God’s Gift of Forgiveness

Chapter 9 from What Happened to Sin, by Seán Fagan. S.M.

The Columba Press, 2008.

Whatever about the therapy required to deal with neurotic guilt, there is a sure-fire remedy available for real guilt and sin, namely repentance, atonement and forgiveness. On the level of human relationships there is a sense of new life and fresh start when an apology has been accepted and the broken strands of love brought together again. But when the forgiveness comes through the sacramental action of the Church, backed by the authority and power of Jesus himself, it can bring a peace not of this world. Christians through the centuries have experienced sacramental confession as a real safety-valve for their accumulated burden of guilt, and received the words of absolution as a healing balm for mind and heart. But, like so many other elements in the life of the Church, our experience of God’s forgiveness in the sacrament of penance had its own historical development through the centuries. Christ empowered his Church to forgive sins in his name, but it took over a thousand years for the sacrament to develop into the form in which we know it today. Most people would be surprised to hear that St. Augustine never went to confession, and that for centuries the saintly bishops of Gaul preached that one should do penance, but go to confession only on one’s deathbed.

It would be a mistake to imagine that we have nothing to learn from the past, or to think that developments in the Church have always been for the best because they were directly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In fact, history is there to show that Christ’s promise of being with his Church until the end of time is no guarantee against its making mistakes. The Church is not only a community of sinners needing constant reform and continual conversion, but a human family subject to the ordinary laws of human growth. This growth has its share of groping and stumbling, experimenting and learning. It brings into the future not only its successes, but also the traces of some of its less happy experiences and even its mistakes and failures. Thus, our present understanding and practice of the sacrament of penance is not all that it could be and we have no idea of what the future may bring. The new rites of celebration are an attempt to improve it, but they will have little effect unless the faithful (including bishops and priests) have a proper understanding of sin, repentance, conversion, reconciliation, penance and the sacramental celebration of God’s forgiveness. Such an understanding, of course, will be coloured by our notion of God, of the Church and of sacraments in general.


Too many people still have a taboo notion of morality and a magical idea of the sacraments. The impression is still abroad that only in confession are sins really forgiven; an act of perfect contrition is supposed to achieve the same result, but one needs to be almost a saint to make one, in which case it would not be needed in the first place. Some confessors are still preaching the ‘gas-station’ concept of grace: one can never get enough of a good thing, and frequent confession keeps one continually ‘topped up’. Few people see any intimate connection between the sacrament of penance and the penitential elements of prayer, fasting and almsgiving involved in conversion. Many use the sacrament simply as a ‘guilt-shedding process’ with little real experience of reconciliation or spiritual growth. Some confess the same ‘laundry list’ each time and yet are dissatisfied because it does not enable them to cope with all the sinfulness they are conscious of. The present practice of private confession cannot deal with communal responsibility for the sinful structures of society or a sinful climate of opinion. Others are so concerned about law and measurement that their confession leaves large areas of morality untouched because there are no specific laws covering them, or they are not easily measured. Since the Humanae Vitae debate, many people who feel free in conscience to practice contraception nevertheless feel guilty about not mentioning it in confession. Those who do confess it ‘shop around’ for a sympathetic priest, and they feel the variety of views and attitudes confusing. They wonder about the priest’s precise role as confessor.

Many people think of sin simply as an offence against God, and see the priest as his representative, so that the Church as community is almost totally bypassed both in the confession and in the absolution. Present practice can foster an individualistic piety. Besides, the idea of penance as reconciliation is obscured by equating obligatory and devotional confession, since it is difficult to speak of real reconciliation with the Church in the case of minor daily sins. Although the Council of Trent’s demand for integral confession of sins according to number and kind referred only to mortal sins, children were trained to think of it as applying to all sins, so that many adults still engage in a frantic search for everything they can possibly think of, and their almost neurotic preoccupation with self sometimes blots out all awareness of the tremendous gift that is God’s forgiveness. Likewise, too much emphasis on the priest’s role as judge can give the impression of a criminal court where every last ounce of guilt must be accurately measured and ultimately paid for.

Forgotten truths

Even before we look to the new rites, there are some ‘forgotten truths’ about the sacrament of reconciliation that we need to be reminded of: the theological nature of sin; a more nuanced presentation of the distinction between sins, including the dropping of the over-simplified ‘mortal-venial’ division; the importance of the ‘time’ or ‘process’ element in both sin and reconciliation, so that confession is simply the ‘sacramental moment’ in a whole process of repentance; the fact that there are various forms of penance (ordinary, everyday ones and liturgical ones, sacramental and non-sacramental); that the obligation of private confession applies only to those who are conscious of sin which is subjectively serious; that confession of necessity and confession of devotion ought to be clearly distinguished; and that grace and spiritual benefit are not increased in mathematical proportion to the frequency of confession. Church authorities at present voice concern about the dramatic fall in the numbers going to regular confession. A knowledge of history can be a sobering experience. For centuries Catholics had such reverence for the Blessed Sacrament that they rarely went to Communion, so the Council of Trent obliged them to receive at least once a year. When at the beginning of the last century Pope Pius X encouraged frequent Communion, people felt that they needed confession before receiving it, so this brought in the custom of frequent (weekly or monthly) confession. That practice is barely a century old.

Can we prove that when thousands queued in churches every Saturday (within living memory) to confess impure thoughts or distractions at prayer they were closer to God than in today’s world when it is a major problem for people to find quality time for their families while they struggle with problems of mortgages, health and education? But we need to go to a deeper level, to notice the contrast between the handful who still go to confession and the high percentage (up to 80%) who go to Communion although many of them practice contraception. Another problem for God’s holy people who are the Church is the inadequacy of official teaching on divorce. Those who fail in their marriage (and they may soon be 50%) and do not qualify for a Church annulment are condemned to celibacy for the rest of their lives, and if God does not give them this special gift and grace they are denied the Eucharist, leaving them with all the burdens and obligations of being Catholic but without this divine food for which they long to nourish their faith. Theologians for centuries have taught that the Eucharist brings forgiveness of sin, healing for the wounded, but Church law has made it a reward for good behaviour. Confessors concerned about this ministry should ask if reviving literally what was the Church’s practice for less than 5% of its history would contribute to the health of God’s holy people who are the Church. Even if we did succeed in bringing back the weekly queues, where would we find the priests to absolve them? We would begin to experience what hundreds of thousands of our fellow-Catholics in Latin America have been enduring for centuries. If these points are properly understood, a reduction in the numbers approaching the sacrament or less frequency of individual confession need not cause alarm.

Ordinary means of penance

In speaking of God’s forgiveness, the impression should not be created that the sacrament of penance is the on1y means or indeed the only safe or sure way of receiving it. People need to be told of the importance and efficacy of the ordinary, everyday means of reconciliation. We saw that sin weakens or destroys our relationship with God, alienates us from our brothers and sisters, and disrupts the inner harmony of our lives. Penance is not just paying a fine for wrongdoing, accepting punishment inflicted by a vengeful God. Rather, it is a reversal of the sinful process that turned us from God and neighbor and left us divided within