It is not any easy matter to do penance; confession, the sincere acknowledgment of sins of which we are ashamed, in itself requires great self-conquest. On this account penance is liberally rewarded by God. Confession is, moreover, an act of profound humility, and to the humble God giveth grace (1 Pet. v. 5).
By worthily receiving the Sacrament of Penance we obtain the following graces:
1. The guilt of sin is remitted and the debt of eternal punishment; yet there remains the debt of temporal punishment to be discharged (Council of Trent, 6, 30; 14, 12).
God says in Holy Scripture: “If the wicked do penance for all the sins which he hath committed, he shall live, and not die. I will not remember all his iniquities that he hath done” (Ezech. xviii. 21). Thus Our Lord said to Magdalen: “Thy sins are forgiven thee” (Luke vii. 48). To those who confess their sins Christ is not a judge, but an advocate and protector. In the Last Judgment the sins that have been expiated by penance will be no more remembered against the sinner; they alone will be hidden, when all else is revealed. Seneca used to say: “He who repents of the wrong he has done is no longer guilty.” Through the absolution the debt of eternal punishment is changed into a temporal debt. God acts like the monarch who commutes capital punishment into imprisonment for a term of years. Holy Scripture furnishes many examples in which God imposed a penalty for sin forgiven: He forgave Adam, yet He cast him out of paradise and laid severe penances upon him. Moses, who offended God by not believing His word, was pardoned, but not permitted to enter the Land of Promise (Numb. xx. 12). The Jews who murmured in the wilderness were forgiven upon Moses intercession, but were condemned to die in the desert (Numb. xiv.). David was forgiven when he had committed two mortal sins, but the child that was born to him died (2 Kings xii. 14). No sin is left unpunished; either we punish ourselves by doing penance, or God lays chastisements upon us. For every sin satisfaction must be made either in this world or in purgatory; the more we have sinned here, the more we shall suffer hereafter. Our transgressions are rightly called debts; as debts must be paid, so sins must be blotted out.
The debt of temporal punishment for sin must be discharged either in this world or in purgatory.
In this world we make satisfaction by performing the penances enjoined on us by the priest in confession; by works voluntarily undertaken, such as prayer, fasting, almsdeeds, or other pious acts, and also by bearing patiently the punishments inflicted on us by God; for instance, accepting death willingly, and finally by gaining indulgences (Council of Trent, 14, 13).
God in His wisdom never leaves sin wholly unpunished, lest we should think lightly of it (St. Augustine).
At baptism all the punishment due to sin is remitted, but in the Sacrament of Penance this is not so. Sin committed after baptism is much more grievous than that which is committed before; those who sin before baptism sin in ignorance, but after baptism in malice, for they have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit, and consequently have a better knowledge of sin. Those who are regenerate, more over be it remembered, when they sin knowingly violate the temple of God (1 Cor. iii. 17), and are guilty of breaking their promise; for by sin on the one hand they banish the Holy Ghost Who dwells within them, and on the other hand they break the solemn vows taken at baptism. A good father forgives his child’s disobedience the first time, if he promises amendment; but if the child repeats the offense, his father forgives him, but does not this time let him go unpunished. God acts in a similar manner; at baptism He remits both the sin and its penalty hut afterwards He is not so indulgent to the transgressor.
The more perfect our contrition., the greater will be the amount of the punishment remitted to us.
“Many sins are forgiven her, for she loved much,” Our Lord said of Magdalen. Sometimes God touches the heart of man so profoundly that his contrition avails for the complete remission both of sin and its penalty.
2. The Holy Spirit returns to the repentant sinner, and imparts to him sanctifying grace; and the merits of all the good works he formerly performed while in a state of grace are restored to him again.
The contrite sinner, like the prodigal son, receives a beautiful robe, sanctifying grace, and a ring is placed on his finger, a token of divine charity. Traces of our sins will, it is true, always be apparent on the white robe of sanctifying grace, but having been washed out by penance, they will not disfigure its beauty. Penance is a ladder whereby we may ascend again to the place whence we have fallen. The heart that is full of sin is the habitation of swine; by penance it becomes the dwelling-place of the Most High. Penance is a crucible wherein base metal is changed to silver. It would indeed be a miracle, if by a single word some one were to make the black skin of the negro white. Yet a greater wonder is worked by the words of absolution, spoken over the penitent sinner, for thereby the soul, which through sin was black as ink, becomes white as snow. When the sinner is restored to a state of grace, as a matter of course he is again a child of God, an heir of heaven, capable of performing meritorious works. Another effect of penance is that the merit of all good works done formerly in a state of grace is recovered. For the merit of all those works was lost through mortal sin (Ezech. xviii. 24); not because God withdrew their merit on account of the mortal man, but because man made them of no effect. So a meadow, parched by long drought, recovers its verdure under the influence of gentle rain and soft sunshine.
If before confession we are already in a state of grace, we receive an increase of grace.
Any one who is free from mortal sin, or who has perfect contrition, is in a state of grace before confession. The greater the degree of sanctifying grace we possess here, the higher will be our degree of glory hereafter; hence let no one say it is useless for him to go to confession, as he has no mortal sin on his conscience. Those who speak thus are, alas! too often living in mortal sin.
3. Through the indwelling of the Holy Ghost we obtain great peace of mind, nay, great consolations, if our conversion be sincere.
Penance gives us peace of mind. The Holy Ghost is a comforter (John xiv. 26). When we have relieved our soul by confession, a deep peace ensues, as the sea became calm as soon as the sinful prophet Jonas had been cast out of the ship. The Sacrament of Penance distills balm on the wounds of the soul; it relieves us of a heavy burden. The restoration of one’s peace of mind often has a beneficial effect upon the body, and contributes to the recovery of health. Hence the saints used to exhort the sick to receive the sacraments. To the contrite sinner great consolations are often given. Our Lord says: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. v. 5). On the return of the prodigal son, his father caused the fatted calf to be killed, and a merry banquet was held, with music and dancing (Luke xv.). Thus God acts with regard to the repentant sinner whose conversion is real; He makes him to abound in consolations and spiritual delights. In fact the grievous sinner seems in reality to fare better than the just man; remember what the elder son said to his father respecting the reception given to the prodigal (Luke xv. 29). By these consolations God encourages us to walk more resolutely in the toilsome path of virtue; for the penitent has a sharp conflict to wage with his corrupt nature. When first we enter upon the way of holiness, God lavishes these consolations upon us; later on He withdraws them, lest they should prove prejudicial to us. Therefore we ought to render Him thanks when He deprives us of them.
4, The Holy Spirit imparts to us the strength necessary to overcome sin.
The converted sinner is like one recovering from an illness; his former strength has to be regained. By penance the broken limb is set, and its power restored. The might of the Holy Spirit is communicated to the newly-converted, to enable him to resist evil. Confession serves to keep us from falling into sin in future, as well to cleanse us from past offences. Converted sinners are generally faithful and zealous servants of God. On this account Our Lord says that “there is joy in heaven upon one that doth penance, more than upon ninety-nine just persons” (Luke xv. 7). Which is to be preferred, the soldier who has evaded the battle, or the one who has fled from the field, but returns to the attack, to repair his fault, and has valiantly routed the enemy? The former is the tepid Christian, the latter the fervent penitent.
Yet these graces are only given if the Sacrament of Penance is received worthily; they are given abundantly if the Sacrament is received frequently.
The more often a house is purified the cleaner it is; so it is with the soul of the Christian. The more frequently he goes to confession, the more thoroughly he casts off the yoke of the devil; for as a bird does not generally return to build its nest again in a place whence it has been driven away, so the evil one is not so prompt to molest the soul whence he has been expelled by confession. confession once a year suffices to make one a member of the Catholic Church, but it is not sufficient for the welfare of the soul. As well might one expect a house to be clean that was only swept out once a year. The Christian who only goes annually to confession is like Absalom, who only had his hair polled once a year (2 Kings xiv. 26); in the hour of temptation he is in danger of being caught and held fast, as Absalom was in the branches of the oak.
This article, The Effects of Penance is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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