Penance has many positives - Catholic Courier

Penance has many positives

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second article in an occasional series addressing current procedures for preparation and administration of the church’s seven sacraments.

For many adult Catholics, the sacrament of penance evokes images of fearfully entering a dark box, then confessing sins through a screen to a stern priest.

“I know many parents haven’t been (to confession) in many, many years. Even myself, I have terrible memories,” said Jan Borromei, who serves as faith-formation director at Auburn’s Sacred Heart/St. Ann and St. Mary’s parishes.

First penance is the one childhood sacrament that doesn’t lend itself to joyous celebrations at church and home. Not surprisingly, Borromei acknowledged that many parents are eager to contact her about first Communion — but never about penance. Yet church leaders say there’s little to fear about the present-day approach to penance, through which the church prioritizes relational bonds between the penitent and God, church, family and community.

“It’s not just paying out a debt, but trying to rebuild relationships that were harmed by sins,” said Father Robert Kennedy, pastor of Rochester’s Blessed Sacrament Parish.

Father Kennedy said the church’s current focus is less on sin and punishment, and more on healing and strengthening. Hence, the term “reconciliation” is often used rather than “confession.” In many churches the sacrament of penance is no longer administered in a confessional, but in a reconciliation room, where the penitent can opt to talk with the priest either face-to-face or through a screen.

Being aware of the sacrament’s positive aspects is vital for children, said Sister of St. Joseph Karen Dietz, diocesan coordinator of sacramental catechesis.

“I think it’s a great sacrament for kids. If we don’t know reconciliation and forgiveness, if we don’t understand that, we’re missing a huge piece in relating with other people and what it means to be reconciled,” Sister Dietz said.

Reaching deeper


The ability to comprehend sin, remorse and forgiveness can vary from child to child; therefore, Diocese of Rochester guidelines call for young baptized Catholics to receive first penance based on readiness, as with any other sacrament. No specific age is cited, but Sister Dietz said this level is usually reached between the ages of 8 and 10.

Nevertheless, catechesis for first penance, she noted, must always take place before celebration of first Eucharist.

The diocese is now reviewing its policies in light of the April 2004 dissemination of Redemptionis Sacramentum (“The Sacrament of Redemption”), a Vatican instruction that briefly re-emphasized reception of first penance prior to first Eucharist.

The church teaches that “it is important for anyone approaching the Eucharist to be aware of our state of heart and attitude,” Sister Dietz said, adding that the sacrament of penance is one way the church helps Catholics to be aware of their sinfulness and to celebrate their need for forgiveness.

Celebration is itself a relatively new understanding of the sacrament.


“When I was younger, you sinned and needed God’s forgiveness, period. Which leads us to the grocery-list mentality — not only the list of sins, but how many times,” Sister Dietz said, citing such sins as disobeying one’s parents. Traditionally this would result in the priest prescribing a certain number of Hail Marys or Our Fathers, in accordance with the seriousness of the sin.

The Rite of Penance issued by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship in 1974 didn’t revise the sacrament so much as emphasize its depth and positive aspects.

“It’s a very relational sacrament because it’s one-on-one, penitent and confessor. It moves us to a greater understanding of our relationship with God,” Sister Dietz said. Father Kennedy said he sees this perspective as a better way “of encountering the forgiveness and mercy of God.”

The sacrament’s rituals are still the same — an act of contrition followed by confession, penance and absolution. However, Father Kennedy said priests are less apt to assign a number of prayers as penance. With children, for instance, he tells them to set aside time to think about the gifts they have received from God, and how they can better use them.

Chances are, a priest will conduct this sacrament in a gentler way than many would imagine. Although Father Kennedy said “there’s truth to that stereotype” of the severe confessor, he said this is largely a thing of the past and may have taken on mythical proportions because of the design of old-style confessionals. “I think the mystery of the dark box kind of made it an intimidating experience,” he said.

Other outgrowths of the Rite of Penance are the option for face-to-face meetings with a priest, as well as communal penance services — often used for first penance — that include music and Liturgy of the Word. Diocesan teen retreats, also, offer reconciliation services in an atmosphere that enhances “a positive, profound experience,” according to Michael Theisen, diocesan director of youth ministry.

The sacrament “really requires us to open up and to let go,” Theisen said. “But that’s why it’s so profound — when we do that, we open ourselves up to being changed and transformed.”

Parental role is vital


Theisen said many teens on retreat receive the sacrament of penance for the first time, having not done so through their parishes in earlier years. Borromei and Jeanette Housecamp, faith-formation coordinator at St. Michael’s Parish in Newark, acknowledged that penance is not nearly as sought-after a sacrament as it should be. At Blessed Sacrament, meanwhile, “most people don’t even know where the reconciliation room is,” Father Kennedy said.

“With the kids I really emphasize it’s a loving sacrament. But it’s hard to get that across, I think,” Housecamp said. “A lot of the comments I hear are, ‘It was so scary for me.’ I think it’s more the parents than the kids — if the parents aren’t comfortable, then the kids won’t be comfortable.”

Yet Borromei and Sister Dietz point to parents as primary catechists of their children, cementing at home what is taught by parishes. “It’s their job to teach their children about faith. I’m (only) here as a resource for them,” Borromei remarked. This emphasis on parental involvement marks a shift from previous generations, when children’s sacramental preparation was mostly done by the parish staff or school.

For this reason, Father Kennedy meets with parents at least once during first-penance preparation. “My question is, where are they at with the sacrament?” he remarked, noting he encourages parents to receive the sacrament of penance if they haven’t in some time — and that they often do.

In Auburn, Borromei is trying a new approach by arranging first penance during regular Saturday hours, in the hopes of making it a more regular practice for entire families. “My frustration is, we’ve lost the children because we’ve scared the parents,” she said.

But for all the negative associations with confessions of years ago, that era boasted long confessional lines on Saturday afternoons. If people were so frightened then, why are the numbers lower now?

“I think we’ve lost our sense of sin,” Sister Dietz observed, explaining that modern society puts a high value on self-esteem — perhaps discouraging people from confessing sins to a priest. “People don’t look at it as a necessary sacrament,” Housecamp agreed.

Sister Dietz said she would like to see that perception change, emphasizing that families should seek the sacrament of penance at least twice per year — if not during regular weekly hours or by appointment, then perhaps at a reconciliation service offered during Lent and Advent.

“God always forgives us, but the grace of the sacrament is that you’re saying out loud where you’ve fallen short,” she said. “And, you’ve received the forgiveness of God that you can’t get by speaking in the quiet of your heart.”

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