Why is the sacrament of Penance necessary?

Also called ‘confession’, the sacrament of Penance was instituted by Our Lord in the Bible:

“He said therefore to them again: Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you. When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” John 20:21-13

Here we see Jesus ordaining the Apostles to forgive or not forgive sins in His name.

Along with Baptism, Penance is an essential sacrament as it is the way in which God has chosen to forgive sins. Without it, our sins are not forgiven, we do not grow in holiness, we cannot receive any of the other sacraments and cannot enter heaven.

What happens during the sacrament of Penance?

In the sacrament of Penance, a Baptised Catholic, having made an examination of conscience and spent time in prayer confesses the sins that they have committed to the priest. As in the Mass the priest is acting in the person of Christ. He will listen to what you tell him, he may give you some advice on how to avoid sin in the future and provided that you are truly sorry, he will give you a penance and absolution. The penance could be a prayer or several prayers that help use to make reparation, show our sorrow and turn away from sin. Absolution is when the priest, in the power given to him by Jesus and by the authority given to him by the Church pronounces God’s forgiveness of our sins.

In order for this sacrament to be valid, the penitent (the one confessing sins) must have contrition, be truly sorry and wish to change, must not miss out any sins no matter how embarrassing and must say the penance given by the priest.

What do I have to confess?

There are two kinds of sins described in the Bible and in Holy Tradition.

Mortal sins are those which have

  1. Grave Matter,
  2. Full knowledge of the wrong committed and
  3. Full consent of the will.

Sin that meets these three conditions is a deliberate turning away from God in which one forfeits the indwelling of the Trinity in the should and all the grace received since baptism. It is called mortal because it kills the life of the soul. These sins can only be forgiven in the sacrament of Penance. To die in the state of mortal sin would result in having chosen to go to Hell.

Venial sins are any sins which do not meet the conditions for mortal sin. They do not kill the life of the soul but they damage the relationship with God and weaken us in our fight against evil. While mortal sins must be confessed in the sacrament of penance, venial sins are remitted by the reception of Holy Communion, the use of Holy Water, by the absolution given by the priest at Mass and by good works- either spiritual or temporal. The confession of all sin is still encouraged as we are not only forgiven in this sacrament but we also receive many graces that strengthen us.