Looking around at the evil and suffering we encounter on television and computer screens, in our communities, in our families, and even staring back at us in the mirror, it can be difficult to believe that Christ came 2,000 years ago to heal our world. We sure don’t look redeemed. 

The tension between sin and reconciliation, though, is at the heart of the mission of the Catholic Church. Christ told his apostles to teach “repentance and forgiveness of sins,” and empowered them to be ministers of God’s mercy. It is carried on today in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. 

That’s why the low percentage of confession-going Catholics is so disturbing. According to data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University only a quarter of U.S. Catholics say they go to confession at least once a year — the bare minimum required — but 42 percent say they never go. 

We cannot pass on what we ourselves don’t have, and what we receive from confession is definitely worth having. Pope Benedict XVI recently noted, “In the Sacrament of Penance, the crucified and risen Christ purifies us through his ministers with his infinite mercy, restores us to communion with the heavenly Father and with our brothers and makes us a gift of his love, his joy and his peace.” 

The pope has also described confession as a means of “spiritual rebirth” through our encounter with “the boundless renewing power of divine love, love that gives back life.” 

No wonder he’s a fan. And why we should be, too. 

This little guide is meant to teach you some things you might not know, remind you of others you once learned but perhaps forgot, and inspire you to recommit daily to seeking closer friendship with God through repentance and fighting sin — wherever it is found.

Confession, then and now

When did Jesus institute the Sacrament of Penance? When he appeared to the apostles on Easter Sunday night. In the Gospel of John, Jesus breathes on the apostles and tells them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (20:22-23). 

What was confession like in the early Church? The Sacrament of Penance looked a lot different in the early Church. In St. Paul’s writings (for example, 1 Cor 5:3-5; 2 Cor 2:7-11), we see the apostles’ role in placing sinners under bans of excommunication and then reconciling them. It also seems there was an initial custom of public confession of sins, but that seems to have ended early on; by the fifth century, Church leaders actively discouraged the practice. 

In some regions, it was common for people guilty of serious sins (like apostasy, adultery or murder) to be enrolled as “public penitents,” meaning they dressed in sackcloth and ashes and performed prescribed penances and almsgiving. They then would be reconciled publicly with the Church on the Thursday before Easter. 

The Irish? How are they involved? We owe it to Irish monks for several innovations that led to the practice of the Sacrament of Penance as we recognize it today. They formalized the practice of confession of sins made privately to a priest, and under a seal of secrecy, and absolution was granted before penance, usually also private, was performed. This Celtic practice of immediate absolution became very popular and was spread throughout Europe through the Irish monks’ missionary endeavors. 

But the theology still had to catch up. During the Middle Ages, theologians all recognized penance as a sacrament of the Church, but disagreed on fine points like whether forgiveness came about through the grace of the person’s sorrow, or through the grace of the priest’s absolution. St. Thomas Aquinas, using scholastic terms, defined the “matter” of the sacrament as the penitent’s sorrow, and the “form” as the priest’s absolution. 

The second Council of Lyons, France, in 1274 formally defined penance as a sacrament. 

But it was the Council of Trent, Italy, in the mid-16th century that really made extensive clarifications to the sacrament. It devoted some nine chapters and 15 canons on sin and penance. 

The Second Vatican Council also dwelled on the sacrament, emphasizing its healing nature.

What Did Jesus Say About Sin? (Sidebar)

At every Mass, we proclaim that Jesus is the “Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world.” What did Jesus himself have to say about sin and repentance? 

  •  In both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ first public words are “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mt 4:17; see Mk 1:15).
  •  He healed the sins of the paralyzed man and of the woman caught in adultery (Mk 2:5; Jn 8:11).
  •  He preached on God’s desire to reconcile us with the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin and prodigal son (Lk 15).
  •  He taught us how to be brutal toward sin, instructing us in the Sermon on the Mount that it would be better to rip out our eyes or cut off our hands if they were leading us to sin than to do nothing and lose our bodies and souls forever in hell (Mt 5:29-30).
  •  He taught us to pray to the Father to forgive us our sins and to bring us to forgive the relatively smaller debts of those who sin against us (Mt 6:12; 18:21-35).
  •  On the cross, as he prepared to die to take away our sins, Jesus’ salvific words were, first for sinners in general, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” and then for one sinner, the Good Thief, in particular (Lk 23:34,43).
  • After his resurrection, not only did Jesus give the apostles the ability to forgive sins in his name but he commanded them to preach “repentance and forgiveness of sins” to all nations (Jn 20:21-23; Lk 24:47). 

That’s what the Church continues through preaching repentance and making Jesus’ mercy available through the Sacrament of Penance. 

— adapted from a resource at www.thelightisonforyou.org

Sacrament of Penance

Confession is sometimes referred to not only as the Sacrament of Penance but also the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This is the case in much modern theological writing as well as the official introduction to the 1973 Rite of Penance, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on reconciliation and penance issued in 1984, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. 

What’s the difference?

There is nothing controversial or novel about the distinction between reconciliation and penance in relation to confession, as long as one does not set them in opposition or suggest that there is no relationship between them. 

Reconciliation and penance are two different aspects of the sacrament. Reconciliation refers primarily to the process by which someone who is in serious sin returns to the full communion of the Church through confession and absolution. 

Penance refers to the process by which someone who is guilty of lesser sins and who has not broken communion with the Church through mortal sin continues his or her life in the Church by spiritual growth and conversion via sacramental confession. 

This distinction between reconciliation and penance also serves to orient people as they prepare for the sacrament. (The Catechism also refers to it as the “Sacrament of Forgiveness” and the “Sacrament of Conversion.”) 

For example, elderly people are sometimes inclined to think that they are wasting the priest’s time by going to confession when they have no mortal sins — and, unfortunately, priests sometimes compound that impression by easily dismissing less serious sins or whatever it is that the penitent wishes to talk about. 

By the same token, the Church, in requiring that first confession take place around the age of 7, is not suggesting that all 7-year-olds are in mortal sin or that they are in need of reconciliation. First confession should be seen primarily in its penitential rather than its reconciliatory mode. 

— Msgr. M. Francis Mannion 

Steps in the Rite of Reconciliation

The penitent can go to confession privately behind a screen or face-to-face with the priest. 

1. Begin by making the Sign of the Cross and greeting the priest: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” 

2. Then continue: “My last confession was ... (weeks, months, or years) ago.” 

3. Confess your sins to the priest. He will help you make a good confession. If you are unsure of how to confess or you feel uneasy, ask him to help you. Answer his questions without hiding anything out of fear or shame. Place your trust in God, a merciful Father who wants to forgive you. 

4. Following your confession of sins, say: “I am sorry for these and all of my sins.” 

5. The priest will assign you a penance and offer advice to help you be a better Catholic. The penance imposed will take into account your personal situation and support your spiritual good. It may be a prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service or sacrifice; but it joins us in some way to Christ and to the cross. 

6. Say an Act of Contrition, expressing sorrow for your sins. 

7. The priest, acting in the person of Christ, then will absolve you from your sins by saying the Prayer of Absolution, to which you make the Sign of the Cross and respond, “Amen.” 

8. The priest will offer some proclamation of praise, such as “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good,” to which you respond, “His mercy endures forever.” 

9. The priest will dismiss you. Because sin often harms others, you must make satisfaction for your sins by completing your penance. It is good practice to perform it as soon as you are able. 

The humility required in confessing and completing penance helps us submit to God’s will and follow him more closely. Confession is a blessing, offering peace, a clear mind and a hopeful heart.

 --Father Kris Stubna, "How to Make a Good Confession" OSV pamphlet

Why Should We Confess? (sidebar)

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a sacrament of healing and a sacrament of conversion, returning us to the Father after our sin. We are to confess serious sins at least once a year; those aware of committing a mortal sin must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before receiving Holy Communion. 

The Church also encourages us to go to confession more frequently, if possible, in order that we might deepen our relationship with God and grow in humility and virtue. 

Through the sacrament we also receive the grace to help us avoid future sin (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1458). 

Why do we need to confess to a priest? The short answer is that is the way Jesus set it up on Easter Sunday evening. “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,” he told his apostles.

Making a good confession 

Three acts are required from the penitent for forgiveness through the sacrament. These are contrition, confession and satisfaction. 

Contrition is sincere sorrow for having offended God, the most important act of the penitent. There can be no forgiveness of sin if we do not have sorrow and a firm resolve to not repeat our sin. 

Confession requires confronting our sins in a profound way before God by acknowledging them aloud to a priest. 

Satisfaction is the “penance” the priest imposes on the penitent to make amends for sin, an important part of our healing. 

Confession is not difficult, but it does require prayerful preparation. We review our lives since our last confession, searching for thoughts, words and actions that did not conform to God’s love, to his law, or to the laws of the Church. This review is called an “examination of conscience.” 

To make an examination of conscience, we should: 

  •  Begin with a prayer asking for God’s help. 
  • Review our lives against the Ten Commandments, the beatitudes or some guiding questions.
  • Tell God we are truly sorry for our sins.
  • Make a firm resolution to avoid sin.

 Mortal Sin? (sidebar)

Church law requires Catholics to go to confession at least once a year to confess “mortal sins.” Of course, that’s the bare minimum, and someone who’s serious about getting closer to Jesus Christ will avail themselves of the sacrament more often; a common recommendation is once a month. 

But what is mortal sin? “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent” (CCC, No. 1857). 

Grave matter generally means something that violates one of the Ten Commandments.

Full knowledge means the person is aware the Church considers the act sinful — even if the person doesn’t fully understand why. 

Deliberate consent means that it is a personal choice. 

The consequences of mortal sin are loss of the “state of grace,” meaning exclusion from God’s kingdom ­— and eternity in hell — if we die before seeking reconciliation. Our free will, the Catechism points out, means we can make choices that last forever. 

Venial sins involve less serious matters or less consent of the will, and don’t break us off from life in God. It is recommended that they are confessed, too, because they impede our development of virtue and, unrepented, could predispose us more easily to more serious sin.

Social sin (and what it isn't)

We sometimes hear reference to situations of “social sin” or “structures of sin.” Who’s to blame for them? 

In 2008, one of the Vatican’s top officials for the Sacrament of Penance, Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, told the Vatican newspaper that the social effect of sin was greater than ever because of globalization, and therefore needed urgent Church attention. 

Bishop Girotti identified “new sins” with a social impact such as birth control, embryonic stem cell research, drug abuse, environmental irresponsibility and economic injustice, which has broadened the gap between the rich and the poor. 

In our increasingly interconnected world, some situations of injustice are so vast and complex that it is difficult to identify those who are to blame for it — so we’re tempted to blame anonymous collectives such as “the system” or “society.” 

We forget that such situations are the “result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins,” as Pope John Paul II said in his apostolic exhortation “Reconciliation and Penance.” 

That is a call to conscience for all Catholics. Social sin, the pope wrote, “is a case of the very personal sins of those who cause or support evil or who exploit it; of those who are in a position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit certain social evils but who fail to do so out of laziness, fear or the conspiracy of silence, through secret complicity or indifference; of those who take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world and also of those who sidestep the effort and sacrifice required, producing specious reasons of higher order. The real responsibility, then, lies with individuals.”

And the responsibility for eradicating social sin lies with individuals like us, too.

Regain Youth (sidebar)

In 2002, Pope John Paul II released an apostolic letter, Misericordia Dei (God’s Mercy), calling for a “vigorous revitalization” of the Sacrament of Penance. It also warned about abuses of communal absolution. 

At a press conference presenting the document was Cardinal Joseph Raztinger, then the Vatican’s doctrinal chief, now Pope Benedict XVI. He emphasized the sacrament’s liberating power: 

In the Sacrament of Penance, the simple confession of one’s guilt is presented with confidence in God’s merciful goodness. It is important to do this without falling into scruples, with the spirit of trust proper to the children of God. In this way confession can become an experience of deliverance, in which the weight of the past is removed from us and we can feel rejuvenated by the merit of the grace of God who each time gives back the youthfulness of the heart.

For More Information (sidebar)

  •  Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1420-1498, 1846-1869 
  •  United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, USCCB, 2006, Pages 233-247. 
  •  Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est (“God Is Love”), 2005 
  • Pope John Paul II, Misericordia Dei (“Mercy of God”), 2002 
  •  Pope John Paul II, Reconciliation and Penance, 1984
  •  http://www.thelightisonforyou.org/ (Resource of the Archdiocese of Boston for preparing for confession) 
  •  http://www.usccb.org/liturgy/penance.shtml


In order to respond to the call of God and start on our journey, it is not necessary to be already perfect. We know that the prodigal son’s awareness of his own sin allowed him to set out on his return journey and thus feel the joy of reconciliation with the Father. Weaknesses and human limitations do not present an obstacle, as long as they help make us more aware of the fact that we are in need of the redeeming grace of Christ. 

Pope Benedict XVI, Message for the 43rd World Day of Prayers for Vocations

To live life to the full in freedom we must overcome the test that this freedom entails - that is, temptation. Only if he is freed from the slavery of falsehood and sin can the human person, through the obedience of faith that opens him to the truth, find the full meaning of his life and attain peace, love and joy. 

Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus address, March 5, 2006

In the Sacrament of Penance, the simple confession of one’s guilt is presented with confidence in God’s merciful goodness. It is important to do this without falling into scruples, with the spirit of trust proper to the children of God. In this way confession can become an experience of deliverance, in which the weight of the past is removed from us and we can feel rejuvenated by the merit of the grace of God who each time gives back the youthfulness of the heart.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), at the release of Pope John Paul II’s 2002 document Misericordia Dei (“God’s Mercy”) 

The Sacrament of Reconciliation with God brings about a true “spiritual resurrection,” restoration of the dignity and blessings of the life of the children of God, of which the most precious is friendship with God. 

Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1468 


This is the second of a 12-part series. The next, on Church social teaching, appears March 14.


This material was assembled by OSV Newsweekly. Dominican Sister Janet Schaeffler, a former director of adult faith formation for the Archdiocese of Detroit, is project consultant.