Penance: A spiritual checkup

By Amy Kotlarz/Catholic Courier    |    03.05.2012
Category: Lent and Easter


Father Paul Bonacci often uses the importance of proper medical care as a metaphor to explain to young people the sacrament of reconciliation's healing power.

Father Bonacci, pastor of Schuyler Catholic Community in Watkins Glen and Odessa, cites the example of Jim Henson, who died of pneumonia on May 16, 1990. Though his infection could have been cured with antibiotics, the Muppet creator reportedly declined to go to the hospital until the pneumonia had overwhelmed his body.

"He stayed away from doctors who could have healed him," the priest said.

Likewise, he said, people sometimes stay away from the sacrament of reconciliation, also known as penance, even though it may be able to heal their spiritual afflictions. Instead of waiting until sin weighs heavily on their souls, they should go regularly for spiritual checkups, recommends the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

"The Lord Jesus Christ, physician of our souls and bodies, who forgave the sins of the paralytic and restored him to bodily health, has willed that his Church continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, his work of healing and salvation, even among her own members," the catechism notes.

Returning to the sacrament

Canons 988 and 989 of the Code of Canon Law spell out the prescription for such spiritual checkups. The faithful should confess in kind and in number any grave sins committed after baptism. They also are obligated to confess grave sins at least once a year, and anyone who is aware of committing a mortal sin must confess the sin before receiving Holy Communion.

Yet for some Catholics, reconciliation happens more infrequently.

"If you have made your first Communion or confirmation, youíve probably gone to confession," said Father James Fennessy, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Waterloo and St. Patrick Parish in Seneca Falls. "For some people thatís the extent of it. I donít think they understand the obligation."

He suggested that those who havenít experienced the sacrament of reconciliation in a while should consider why they havenít been and why they now might want to go. One benefit of regularly experiencing the sacrament of reconciliation is that it can help people keep on track, Father Fennessy said.

"I think it causes you to be mindful of sin in your life if you go on a regular basis," he said.

If people are unfamiliar with the format for reconciliation or nervous about not knowing the prayers, they might instead focus on the healing that can come from the sacrament, Father Bonacci said. He noted priests are understanding and will walk penitents through the prayers and the process.

Indeed, priests' role in the process is to free people from guilt and pain, a Vatican official noted during a recent symposium on penance.

"As confessors we are called to show mercy and hope, to be fathers more than judges, to take on the penitent's pain and listen with much patience," observed Italian Bishop Gianfranco Girotto, regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court that handles issues related to the sacrament of penance.

According to a report by Catholic News Service, Bishop Girotto said that this attitude by confessors "has nothing to do with being lax or permissive, rather it focuses on the inner liberation of the penitent," his or her feelings of remorse and repentance, and facilitating the penitent's reception of judgment, grace and mercy from God.

People may well be surprised by the welcome they receive, local priests suggest, especially if it has been a long time since their last penance.

"We always want to try and create an atmosphere of welcoming and hospitality, whether it has been a long time or a short time," said Father John Gagnier, pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Greece.

What is sin?

This emphasis on welcoming arises from reconciliation's goal of rebuilding people's relationships with God and the church, the catechism says.

Sin is "an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods," it says.

Although all sin is wrong, the church has long distinguished between two types of sin: venial and mortal, or sin that wounds and sin that kills, Father Bonacci explained.

"Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him," the catechism states. "Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it."

Mortal sins have three hallmarks, Father Fennessy said: They are a grave or serious matter in the eyes of the church; they are committed with full knowledge that the action is a sin and with full knowledge of the gravity of the offense; and they are done deliberately with a personís complete consent.

"You know this is wrong, and you know this is grave, but you go ahead and do it anyway," he explained.

Father Bonacci said there are many ways in which people can reflect on how they have sinned as they prepare for the sacrament of reconciliation. Many churches offer guides for the examination of conscience for people to peruse, and various guides also are available on the Internet. The faithful also may pray and reflect on whether they have lived out the Ten Commandments or Jesusí commandment to love neighbor as oneself.

"Sometimes people love their neighbors better than themselves," remarked Father Bonacci, who added that people also should weigh what they have failed to do as well as what they have done.

To assess the role of sin in their lives, people can consider distances in their relationships with the Lord and the concerns that weigh on their hearts, Father Fennessy said.

"The question is why are you going (to penance)," the priest said. "If the answer is, 'I want to be closer to the Lord,' then what is stopping you from coming closer to the Lord?"

After penitents are absolved, they often are visibly more carefree, Father Bonacci noted, observing that some peopleís shoulders lift, for example.

"Itís as if the Holy Spirit is lifting the burden from them," he said.

Priests likewise are graced when they participate in the sacrament, Father Fennessy said.

"I think itís a very humbling sacrament, not only for the penitent but for the priest also," he said. "Christ is present, and I think you very much can see Godís love and mercy in the encounter. Itís not just hoop you jump through."

Copyright © 2012 Catholic News Service, Inc. All rights reserved. Linking is encouraged, but republishing or redistributing, including by framing or similar means, without the publisher's prior written permission is prohibited.

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