The Sacrament of God’s Infinite Mercy
By Fr. James Buckley, F.S.S.P
When he looks at the cross, the sinner sees Love Incarnate, bruised, derided, cursed and defiled. Why, he asks, have you, my God, suffered such unspeakable torments?
And the answer of the Crucified is: “For you and for your sins.” If any Catholic thought often and seriously about the passion of Christ, he would frequently receive the sacrament of Penance, confessing his sins with sorrow and begging the pardon of His most sweet Lord whom he repeatedly and maliciously offended. The sacrament of Penance, or confession as it is commonly called, is the treasure of the infinite mercy of Jesus Christ which is ours for the taking and yet is so often ignored.
It is no secret that in the nearly 40 years since the end of the Second Vatican Council, there has been a marked decline in confessions. In some cases the decline has been ominous. There are parish bulletins, for example, which announce that confessions will be heard by appointment only. Canon 986 clearly states, however, that those who have the care of souls are obliged to establish times for confessions which are convenient for the faithful. Canon Law also states that clerics should frequently approach the sacrament of penance themselves (cf. Canon 276.5). Despite this law, one of our country’s weekly Catholic newspapers conducted a survey a few years ago which revealed that some priests never go to confession.
Though the sacrament of Penance is neglected and in some cases abandoned, Holy Communion is received by almost who all who attend Mass. Alarmingly, however, the results of the January 1992 Gallup “Survey of Catholics Regarding Communion” showed that only 30% of Catholics believe that when they receive Holy Communion they are “really and truly receiving the body and blood, soul and divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ, under the appearance of bread and wine.” Equally alarming is the recognition that many of these communions are sacrilegious. An August 11, 1993 Gallup Poll, for instance, reported that 82% of the Catholics surveyed claimed one can use artificial birth control “and still be a good Catholic.” Such people, because they approve of a grave evil, eat and drink the Body of the Lord to their own condemnation. So too do Catholic legislators and all others who approve of this and abortion, crimes which cry to God for vengeance. They are, I hasten to say, only some of those committing sacrilege. Anyone who has an unconfessed mortal sin upon his soul, no matter how contrite he thinks he is, may not, the Council of Trent teaches, dare approach the sacred banquet unless he first removes his sin by means of a good confession.
In his encyclical Acerbo Nimis Pope St. Pius X lamented that many Catholics “have no conception of the malice and baseness of sin; hence they show no anxiety to avoid sin or renounce it.” Having first observed that God, who is infinitely good, is the sovereign Lord of all creation, St. Alphonsus Liguori draws attention to sin’s malice. “In fine,” he writes, “the sinner, when he breaks the command, says to God ‘I do not acknowledge Thee for my Lord.’ Like Pharaoh, when Moses, on the part of God, commanded him in the name of the Lord to allow the people to go into the desert, the sinner answers: ‘Who is the Lord that I should hear his voice, and let Israel go?’”
Sin is contemptuous of the law of God and an insult to the Word Incarnate. When Pilate offered to release Jesus, the Jews replied: Not this man but Barabbas. St. Alphonsus comments that every time the devil proposes for man to choose between Christ and some sinful pleasure, the sinner replies with the same contemptuous insult: Not this man but Barabbas.
Because of the contempt shown for the Creator and Redeemer through mortal sin, man justly merits the punishment of eternal damnation. It is divine and Catholic teaching that anyone who dies with a single unrepented mortal sin upon his soul will suffer forever the pain of loss and the pain of sense.
The pain of loss means that the soul in Hell will never see God. Although sinners may think that such a penalty is of no account, St. Augustine says: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and they will not rest until they rest in Thee.” In His description of the Last Judgment, moreover, our Lord condemns sinners by saying first of all: “Depart from Me, ye accursed…” (Matt. 25:41).
Besides the pain of loss, those in Hell must suffer the pain of sense. Christ warned: “It is better for thee to enter lame into life everlasting than…to be cast into the Hell of unquenchable fire: where their worm never dies and the fire is not extinguished (Mark 9:42-43).
The worm that never dies is a pain of sense which refers to the remorse of conscience suffered by the damned. As St. Alphonsus explains, there are three causes for this remorse. The sinner, first of all, will realize how little was required to save his soul. Secondly, he will remember that he lost his soul for a trifle. Lastly, he will know that he lost the Supreme Good through his own fault.
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius focuses on this remorse as well as on the other sensible torments of the damned, bidding his retreatants to consider the pains of sight, of hearing and of feeling. Such an exercise is commended by the Imitation of Christ which observes: “It is good that if love as yet reclaim thee not from evil, the fear of Hell restrain thee (Book 1, chapter 24).
The punishments of Hell are eternal. If they were not, Hell would not be so terrible. As Dante said, there is inscribed on the gate of Hell the words: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” This gate opens to admit the damned but it will not open for their departure. But of what use is it, says St. Hilary, to count years in eternity? Where you expect the end, there it begins. Death, which is so terrible in this life, is desired by the damned; but they shall never find it. And St. Augustine says, “The first death drives the unwilling soul from the body, but the second death holds the unwilling soul in the body.”
Consideration of the malice of sin and its eternal consequences naturally lead any Catholic with a grain of sense to confess his mortal sins. For that reason Pope St. Pius X rightly insisted upon proper catechetics. Not every Catholic school, it is true, can now be relied upon to provide students with an adequate knowledge of what they must believe and do to save their souls. This knowledge is nevertheless available and must be transmitted by every parent who loves his child and fears his God.
Let us therefore learn about this sacrament which can snatch us from the very gates of Hell if we but utter a heartfelt word of contrition.
Before curing the man sick with the palsy, our Lord said to him: “Son, thy sins are forgiven thee” (Mark 2:5). Hearing these words, some of the scribes accused Christ of blasphemy. In their hearts they said, “Who can forgive sins but God only?” Confounding them completely, He performed a miracle, something they could see, in order to demonstrate that He had a power they could not see, the power to forgive sins.
This power to forgive sins Christ gave to the Apostles on the night of His resurrection. He who at the Last Supper made them priests, bestowing on them authority over His physical Body, now granted them authority over His Mystical Body. Breathing on them, He said: “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain they are retained” (John 20:23).
These words indicate that the Apostles forgive sins not by their own power but by the power of God. For this reason Christ breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The words further indicate that the Apostles are empowered to forgive all sins, that this power concerns sins committed after baptism, that the power is exercised by a judicial sentence and that the power to forgive sins will remain in the Church till the end of time.
The Apostles can forgive all sins because the words, “whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them,” place no restriction on this authority. Sins are remitted or retained only insofar as sinners are under the authority of the Apostles. But it was through baptism that men became subject to the Apostles. Therefore, the power to forgive sins was given to the Apostles to remove sins committed after baptism. Moreover, since the Apostles were given the power to forgive or to retain sins, they had to know what guilty people did and whether they were worthy of absolution or condemnation. Therefore, they had to exercise this power by a judicial act. The power to absolve was not conferred on the Apostles for their use alone; it was given to them in the same way as the powers of preaching, ruling and baptizing which will remain until the end of the world. The power to forgive sins, therefore, is perpetual because there will always be sins to be forgiven.
Catholic priests who have faculties from their bishops, the successors of the Apostles, possess this power. Since priests absolve by the authority they receive from God, their own sinfulness does not prevent absolution. In commenting on John 4:2 (“Though Jesus himself did not baptize, but His disciples”), St. Augustine said that whether Peter baptizes or Judas baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes. We can also say that whether Peter absolves or Judas absolves, it is Christ who absolves.
What distinguishes the sacrament of Penance from all the other sacraments is that Penance removes mortal sin committed after baptism. Venial sin is also taken away by this sacrament but venial sin can be removed in other ways. The worthy reception of the Eucharist, for instance, takes away venial sin.
“Mortal” and “venial” sin are terms not found in the scriptures but they capture the reality expressed there. Venial sin is a less serious offense against the law of God. Because it is less serious, it can exist in the soul of a just man, i.e. one in whom the Trinity dwells through sanctifying grace. As the Book of Proverbs says: “A just man falls seven times a day” (Prov. 24:16). Mortal sin, on the other hand, comes from the Latin mors, mortis meaning death and describes the sin which removes sanctifying grace from the soul. St. Paul in chapter six of his first letter to the Corinthians indicates this kind of sin when he says: “Know you not that the unjust shall not possess the kingdom of God? Do not err: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor liars with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners shall possess the kingdom of God” (I Cor. 6:9-10).
Catholic catechisms instruct the faithful that to commit mortal sin, three things are necessary. The sin committed must be grave. Secondly, one must know that it is grave. Thirdly, one must freely consent to it. It must be stated further that if a man freely consents to doing something which he erroneously thinks is mortally sinful, he commits mortal sin. He is guilty of mortal sin because he willingly did what he thought was a mortal sin. This is also true if being in doubt that what he is about to do is mortally sinful, he nevertheless does it. In such a case, he is also willing to commit mortal sin.
For all those who are in mortal sin, the Council of Trent teaches, the sacrament of penance is as necessary for salvation as the sacrament of baptism for those not yet baptized (cf. Denzinger 895). For this reason, one can well appreciate why the Cure of Ars, who spent as many as 16 hours a day in the confessionals called Penance “the sacrament of the infinite mercy of God.”
When a Catholic goes to confession, he must tell the priest the number and kind of his unconfessed mortal sins. Since the priest needs to know what specific sins were committed, the penitent cannot be vague. The penitent cannot, for example, merely confess that he committed sins of impurity but he must mention what kind of impurity he committed. Masturbation, fornication, sodomy, and adultery are all sins of impurity but each is a different kind. Because every act of mortal sin is a mortal sin, the penitent must mention, as far as he can recollect, the number of times he committed some mortal sin.
If the penitent through fear or some other base motive withholds one of his mortal sins, then none of them are forgiven. For example, a man who stole $4,000.00 and committed adultery goes to confession and confesses the sin of adultery but because of embarrassment does not confess the sin of theft. He walks out of the confessional in a worse spiritual condition than before he entered it. When he entered, he had two mortal sins: a sin of adultery and a sin of theft. When he left he added to these sins the mortal sin of sacrilege. If he goes to communion in this state, each communion will be a sin of sacrilege. As St. Paul warned the Corinthians: “Whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord…For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord” (I Cor. 10:27,29).
If, touched by the grace of God, the sinner now wants to rid himself of his sins, what must he do? He must confess all the mortal sins he has committed since his last good confession, the one before he committed adultery and stole $4000.00. He must confess these sins as well as his sacrilegious confession and communions. He may not remember how many unworthy communions he made but he must give an approximation.
The penitent must not only confess his sins, he must have contrition for them and be willing to do the penance the priest gives him. The Council of Trent defines this contrition as “sorrow of soul and detestation for sin committed with the firm purpose of not sinning again.” This sorrow proceeds from man’s free will, not from his emotions. The detestation arises from the recognition of the malice and consequence of sin committed against God. Contrition is called perfect if its motive is sorrow for an offense against God whom the sinner loves above all things. It is called imperfect if it proceeds from a supernatural motive but not from charity. The loss of Heaven and the fear of Hell are the two most prominent motives for contrition; the others can be reduced to them. It is sufficient for absolution that one’s contrition is imperfect.
By freely accepting the penance imposed by the confessor, the penitent makes satisfaction to the justice of God outraged by his sin. Satisfaction is the voluntary suffering of punishment to make up for an injury done to God and to take away temporal punishment. The absolution of the priest removes not only mortal sin but also eternal punishment; it does not, however, always remove all the temporal punishment the sinner deserves. As the Council of Trent said: “It is entirely false and foreign to the word of God, that God never remits sin without also removing all punishment” (Denzinger 904). David, for example, was forgiven his adultery but nevertheless had to undergo many temporal punishments, especially the death of his child (cf. II Kings 12:7 ff). Because its power is from the merits of Christ, the satisfaction
in the sacrament of Penance relieves temporal punishment more abundantly and more effectively than non-sacramental satisfaction.
Confession, contrition and satisfaction are the acts of the penitent. It is the absolution of the priest, who acts in the person of Christ, which removes sin and also some of the temporal punishment, restores sanctifying grace to those in mortal sin, and confers special sacramental grace to avoid sins in the future. The soul of the man who committed adultery, stole $4.000 and received Penance and the Eucharist sacrilegiously was spiritually dead but through confession was brought to life again because this is the sacrament of the infinite mercy of God.
All unconfessed mortal sins must be confessed. If a man has no unconfessed mortal sin, he may still receive the grace of the sacrament by confessing some venial sin or even some sin already confessed and forgiven. Such a confession is called a confession of devotion. Though it is necessary to confess all mortal sins, it is not necessary in a confession of devotion to confess all venial sins. Some sin, however, must be confessed.
In a celebrated passage from the encyclical Mystici Corporis, Pope Pius XII praised the practice of frequent confessions of devotion. “As you well know, venerable brethren,” the Pontiff wrote, “it is true that venial sins may be expiated in many ways, which are highly to be commended. But to ensure more rapid progress day by day in the path of virtue, We will that the pious practice of frequent confession, which was introduced into the Church by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, should be earnestly advocated. By it genuine knowledge is increased, Christian humility grows, bad habits are corrected, spiritual neglect and tepidity are resisted, the conscience is purified, the will strengthened, a salutary self control is attained and grace is increased in virtue of the sacrament itself.”
“The value of the confession of venial sins,” writes Abbot Benedict Baur, “lies furthermore in this: that the power of the sacrament not merely blots out these sins but also undoes their evil consequences in the soul more fully than is the case when venial sins are forgiven outside Confession. Thus, for instance, when venial sins are forgiven in Confession a greater part of the temporal punishment due to them is forgiven than would be outside the sacrament with the same sentiments of contrition. But especially the sacrament of Penance cures the soul from the weakness that follows venial sin and from the weariness and coldness toward the things of God and the inclination toward worldliness that venial sin brings; it delivers the soul from its reawakened inordinate inclinations and instincts and from the domination of concupiscence: and all this by its sacramental power, in other words, by the power of Christ Himself. Moreover, the confession of venial sins gives the soul an interior freshness, a new aspiration and impetus toward self-surrender to God and toward the cultivation of the supernatural life: results that are not usually produced at all when venial sin is forgiven outside Confession” (Frequent Confession, p. 45-46).
Sacramental Confession is a meeting with Christ in the person of the priest. No one should avoid His gentle, welcoming Presence in this saving sacrament.
The words of St. Ignatius, kneeling before the image of Christ crucified, should be etched on the memory of every Catholic: “Christ died for me; what have I ever done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What will I do for Christ?”
These words bring in their train the Reproaches of the Good Friday liturgy:
“My people, what have I done to thee or in what have I grieved thee? Answer Me.
“Because I have led you out of the land of Egypt, you have prepared a cross for your Savior.
“What more ought I do for you that I have not done? For your sake I have stuck the Egyptian in their firstborn children and you have handed Me over to be scourged.
“I have led you out of Egypt…and you have handed Me over to the chief priests.
“I opened the sea before you and you have opened My side with a lance.
“I have gone before you in the pillar of the cloud and you have led me to the praetorium of Pilate.
“My people, what have I done to thee or in what have I grieved thee? Answer me.”
What can we answer, but to beg His forgiveness in humble confession in the sacrament of Penance, the sacrament of the infinite mercy of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Reprinted from the Fall 2000/Winter 2001 Forum Focus, published by the Wanderer Forum Foundation.