The Sacrament of Penance – Gift to the Church

By Most Reverend Harry J. Flynn
Archbishop Emeritus

Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis

As I reflected upon the power of forgiveness in our lives; I was reminded of a true story concerning Bishop James Walsh, MM. Bishop Walsh served the people of China for many years, but after the government became communistic, he was convicted of treason. Sentenced to several years in prison, he served his sentence in solitary confinement. He had nothing to read. He was not permitted to celebrate Mass. He could not have a rosary. He was permitted no communication with anyone. Even when he was taken from his prison cell for a short exercise in the prison courtyard, his guard was not permitted to speak to him. Can you imagine the great strain this must have been on this person who had such a creative mind, who was so determined to do good for the Church? Can you imagine what it must have been like to sit in a cell – day in and day out – without any activity, without any reading, without the comfort of the Divine Office, without the Scriptures, without the freedom to celebrate Holy Mass, with nothing but the presence of the Lord alive in his heart.

Finally, Bishop Walsh was freed. Many celebrations were held after he returned to the United States. We held one such event at Mount Saint Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where he had attended college. I shall never forget the scene when James Walsh stood before that audience and said: “I have nothing in my heart but love for the Chinese people. I would return to them tomorrow and spend the rest of my life in serving them if they would only permit me.” As he left the hall that evening, people kept grasping his arm and his hands. They wanted to keep him in their midst; they wanted to be as close to him as possible because of the forgiveness which they had witnessed within him. In Bishop Walsh those people intuitively recognized God’s forgiveness for each of us, through which he offers to convert, and heal, and transform us.

The New Testament is filled with stories which reveal the beautiful relationship between Jesus Christ and the sinner. Jesus was always seeking sinners; he seemed compelled to find them, to associate with them: “While he was at dinner in the house it happened that a number of tax collectors and sinners came to sit with Jesus and his disciples at table.” The Pharisees saw this. They were amazed at it. They were shocked at it. They said to the disciples: “Why does your master sit with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this he replied: “It is not  the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick. Go and learn the meaning of the words: ‘What I want is mercy, not sacrifice.’ And indeed, I did not come to call the virtuous but to call sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-13)

When the paralytic was brought to him, Jesus’ first response was: “My child, your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2:5) If you remember this story, you will recall that the paralytic was really asking for a cure, not forgiveness; he wanted to walk again and to run again. For Jesus, however, forgiveness needed to be offered first. Only then did he say: “Get up, pick up your stretcher and walk.” (Mark 2:11) When the sick were brought to him, Jesus healed them, but it was sinners whom he tirelessly sought out. He befriended the publicans, the prostitutes, the tax collectors. He ate with them and was present to them.

It is comforting to know how much Jesus loves sinners, because we are really all sinners, aren’t we? I’ve told a little story throughout the Archdiocese on many occasions. When I was bishop in Louisiana, I visited a school in St. Martinville. As I was beginning Mass, I asked: “Children, are we all sinners?” They responded with great vehemence: “Yes, bishop!” Then I asked: “Is the bishop a sinner?” to which they responded: “No, bishop.” Finally I asked: “Is your pastor a sinner?” They responded: “Yes, bishop.” It’s an amusing story, but it also provided a wonderful opportunity for me to explain to the children that I, too, am a sinner. We are all sinners, each one of us, and before Our Lord can cure us, we must admit that truth. Just as a doctor cannot heal a patient who refuses to admit that he is sick, so we can be saved only on condition that we confess our need to be saved. Whoever considers himself without sin puts himself outside the sphere of Christ’s influence. “If we say we have no sin in us we are deceiving ourselves and refusing to admit the truth. To say that we have never sinned is to call God a liar and to show that his word is not in us.” (I John 1:8,10)

However, sinfulness involves more than a purely personal act. Each time I sin, I interfere with God’s presence and action within the believing community of which I am a part. I turn from God and center myself in isolation from that community. As a result, the act of reconciliation with God must likewise involve both myself and the community in order for it to be authentically human and truly liberating. Besides acknowledging guilt in my own heart, I need also to manifest this admission through some personal expression of sorrow and conversion. In the very moment of speaking the truth of my sinfulness, I once again become a part of the ecclesial community that was wounded by my sin.
The ordinary way of experiencing this reconciliation with God is through the beautiful Sacrament of Penance. As the New Catechism explains: Those who  approach the Sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from God’s mercy for the offense committed against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example, and by prayer labors for their conversion. (p. 357)

In recent years, however, there has been some confusion about this sacrament, born from almost a denial of sin. Pius XII said in 1940: “The sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.” Prophetic words indeed. More recently Pope John Paul II has reminded us that “if we have lost a sense of God it is because we have lost a sense of sin.” This certainly seems to confirm the idea that every heresy is the revenge of a forgotten truth. One who does not acknowledge his sin denies the need for a Redeemer — for Christ came to redeem us from our sin. Let us not fail to acknowledge the truth about sin in our lives, even as we find hope in the truth about the Sacrament of Penance, which is such a strong part of our Catholic tradition.

Various terms have been used to describe this sacrament.


  • It is called the Sacrament of Conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus’ call to conversion, the first step in returning to the Father from whom one has strayed by sin.
  • It is called the Sacrament of Penance, since it consecrates the Christian sinner’s personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance, and satisfaction.
    It ls called the Sacrament of Confession, since the disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is an essential element of this sacrament. In a profound sense it is also a “confession” — acknowledgment and praise — of the holiness of God and of his mercy toward sinful human persons.
    It is called the Sacrament of Forgiveness, since by the priest’s sacramental absolution God grants the penitent “pardon and peace.”
  • It is called the Sacrament of Reconciliation because it imparts to the sinner the life of God who reconciles: “Be reconciled to God.” (II Cor 5:20) He who lives by God’s merciful love is ready to respond to the Lord’s call: “Go; first be reconciled to your brother.” (Mt 5:24)


On May 31, 1988, I made my first official visit to Rome with the Louisiana bishops. At that time our Holy Father said to us:

The Sacrament of Penance is in crisis … the Sacrament of Confession is, indeed, being undermined. These statements are neither negative expressions of pessimism nor causes for alarm; they are rather expressions of a pastoral realism that requires positive pastoral reflection, planning and action. In something as sacred as this sacrament, sporad efforts are not enough to overcome the crisis. For this reason I appeal today to you and through you, to all the bishops of the United States, for organic pastoral planning in each diocese to restore the Sacrament of Penance to its rightful place in the Church and to renew its use in full accordance with the intention of Christ.

A key point in this renewal process is the obligation of pastors to facilitate for the faithful the practice of integral and individual confession of sins, which constitute for them not only a duty but also an enviable and inalien able right, besides being something needed for the soul.

What sense it is, then, to experience the beautiful Sacrament of Penance. Each one of us is sinful and each one of us needs forgiveness. What a mysterious thing God does in this beautiful sacrament. He makes his forgiving presence felt in a concrete and tangible way, allowing one sinner — the priest — to forgive another’s sins in the name of Christ and of the Church. He asks us to make his love present by permitting us to be forgiven by another. It is the whole Church really that forgives, because it is the whole Church which is offended by sin. In the words of absolution:

God the father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his son, has reconciled the world to himself. He sent the Holy Spirit among us for forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

These are powerful words. Spoken to one who has just articulated his or her own sinfulness, they bring forth a powerful forgiveness from God. They are liberating words, spoken with the authority of the Church, bringing forth pardon and peace.

Some years ago a priest psychologist and friend of mine was attending a psychology workshop in New York City. In a discussion about the Roman Catholic Church, one of the participants stated that he thought the Catholic Church imposed guilt on those who went to confession. My friend, who was not known as a pxiest to the other members of the seminar, offered to bring the Rite of Reconciliation to the next class. When they had the opportunity to read this prayer, they were amazed at the liberating force of its words. When they realized that those experiencing reconciliation had these beautiful words of forgiveness spoken to them with the authority of the Church, they acknowledged that this was an extraordinary act of good psychology. In other words, their former prejudice melted away in the face of this beautiful sacrament.

By encouraging them to name their brokenness, the 5th step of the 12-step program moves persons toward freedom from addiction and brokenness. Jesus Christ, too, sought to bring forth a revolution in the very depth of each person where there is any possibility to block out the love of God. Like that 5th step, he wants us to let God reign in us, to realize our emptiness and our complete dependence on God. Jesus would never belittle the sinner, but he will forgive: “‘Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir.’ ‘Neither do I condemn you; go away and from now on, avoid this sin.”‘ (John 8:10-11) This is so typical of Jesus Christ. He accepts the sinner where he or she is. There is no condemnation. There is only forgiveness.

The Sacrament of Penance helps me in the deepest way to face the truth of sin in my life. As I articulate my sins and begin the conversion process, I receive through the Church God’s own forgiveness, a forgiveness far deeper than any merely human forgiveness. For when God forgives, there is transformation, there is conversion, there is new life.

At this time, I wish to encourage the renewed use of this wonderful sacrament by our priests and our people, especially during this holy season of Lent. I exhort all my brother priests to incease their own devotion to this sacrament. In this ministry with which the Church has entrusted us, how closely we collaborate with the Savior in the work of conversion. Let us give ourselves to it with ever greater zeal. Pope Paul VI reminded us that “Other works, for lack of time, may have to be postponed or even abandoned in our ministry, but not the confessional.”

The Rite for the Sacrament of Penance provides three forms for its celebration. Each form, in its own fashion, is intended to foster an authentic experience of conversion and forgiveness. To clarify Church teaching about these three forms, I would like to reflect on each of them briefly:

Form I is the most familiar form, in which the various elements of the sacrament are celebrated by the priest with a single individual penitent. Because it provides an opportunity for a personalized exchange, Form I has the advantage of greater flexibility, and can be adapted to individual needs. All the faithful within this Archdiocese should have the opportunity of celebrating this form of the  Sacrament of Penance on a regular basis, either face to face or if they wish, behind a screen. I ask that the times when it will be available be posted in each of our parishes.

In Form II, several of the elements of the sacrament are celebrated within a communal setting. The faithful listen together to the Word of God, which both it proclaims God’s mercy and invites them to conversion; together, they examine the conformity of their lives with that Word of God, and help each other through common prayer. Each penitent then approaches one of the priests who are present to serve as confessors. After personal confession and individual absolution, all join in praising God for the wonderful gift of forgiveness. Because Form II contains a careful balance of communal and personal elements, the New Catechism recommends it, sayinq that it “expresses more clearly the ecclesial character of penance.” The use of this form is particularly appropriate during the Seasons of Advent and Lent.

Form III is a completely communal celebration which employs general confession and general absolution. It is a legitimate form of sacramental reconciliation when the specified conditions are present; this option is provided in order that the faithful will not unnecessarily be deprived of the grace of this sacrament. According to Church law general absolution may be given in times of “grave necessity,” such as the imminent danger of death for a number of persons simultaneously. “Grave necessity can also exist when given the number of penitents, there are not enough confessors to hear individual confessions properly in a reasonable time, so that the penitents through no fault of their own would be deprived of sacramental grace or Holy Communion for a long time.” (Catechism, p. 372) According to the Conference of Catholic Bishops, one month constitutes the “long time” during which penitents would be deprived of sacramental grace or Holy Communion.

The judgment about whether the conditions required for general absolution exist is reserved to the diocesan bishop. When Form III is used, the presiding priest is also to remind the faithful that the valid reception of general sacramental absolution requires that they not only be properly disposed but also that they resolve to mention each serious sin to a priest the next time they receive the sacrament.

Individual, integral confession and absolution remain the only ordinary way for the faithful to reconcile themselves with God and the Church, unless physical or moral impossibility excuses from this kind of confession. There are profound reasons for this. Within the sacrament, Christ personally addresses each sinner; he is the physician tending each sick person who needs his healing touch, restoring that person once again to a full and healthy life within the community of faith. Personal confession is thus the form which most fully expresses our reconciliation with God and with the Church.

Children, too, should be offered the opportunity of experiencing the wonderful gift of forgiveness early in their young lives. What a teachable and holy moment the first reception of this sacrament is for the children in our parishes. The experience of the Church has proven the importance and pastoral value of having the children experience the sacramental expression of conversion before receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus for the first time.

As we move closer toward the year 2000, we must ever more effectively proclaim the fullness of Christ’s mercy, and offer to the world the hope that is found only in a loving and forgiving Savior. In order to accomplish this we are called to do everything possible to promote the sacrament of mercy and forgiveness, in accordance with the Second Vatican Council, the pertinent liturgical norms of the Church, the Code of Canon Law, and the conclusions of the Synod of 1983 as formulated in the apostolic exhortation on reconciliation and penance.

Just as the people wanted to get close to Bishop Walsh because he was so filled with forgiveness, so all of us want to get as close to God as possible so that we can experience his forgiveness. That gift of a loving Father comes to us through Jesus Christ, through the sacramental ministry of the Church, and through this particular priest as he speaks to us the words of forgiveness. Then forgiveness is experienced in our hearts, and that forgiveness is very, very real, as is our conversion.