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The Nature and the Necessity of Penance

As soon as the fish swallows the bait, he feels the smart. So it is with the sinner. Yet what God has laid upon us as a chastisement He has made the means of our salvation; He sends suffering as the chastisement of sin; but by suffering we can be delivered from sin.

Interior sorrow for sin, accompanied by sincere turning from creatures and turning to God, is generally called penance.

As a matter of fact, our whole life ought to be one continued penance. Our Lord says: “Unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish” (Luke xiii. 3). And again: “Woe to you that now laugh, for you shall mourn and weep” (Luke vi. 25). He often threatens those who only desire to enjoy life, with eternal perdition (John xii. 25). No man, even should he not be conscious of any sin, ought to depart out of this world without doing penance (St. Augustine). St. Jerome says we can no more attain everlasting life without penance, than we can get at the kernel of a nut without breaking the shell. The greatest saints used to perform severe penances for their slightest faults.

Our Lord instituted the Sacrament of Penance on the day of His resurrection, when He spoke these words to His apostles: “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (John xx. 23).

With these words Christ on the one hand imparted to the apostles the power to remit sins, and on the other laid upon the faithful the injunction to confess their sins to a priest in order to obtain the remission of them. The conditions under which forgiveness of sins is to be obtained, are indicated in the following instances: (1), the cure of the man sick of the palsy (Matt. ix.); sin is a spiritual paralysis; when sin is forgiven, a penance is imposed on the penitent, as the paralytic was commanded to carry his bed; (2), The cleansing of the leper (Matt. viii.); sin is a spiritual leprosy; the sinner must show himself to the priest, who will declare him to be clean by God’s authority; (3), The absolving of the penitent Magdalen, who cast herself at Our Lord’s feet, and heard from His lips the words: “Thy sins are forgiven thee” (Luke vii.). The sinner now acts as she did; filled with contrition, he casts himself at the feet of Christ’s representative, and obtains the pardon of his transgressions.

1. In the Sacrament of Penance the repentant Christian con fesses his sins to a duly authorized priest, who, standing in the place of God, pronounces the absolution by means of which they are forgiven.

The method of confession is this: The penitent, kneeling down in the confessional, makes the sign of the cross and receives the priest’s blessing. He recites the first part of the Confiteor, then accuses himself of his sins, and repeats the concluding part. The priest asks him any questions that may be necessary, gives him a short instruction, sets him a penance, gives him absolution and dismisses him with his blessing. The penitent then withdraws to one of the benches to say his penance, and prepare for communion, if he is about to communicate. The words of the sacerdotal absolution are these: “I absolve thee from thy sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” The absolution is a judicial act (Council of Trent, 14, 9). Like* the lightning, it consumes the sin at a flash. Even when the priest withholds the absolution, he gives the blessing. A crucifix always hangs in the confessional, sometimes a picture is added, calculated to excite contrition, such as the prodigal son, the repentant Magdalen, the sorrowing Peter, etc. In very old confessionals one may sometimes see a rose carved, as an emblem of the silence which is binding upon the confessor. The ancient Romans used to suspend a rose over the dining-table, to warn their guests not to indulge in any confidential conversation in the presence of strangers.

2. The Sacrament of Penance is indispensably necessary for those who have fallen into sin after Baptism, for without this sacrament they are unable to recover the justice they have lost (Council of Trent, 14, 1; 6, 29).

“The Sacrament of Penance is, for those who have fallen after Baptism, as necessary unto salvation as Baptism itself is for those who have not yet been regenerated” (Council of Trent, 14, 2). Hence the Fathers term this sacrament: “the second baptism,” or “the plank after shipwreck.” By Baptism we embark upon the ship that is bound for the port of salvation. By mortal sin we are shipwrecked; and in this case our only hope of rescue is by clinging to a plank. The Sacrament of Penance is that plank. No one who has been bitten by the old serpent, the devil, can be cured, unless he discovers his hurt to the physician. Through pride the sinner places himself at a distance from God; only by humility can he return to God.

The man who has fallen into mortal sin ought to approach the Sacrament of Penance as speedily as possible.

A dislocated limb must be set right at once; if not, a swelling forms and the cure becomes difficult. If a vessel leaks, the pumps must be set at work immediately, or the water will cause the ship to sink; if a house is on fire, the conflagration must be got under promptly, or the house will be burned down. If any one has taken poison, he must swallow an emetic forthwith, or he will lose his life. So it is with mortal sin. The Church does not appoint a fixed time for the forgiveness of sin; the sinner may at any time make his peace with God. Do not presume upon the long-suffering of the Most High! The longer you postpone your penance, the more rigorously will you be judged; the more severe will be your punishment. Those who put off repentance until the hour of death, often have no opportunity allowed them to reconcile themselves with their Maker (Job xxii. 16). It is the just penalty of sin that he who would not do what is right when lie could, cannot do it when he will. Our Lord says: “You shall seek Me and shall not find Me” (John vii. 34). No one knows how soon the time of grace may end. It is a sorry thing when a man begins to buy what he needs just as the yearly market is over. One of the thieves upon the cross was forgiven, that nobody might despair; but only one, that nobody might presume, and put off repentance until the hour of death. St. Bernard declares death-bed repentances to be, not examples, but miracles of grace. Those who postpone repentance will meet with the fate of the fig-tree which Our Lord, finding no fruit on it, cursed. “Trust not,” says St. Augustine, “to the morrow; for thou knowest not whether there will be any morrow for thee.” Contrition, moreover, is of little value when a man has no more opportunity to sin; in that case you do not abandon sin, but sin abandons you. Finally, on the approach of death, the sinner in his alarm becomes bewildered and frightened; he is like a traveller who, just as night closes down, discovers that he has lost his way. Besides this, the long habit of sin deprives a man of the power to do penance; he is like one who has slept heavily, and, though he wishes to get up, cannot pull himself together and rise from his bed. No one considers it safe to sleep in a half-ruined house, yet, frail as is your body, you do not scruple to live on, for weeks, months, nay, years, in a state of mortal sin.

3. Let no one be deterred by a feeling of shame from confessing his sins; the priest dare not, under any pretext, reveal what is said in the confessional, and he is ever ready to receive the contrite sinner kindly.
Furthermore, let him who is ashamed to confess to the priest now, remember that one day he will be put to confusion before the whole world, and condemned to endless misery.

The priest dare not, even to save his life, disclose the secrets of the confessional. We shall speak further on of the seal of confession. The penitent is always received with kindness by the priest. Some one who had confessed several grievous sins to St. Francis of Sales, afterwards said to him: “What can you think of me now?” The saint replied: “I think you must be a very holy person, for only the saints have made so good a confession.” Nothing gives a priest greater joy than to see that a penitent has made a full and sincere confession of all his misdeeds, for then he knows that his conversion is real. The priest is like a fisherman, who, the bigger the fish he catches, the better pleased is he. God frequently calls those who have themselves been great sinners to the care of souls, in order that they may deal more gently with transgressors. For he who knows himself to be guilty of heinous offences will be lenient towards those who have also offended. Shrink not, therefore, from confessing your sins to one who is himself a sinner; who perhaps is more deeply stained than you are. Christ did not give the power of the keys to angels, but to men. He who is ashamed of confessing to the priest will one day be put to confusion before the whole world, and be condemned to endless misery. To such a one God says: “I will show thy nakedness to the nations, and thy shame to kingdoms” (Nahum iii. 5). Far better is it to confess one’s misdeeds to the servant of God, who has compassion with the sinner, than to be put to shame in the sight of all men; far better willingly to acknowledge them once for all, than to do so compulsorily throughout all eternity. What man conceals, God reveals; what man confesses, God suppresses. Who would not rather go to confession here, than burn forever in hell? It is the devil who makes us timid and shamefaced in regard to confession. When we are about to sin he takes all fear from us, but when it is a question of acknowledging our offences, he inspires us with alarm and embarrassment. How else can it be explained that men who on the battle-field face death without fear, tremble on approaching the confessional? The early Christians did not hesitate to confess their sins openly before all the faithful; St. Augustine wrote a book of confessions, in which he acquaints all the world with his transgressions. As the sick man, if he has any sense, will gladly swallow the bitter potion which he hopes will restore him to health, so he who is spiritually sick ought not to shrink from the penance, however severe, which will cure the malady of his soul.

4. He who from a sense of shame conceals a mortal sin in confession, does not obtain forgiveness, but only adds to his other sins that of sacrilege; and exposes himself to the grave risk of dying impenitent.
Moreover all his subsequent confessions are invalid, so long as he does not confess over again all the sins of which he has been guilty since his last valid confession.

The devil acts like the wolf, who seizes the lamb by the throat, that it may not cry out; the devil stops the sinner’s mouth, that he may not confess his misdeeds. He who conceals one mortal sin in confession does not obtain forgiveness. If all the locks on a door are unfastened except one, the door cannot be opened; so it is with the soul; unless every mortal sin, those locks of the soul, are subjected to the power of the keys, wielded by the priest, the door of reconciliation cannot be unclosed. Moreover, to conceal a mortal sin in confession is to commit the grievous sin of sacrilege, which is a profanation and contempt of divine things. By concealing one sin, a man also embitters his life. Sin unconfessed is like indigestible food, which lies in the stomach and ruins the health. “Sin concealed,” says St. Augustine, “scourges the conscience, lacerates the heart, and fills the soul with anguish and terror.” Whoso lies in the confessional deceives himself, not God. To conceal a mortal sin in confession is to merit the danger of dying impenitent. Sin concealed is fatal to the life of the soul; it is like a wound which bleeds inwardly and causes death. St. Antoninus, Archbishop of Florence, speaks of a woman who purposely omitted a mortal sin in confession, and then made a sacrilegious communion; later on she repeatedly went to confession with the intention of revealing that sin, but every time failed to do so, through a false shame. Even when she lay on her deathbed, she could not prevail upon herself to mention the long-concealed sin. Just before breathing her last, she shrieked aloud: “I am damned, for ever since my youth I have concealed a mortal sin!” What a terrible thing it is, thus to abuse the Sacrament of Penance! One sacrilegious confession renders all sub sequent ones invalid. In order to return to a state of grace, under such circumstances, it is necessary not only to confess the sin wit tingly concealed, but all the other sins mentioned in the first invalid confession, as well as all that have been subsequently committed, whether they have been confessed or not. It is the same with confession as with a sum in arithmetic. If one has made the omission of a single figure in the first row, the total will be wrong, and the whole must be reckoned up over again. In the same way, if a man has buttoned his coat wrong at the top, all the other buttons must be undone to set that one right. Hence St. Bonaventure gives this advice: “Begin with the sin which it costs thee most to confess, and afterwards all the rest will come easy to thee.” When once the general is slain, the whole army will speedily be routed. If you find it very difficult to confess any sin in particular, say at least to the confessor: “There is something more, but I cannot bring myself to tell it.”


This article, The Nature and the Necessity of Penance is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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