of it, regardless of what it is called.

    My 2 cents.

  3. FrMichael says:

    As regards to n. 18, where is the Confiteor customary? I have heard it from individual penitents but couldn’t really tie it to a specific ethnicity or place. Is there an area of the world where Catholics are catechized to include it within confession?

    In answer to your question, I try to give penances and advice specific to the sins confessed. The advice is easier than the penances, truthfully. Happily, sometimes advice and penance are easily combined: having penitents read James 3 for those who use foul language, for example. Assigning the practice of virtues contrary to the capital sins confessed is another relatively easy means to give an appropriate penance.

    But then there are days where the mind and heart of the confessor come up blank, and the repetitions of Our Fathers and Hail Marys are given as penances. Let’s face it, while St. John Vianney batted 1.000, most of us would be happy batting .400. That is, if I was able to give 2 out of 5 penitents a specific penance that got their attention (usually expressed as surprise or “I never thought of that before” on the other side of the screen) I would consider my time in the confessional that day a great success.

    But perceived success or not, the individual battles against evil are pretty inspiring. Even in this sad era of the neglect of this sacrament, the war for holiness still rages in many of the faithful.

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