‘A second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck of lost grace.’ Since the first centuries of Christianity, the sacrament of Penance has been described in this manner (cf. Dz 1542). A vivid and eloquent image, indeed, for when a soul loses its baptismal innocence by committing a serious transgression, it falls like a person drowning into the murky waves of sin. In order not to suffer eternal perdition and to recover the lost treasure of grace, one must have recourse to Confession, the secure plank of salvation for the baptized who do not wish to perish. However, this divine remedy comes with certain conditions. Does God always pardon? Does He pardon even those who do not wish to escape from the seas of sin? Such an important topic requires a profound analysis.
Enter the various parts of our study
I – Confidence in God’s goodness does not mean the abuse of His mercy
II – The Sacrament of Penance requires good dispositions
I – Confidence in God’s goodness does not mean the abuse of His mercy
One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked. Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you” (Jn 5:5,8-9,14).
There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Lk 13:1-5).
“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few”(Mt 7:13-14).
In this way, the Gospel of meekness and humility is in cadence with the Gospel of exigent morality and even of severe threats to those who do not wish to convert. There is no contradiction between one and the other. Jesus lives from the truth he announces and from the love that he reveals, and this love is demanding just as is the truth from which it is derived. (John Paul II. General audience, June 8, 1988)
In effect, a spiritual renovation cannot take place without passing through penitential conversion, both as a permanent and interior attitude of the believer and as an exercise of the virtue which corresponds to the invitation of the Apostle to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20), as well as through access to the pardon of God through the Sacrament of Penance. It is effectively a requirement of this same ecclesial condition that no Catholic omit that which is necessary in order to maintain oneself in the life of grace, and to do all possible in order not to fall into sin (which would separate one from it), and in this way be continually prepared to partake of the Body and Blood of the Lord, and thus be of service to all the Church by one’s own personal sanctification, and by the increasing commitment to the service of the Lord. (John Paul II. Aperite portas Redemptori, no. 4. Bull of the Convocation of the Jubilee for the 1950th anniversary of the Redemption, January 6, 1983)
He who is already a member of Christ must learn of necessity to keep a rein upon himself. Only so will he be able to drive away the enemy of his soul and keep his baptismal innocence unsullied, or regain God’s grace when it is lost by sin. To become a member of Holy Church by baptism is to be clothed in the beauty with which Christ adorns His beloved Bride. “Christ loved the Church and delivered Himself up for her; that he might sanctify her, cleansing her in the bath of water by means of the word of life; in order that he might present to himself the Church in all her glory, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Eph 5:26-27). This being so, well may those sinners who have stained the white robe of their sacred baptism fear the just punishments of God. Their remedy is “to wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb” (Apoc 7: 14)—to restore themselves to their former splendor in the sacrament of Penance—and to school themselves in the practice of Christian virtue. (John XXIII. Encylical Paenitentiam agere, On the Need for the Practice of Interior and Exterior Penance, no.12-14, July 1, 1962)
Even when we have to struggle continually with the same failings, it is important to resist the coarsening of our souls and the indifference which would simply accept that this is the way we are. It is important to keep pressing forward, without scrupulosity, in the grateful awareness that God forgives us ever anew – yet also without the indifference that might lead us to abandon altogether the struggle for holiness and self-improvement. (Benedict XVI. Letter to Seminarians, no. 3, October 18, 2010)
The discussed “crisis” of the Sacrament of Penance, frequently calls into question priests first of all and their great responsibility to teach the People of God the radical requirements of the Gospel. In particular, it asks them to dedicate themselves generously to hearing sacramental confessions; to guide the flock courageously so that it does not conform to the mindset of this world (cf. Rom 12:2) but may even be able to make decisions that run counter to the tide, avoiding adjustments and compromises. (Benedict XVI. Speech to Participants in the Internal Forum Course Organized by the Apostolic Penitentiary, March 11, 2010)
But here the faithful are to be admonished to guard against the danger of becoming more prone to sin, or slow to repentance, from a presumption that they can have recourse to this power of forgiving sins which is so complete and, as we saw, unrestricted as to time. For, as such a propensity to sin would manifestly convict them of acting injuriously and contumaciously to this divine power, and would therefore render them unworthy of the divine mercy; so this slowness to repentance gives great reason to fear that, overtaken by death, they may in vain confess their belief in the remission of sins, which by their tardiness and procrastination they deservedly forfeited. (The Catechism of Trent, no. 1100)
So therefore, brethren, we have a season of mercy, let us not on that account flatter or indulge ourselves saying, “God spareth ever. Behold what I did yesterday God spared; I do so today also, and God spareth; I will do so tomorrow also because God spareth.” Thou heedest His mercy, but fearest not his judgment. If thou wish to sing of mercy and judgement, understand that He spareth that thou mayest amend, not that thou mayest remain in thy wickedness. (Saint Augustine. Exposition on Psalm 100 (101), no. 3)
Who is deceived by hoping? He who says, God is good, God is merciful, let me do what I please, what I like; let me give loose reins to my lusts, let me gratify the desires of my soul. Why this? Because God is merciful, God is good, God is kind. These men are in danger by hope. (Saint Augustine. Homilies on the Gospel of John, Tractate 33, no. 8)
For as Paul warns you: “Stand therefore, having fastened the belt of truth around your waist, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace.” (Eph 6:14-15) There is mention of being shod, also of a staff and breastplate. Moses speaks to those who prepare to commence a journey, and Paul gives orders to those who prepare themselves to begin a battle. The former left one land to travel to another, and so are called travelers, but I am going from earth to heaven, and that is why I am a soldier. Why? Because my path through the air is infested with thieves, and demons come out along the way. For this reason, I bear confidence as an unsheathed sword; and for this reason I wear the breastplate of justice; for this reason I gird myself with truth. For I am not merely a traveler, but also a soldier. “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life! (Mt 7:14)” (Saint John Chrysostom. II Homily on Abraham)
II – The Sacrament of Penance requires good dispositions
And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Jn 20:22-23)
The role of evangelization is precisely to educate people in the faith in such a way as to lead each individual Christian to live the sacraments as true sacraments of faith–and not to receive them passively or reluctantly. (Paul VI. Apostolic exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi, no. 47, December 8, 1975)
It is called the sacrament of conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus’ call to conversion, the first step in returning to the Father from whom one has strayed by sin.
It is called the sacrament of Penance, since it consecrates the Christian sinner’s personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance, and satisfaction. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1423)
Whereas, in Penance, the offense is atoned according to the will of the sinner, and the judgment of God against Whom the sin was committed, because in the latter case we seek not only the restoration of the equality of justice, as in vindictive justice, but also and still more the reconciliation of friendship, which is accomplished by the offender making atonement according to the will of the person offended. Accordingly the first requisite on the part of the penitent is the will to atone, and this is done by contrition; the second is that he submit to the judgment of the priest standing in God’s place, and this is done in confession; and the third is that he atone according to the decision of God’s minister, and this is done in satisfaction. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica III, q.90, a.2, resp.)
Contrition, which has the first place among the aforementioned acts of the penitent, is a sorrow of the soul and a detestation of sin committed, with a determination of not sinning in the future. This feeling of contrition is, moreover, necessary at all times to obtain the forgiveness of sins, and thus for a person who has fallen after baptism it especially prepares for the remission of sins, if it is united with trust in divine mercy and with the desire of performing the other things required to receive this sacrament correctly. (Denzinger-Hünermann 1676. Council of Trent, section XIV. November 25, 1551. Doctrine about the Sacrament of Penance. Ch. 4: Contrition)
Understood in this way, contrition is therefore the beginning and the heart of conversion, of that evangelical metanoia which brings the person back to God like the prodigal son returning to his father, and which has in the sacrament of penance its visible sign and which perfects attrition. Hence “upon this contrition of heart depends the truth of penance. (John Paul II. Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et penitencia, no. 31, December 2, 1984)
As such, this sacrament was instituted for the pardon of sins committed after baptism, and within it the baptized play an active role. They are not limited to receiving a ritual and formal pardon, as passive participants. On the contrary, with the help of grace, they take the initiative to battle against sin, confessing their sins and asking pardon for them. The baptized know that this sacrament implies on their part, an act of conversion. (John Paul II. General Audience, no. 1, April 15, 1992)
To receive the salvific remedy of the sacrament of penance, a member of the Christian faithful must be disposed in such a way that, rejecting sins committed and having a purpose of amendment, the person is turned back to God. (Code of Canon Law, no. 987)
When we read in Scripture that certain persons did not obtain pardon from God, even though they earnestly implored it, we know that this was due to the fact that they had not a true and heartfelt sorrow for their sins. (Catechism of Trent, no. 2400)
Jesus sent the adulterous woman away with this recommendation: ‘Go, and do not sin again’. He forgives her so that ‘from now on’ she will sin no more. In a similar episode, that of the repentant woman, a former sinner whom we come across in Luke’s Gospel (cf. Lk 7:36-50), he welcomed a woman who had repented and sent her peacefully on her way. Here, instead, the adulterous woman simply receives an unconditional pardon. In both cases – for the repentant woman sinner and for the adulterous woman – the message is the same. In one case it is stressed that there is no forgiveness without the desire for forgiveness, without opening the heart to forgiveness; here it is highlighted that only divine forgiveness and divine love received with an open and sincere heart give us the strength to resist evil and ‘to sin no more’, to let ourselves be struck by God’s love so that it becomes our strength. (Benedict XVI. Homily, visit to the Roman Parish of St. Felicity and her children, Martyrs, Sunday, 25 March 2007)
Then there is a close connection between holiness and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, witnessed by all the saints of history. The real conversion of our hearts, which means opening ourselves to God’s transforming and renewing action, is the “driving force” of every reform and is expressed in a real evangelizing effort. In confession, through the freely bestowed action of divine Mercy, repentant sinners are justified, pardoned and sanctified and abandon their former selves to be reclothed in the new.(Benedict XVI. To participants in a course organized by the Apostolic Penitentiary, 9 March 2012)
Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must “make satisfaction for” or “expiate” his sins. This satisfaction is also called “penance”. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1459)
For, without doubt, these satisfactions greatly restrain from sin, and as by a kind of rein act as a check, and make penitents more cautious and vigilant in the future; they also remove the remnants of sin, and destroy vicious habits acquired by living evilly through acts contrary to virtue. Neither was there ever in the Church of God any way considered more secure for warding off impending punishment by the Lord than that men perform these works of penance. (Denzinger-Hünermann 1690. Council of Trent, session XIV, November 25, 1551. Doctrine on the Sacrament of Penance, Ch. 8. The Necessity and Fruit of Satisfaction)