Last summer, as distant church bells tolled at 12:00 p.m., I heard a group of ladies recall stopping to pray the Angelus as Catholic grammar school students. One said she could not remember the prayer’s words. Another replied that she could barely remember the words of the Act of Contrition. The first rejoined, “But we don’t need to know the Act of Contrition anymore. No one goes to confession these days.”
She was right about that last point: compared to the number of people at Sunday Mass, penitents at Saturday confession today are very sparse indeed. But the comment conveys something more profound: the Act of Contrition now seems irrelevant because so many Catholics have lost a sense of sin. If there is no sin, then the sacrament of reconciliation – also called penance or confession – that was given by Christ to forgive sins and to reconcile the sinner with God – to say nothing of Christ’s Cross – all seem curious oddities.
On this page, Brad Miner has described the contemporary loss of the sense of sin, just as, in a different way, Pope John Paul II did twenty-five years ago. According to John Paul, a “sense of sin” is “an acute perception of the seeds of death contained in sin” that the Christian mind has developed from man’s closeness to God and immersion in the Gospel. In the pope’s analogy, a sense of sin is the thermometer of man’s moral conscience. Today the thermometer does not register the presence of sin because sin has been clouded over by social sciences that blame unjust social structures for our ills. Lingering guilt pangs should be treated in therapy. The tide of secularism and sexual license have also contributed to consigning sin to the dusty recesses of the Church’s past, so that in today’s dictatorship of relativism the only sin one can commit is to call someone else’s act a sin.
In this atmosphere, how are Catholics to understand the sacrament of reconciliation? The triumph of the therapeutic has not diminished suffering in the world and in individual lives. Individuals still make deliberately wrong choices that inflict pain and harm on themselves and others. Catholics call these choices sins because they transgress God’s order. To sin is to choose our way over God’s. Our sins cause the kind of pain and suffering that, as Miner wrote, affirm we need more than treatment: we need salvation. That is, we need something from outside of ourselves to save us, to lift us up, and grant us true and certain peace. Enter Jesus Christ and the sacrament of reconciliation.
Since Vatican II, the Church has called this sacrament “reconciliation” to emphasize its role in restoring one’s relationship with God. Sin, depending on its gravity (venial or mortal), damages or even destroys one’s relationship with God. Through the ministry of the Church (“Whose sins you shall forgive. . .”), Christ Himself established this sacrament whereby one receives forgiveness and is restored to harmony with God. The sacrament requires three acts by the penitent (the one seeking forgiveness): first, contrition (genuine sorrow for sins committed and the resolution to sin no more; this is the fruit of examining one’s conscience); second, confession of sins to a priest; and third, penance (prayers or works done to make reparation for the confessed sins). The priest, acting in the name of Christ Himself, imparts absolution, by which confessed sins are pardoned forever.
It is often asked why Catholics must confess their sins to a priest rather than directly to God. The answer lies in the very nature of sacraments themselves: sacraments are visible human signs of God transmitting invisible grace to man. When penitents confess their sins to a priest, through the words of absolution – the “visible” sign – they know without doubt that God has forgiven their sins. Even if penitents still feel some remorse or guilt, their souls have been washed clean in the Precious Blood of Christ that was poured out on the Cross. (What was the Crucifixion about if not to redeem us from sin?) They have the Church’s guarantee that this is so. Those who confess their sins “directly to God” receive no such assurance. Just as God the Father sacrificed His Son to make us visibly certain of His love for us, Christ has established the sacrament of reconciliation to make us visibly certain of His forgiveness of our sins.
It is common today to consign serious sins – and therefore the sacrament of reconciliation – to murderers and bank robbers. There’s no need, it seems, for a “good person” to go to confession. St. Thomas Aquinas and countless other saints assert the opposite. Reconciliation is a sacramental step toward living a holy life, and as a result we should seek it often. Because by examining our consciences and confessing regularly, we see where we must improve on the long road of Christian charity. The sacrament of reconciliation, in addition to forgiving sins, also imparts spiritual strength to grow in virtue and witness for the faith.
As we know, the Devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world he does not exist. Satan has done himself one better in short-circuiting our belief in sin. Recovering a sense of sin is vital for full appreciation of Jesus’ love for us, and His mission of reconciling us with God – which we relive each time we approach the sacrament of reconciliation. The Catholic Thing