The sacrament of penance goes by several names: reconciliation, confession, or the sacrament of forgiveness or conversion. These names highlight various aspects of the sacrament: It reconciles us to God and to the Church; it brings us God’s forgiveness; it is how we acknowledge our sins and repent; and it is a powerful means of conversion (296).
The experience of our imperfection readily illustrates why the Lord gave us this sacrament on that first Easter evening (298). Although baptism gives us a new life of grace, a tendency toward sin, called “concupiscence,” remains as a result of the Fall. Mortal sin separates us from God and damages our relationship with the Church. And venial sin, while not destroying our friendship with God, weakens our relationship with him and with others. Through the Church and her ministry of reconciliation, Christ’s call to lifelong conversion is addressed to the baptized (297, 299).
Although the season of Lent focuses on the need for repentance, our daily lives should always be marked by genuine sorrow for our sins. We manifest a contrite and humble heart when we fast, pray and give to those in need (cf. Ps. 51:17).
If we commit a mortal sin, we are obliged to go to confession before receiving holy Communion (Compendium, 305). Strictly speaking, we are not obliged to confess venial sins. Nonetheless, we should regularly confess even our venial sins — sometimes called “devotional confession” — in order to resist temptation and grow in virtue (306).
Sometimes, people hesitate to go to confession because they have forgotten how to do so. Thankfully, the Knights of Columbus publishes a step-by-step guide to the sacrament. There are several things that we, as penitents, must do: make a careful examination of conscience, based on the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes; make a sincere act of contrition; confess our sins to a priest — all mortal sins not yet confessed as well as venial sins; and fulfill the acts of penance that the confessor assigns (303-304). Note that contrition is perfect when it is motivated only by love of God; it is imperfect if fear of just punishment is the motivation. Contrition also includes a firm resolve not to sin again and to avoid the near occasions of sin.
Since Christ entrusted the power to forgive sins to the Apostles and their successors, only a bishop or priest can hear confessions. Bishops and priests act in the person of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit to grant the Father’s forgiveness (307). Bound to absolute secrecy, they listen attentively and help penitents open their hearts to the Lord’s mercy, amend their lives and grow in discipleship (309). A confessor can offer general absolution only “in cases of serious necessity” such as impending death or some grave emergency (311).
As the sacrament of penance brings about the forgiveness of our sins, we are reconciled with God and the Church. The eternal punishment due to mortal sin is remitted, and some of the temporal punishment due to sin is taken away. Temporal punishment is further remitted through prayers and good works to which indulgences are attached (312). This sacrament also brings us peace, serenity, joy and strength for living the Gospel.