Circular Letter: Lent 1994

Virtue and Sacrament of Penance
Appreciating the Sacraments

The seven Sacraments of the Church, instituted by Christ, are the most perfect means for the sanctification and edification of the Mystical Body. Standing in a certain analogy to life, they communicate: life (Baptism); growth (Confirmation); nutrition (Eucharist); healing and restoration from the dead (Penance); health and preparation for eternal life (Anointing of the Sick); establishment of the family (Matrimony) and the regulation and service of the kingdom of God on earth (Priesthood).

Each sacrament is a marvel of grace. Generically they are the salvific signs Christ entrusted to the Church for the sanctification of the faithful. They do so efficaciously in all those who are disposed and place no impediment to their operation.

These signs are drawn from every realm of the creation. The water of Baptism, taken from the mineral world, is a vital element for all physical life. In addition to signifying the cleansing from sin, it also fittingly symbolizes the life of grace that it communicates.

The bread and wine are taken from the living creation, but become the proper sign (two in one) of the Eucharist only when they have been transformed through the work of human hands. By the sacrifice of Christ — renewed at every Mass — bread and wine are transformed into the very Body and Blood of the GOD-Man, such that in the Transubstantiation the very mystery of the Incarnation is mysteriously reproduced under these forms.

The sign for Holy Orders is not some thing, but rather a human gesture: the imposition of priestly hands. The words of this sacrament distinguish and specify the degree of the recipients’ participation in the priesthood of Christ: deaconate, priesthood, episcopate. Like Baptism and Confirmation, Holy Orders impresses an indelible, spiritual character upon the soul. In all three the character is a created participation in the Hypostatic Union, in the Priesthood of Christ. By the Incarnation the Son became a priest; by Baptism we are incorporated into Christ’s living Body; by Confirmation we share in the full stature of Christ’s manhood, in His power of prayer and virtue; and by Holy Orders, those chosen by God, share hierarchically in the Headship of Christ over His Body, the Church.

Two sacraments share the common fundamental matter of oil: Confirmation and the Anointing of the Sick. Consequently, the vegetable oil is further specified by a blessing or consecration before it can be used sacramentally. In the other sacraments the natural matter sufficiently signifies the sacramental effect, and so suffices for the administration of the sacrament (e.g., plain water is sufficient for Baptism). The chrism for Confirmation (consecrated by the Bishop) signifies a royal anointing and holy mission. For this reason, chrism is usually perfumed to express its excellence and plenitude of grace and life conferred by this anointing. The holy oils for the sick signify consolation, alleviation, strengthening and healing, primarily for the soul, and possibly for the body, if this be for the supernatural good of the individual.

The ‘sign’ for matrimony is the marriage contract to which the spouses mutually consent (the form). St. Paul tells us that this is modeled after Christ’s love and union with His Spouse, the Church, and the Church’s love and union with Christ. And this union is pre-exemplified in the Hypostatic Union in which the Divine and Human natures are united in Christ. The very bond is the sacrament, for every marriage between baptized persons, according to the Council of Trent, is a sacramental marriage. Since for over a millennia the Sacrament of Marriage was administered outside the Church without the witnessing assistance of the priest, it is doctrinally clear that this sacrament is formally administered by the spouses. The assistance and blessing of the priest was ordained by the Church as a condition of validity for the sake of the common good of the family and society.

Our point of admiration here, though, is that the natural contract of matrimony was taken by Christ and made into a sacrament for the members of His Mystical Body. Recall, that in the beginning marriage was instituted by God, not by man. Similar to the mystery of the Hypostatic Union, this marriage contract needs to be consummated for its ultimate, inviolable seal, so that the two become one flesh.

Fresh water, baked bread and fermented wine, crushed oil, a gesture of hands and a human contract are the varied material signs of the first six sacraments.

The Sign of Penance is Penance

Now we arrive at the Sacrament of Penance: what is its sign? The priest does not bring any sign to the sacrament. The purple stole is a liturgical sign of the priest’s power to absolve sin in the person of Christ; absolution is the form of the sacrament. We can hardly say that sins are the matter of confession, even though they are forgiven in absolution. Now, to forgive sins is to remove them from the soul. Forgiveness can only take place by infusing grace into the soul. Therefore properly considered, absolution is pronounced over a person. Consequently, the matter of this sacrament must be sought in the penitent.

Paradoxically expressed, penance is the matter of Penance, or again, confession is part of the matter of Confession. Yes, a human virtue is the sign of this sacrament. This virtue within the soul must be outwardly presented to Christ’s minister, so that Christ’s words might sacramentalize the virtue. Unless the words are joined to the outward sign of the sacrament, no sacrament takes place! Hence, the virtue hidden in the soul must be made manifest through confession.

Which virtue is the proper matter for the sacrament of Penance? It is the virtue of metanoia, which is variously translated as ‘repentance,’ ‘penance,’ or ‘a change of heart.’

The complex nature of metanoia accounts for the enigmatic quality of this sacrament. Two reasons coalesce into one to explain its precarious position: First, if the matter is lacking, there can be no sacrament (e.g., no water, no Baptism; no bread and wine, no Eucharist). Hence, if there is no metanoia, there is no sacrament. Or worse, there may even be a sacrilege! Secondly, the sacraments are efficacious, divine signs that produce their effect in those who place no impediment to grace. But impenitence is the great impediment to grace and the sacraments. Accordingly, this sacrament is quite exposed to nullity for the lack of the proper matter.

The Virtue of Penance

What is the nature of the virtue of penance? Why is it so complex? What must we do in order to have it in our hearts, in order to present it properly in the sacramental forum? When the Pharisees presented themselves for baptism to John the Baptist, he excoriated them and demanded: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come! Bear fruits that befit repentance (metanoia), and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’… Every tree that does not bear good fruits is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance!” (Mt 3,7-10).

Applying this to the sacrament of penance: For a valid confession it is not sufficient to simply desire to ‘flee from the wrath to come (the fires of hell),’ nor may a soul presume upon its catholicity or upon the power of the sacrament. What is required are ‘fruits that befit repentance.’ Without these fruits not even the sacrament can communicate forgiveness. The matter is more aggravated by the demand for ‘f r u i t s’ of repentance. ‘Fruits’ is plural, giving us to understand that there are several parts which must join together to constitute the single virtue of repentance. These are three in number: contrition, confession and satisfaction.

The Sinner’s Plight

Consider the sinner’s plight. He fell into sin because he did not esteem and fear God sufficiently. He needs the sacrament because he fell into sin. And now he finds that the sacrament cannot help him unless he can produce the virtue of penance, the material sign for the sacrament. Nowhere is the doctrinal truth that the sacraments of grace presuppose grace for their worthy reception more strikingly brought home than in this plight of the sinner who needs grace to get to the grace of the Sacrament of Penance.

To remedy this spiritual impasse God constituted Mary as the associate of Christ in the work of redemption. She is the Co-Redemptrix, the Mediatrix of Grace, the Refuge of Sinners, and our Mother in the order of grace. In this mission, ‘rich in mercy,’ she exercises her unique share in the mediatorship of Christ, dispensing His grace so that souls be disposed to receive the sacraments of Christ. In this holy ministry she is simultaneously the model for the royal priesthood of the laity, who in union with Mary assist the sacramental priesthood by their prayers and intercession, lest the seed of the sacraments fall upon barren and sterile ground. This fact, that the sacraments presuppose grace, explains the real distinction between the sacramental priesthood and the royal priesthood of the laity, two essentially distinct participations in the mediation and priesthood of Christ: the hierarchical priesthood radiating more the Divine power of Christ, the royal priesthood manifesting more the human, intercessory power of the Man Jesus Christ.

The Three Acts of Repentance

Returning to the sinner’s plight… The actual grace he needs is that which inspires the three acts of the virtue of repentance: contrition, confession and satisfaction. We may compare their unity to that of fire, which, though one in nature, comes to be only through the union of fuel, heat and oxygen. Even so, the virtue of repentance, inasmuch as it belongs to the virtue of justice, does not break into fire except when these three elements of contrition, confession and reparation are sincerely and properly united in the soul. Justice, of course, is only complete when we give the other his due.

Contrition for Sins

Contrition is the deep pain and sorrow which the sinner, responding to grace, experiences in his heart over his sins upon considering the fact that he has sorely offended God and lost (in the case of mortal sin) the grace of divine friendship. This heartfelt sorrow is intensified more when we compare our voluntary malice with the infinite goodness of God. It is not just ‘being sorry’ that something went wrong, but the holy hatred for the perverse act of will by which I consciously chose to wrong God. Contrition cuts to the quick; it burns away all our flimsy excuses and gets to the heart of the evil really present in the soul.

Contrition is, first of all, a pure grace of God, which, when accepted, begets in the sinner’s heart the holy virtue of repentance by which the soul simultaneously longs to be reconciled to God. The soul desires to rise up and return to its Father and confess its guilt and serve Him in reparation for the dishonour and injustice it has committed against Him. Accepted in this complete form of perfect contrition, where the focus of sorrow and longing is upon GOD Himself Whom we have offended, this grace of contrition simultaneously quickens the soul with sanctifying grace and charity. Hence, this soul is restored to Christ’s grace even before actually getting to confession, but not before ardently desiring to confess its sins without which the virtue of repentance cannot possibly flame up in love.

By way of contradistinction, imperfect contrition (also called attrition) is the supernatural remorse or sorrow a sinner experiences over his sins, not on account of the offense committed against God’s goodness, but because he laments the loss of heaven and fears the pains of hell. Still, these motivations are also supernatural, but not sufficiently for charity to be re-enkindled by them alone. (St. Francis de Sales counsels us never to presumptuously despise imperfect contrition, but to always beg and present back to God the double grace of perfect and imperfect contrition.) Although insufficient of itself to restore grace and charity, within the sacrament of penance, through the Power of Christ’s Blood, attrition is sufficient  matter for the forgiveness of sins and the restoration of sanctifyi ng grace. What a great mercy that is available to those who believe in and have access to the Sacrament of Penance, namely to Catholics alone.

Confession of Sins

The second element of repentance is the confession of sins. Outside of the sacraments only perfect contrition works the remission of sin and the re-infusion of grace. Even then it presupposes the will to confess one’s sin to God. It is from this act of the virtue of repentance that the Sacrament of Penance receives its popular name, Confession. We cannot accentuate sufficiently that the confession of sins belongs to the very nature of repentance as a virtue. That is to say, we do not have to confess our sins for the mere reason that the sacrament requires it, but rather the sacrament requires it because the very nature of the virtue of repentance demands a confession of culpability. And it is this complete virtue which Jesus made to be the matter of this Sacrament. In all times and places, before and after the coming of Christ, the virtue of repentance intrinsically demands a confession of sins. Independent of the sacrament it is always true: without repentance there can be no forgiveness of sins. But without the will, at least interiorly, to confess one’s sins, there is no true repentance. Hence, without the real will to confess one’s sins, there can be no forgiveness.

To repeat, it is because confession belongs to the virtue of penance that it necessarily belongs to the Sacrament of Penance. This is why all the complaining about having to confess one’s sins to a priest is ignorance and/or insincerity on the part of souls. They understand the virtue of repentance neither with their head nor with their heart! This implicitly arrogant rejection of the virtue and sacrament of penance has, of course, its own fitting revenge: such souls end up on the psychiatrist’s couch pouring out their sins to an individual who has no power from God to forgive any sin or reconcile souls to the Church. Moreover, since by sin man is alienated from God, his true good and final end, the sinner is infallibly alienated from himself. No wonder the neo-pagan world of today is full of despair, full of schizophrenia, full of escapes (drugs, alcohol).

Why, we may ask, is the confession of sin (at least the interior desire) intrinsically necessary to the virtue of penance and to the Sacrament? The reason is twofold: every sin is a breach of friendship, and every sin violates justice.

Concerning friendship: Clearly there can be no forgiveness of mortal sin without a restoration of Divine Friendship. Friendship cannot be restored without a reconciliation of the alienated parties. Reconciliation cannot take place without the guilty party saying, “I am sorry,” that is, confessing its guilt and contritely asking pardon.

Now, while the fault is entirely on man’s side, God took the initiative and established a Mediator Who by His sacerdotal ministry and His Blood brought about this reconciliation. There is no reconciliation except through the mediatorship of Christ which is made present ministerially in the Church in the Sacrament of Penance. Reconciliation with God, then, is through confessing to the Man Jesus Christ sacramentally present in His minister: “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven” (Jn 20, 23). Both the virtue and the sacrament are united in the need for a confession of guilt.

With respect to justice:  Every serious sin, in addition to its disordered turning to a created good (pleasure, wealth, honor, power, etc.), is also a radical turning away from God in aversion. There is always a quadruple injustice in every sin: 1) the disobedience to God’s law (it is most just to obey God); 2) the injustice of offending the divine majesty and honor; 3) the damage done to the Mystical Body (the supernatural social dimension); and 4) the misuse of God’s creatures.

Sins against justice cannot be forgiven without the will and the deed of restitution, that is, the paying back of the debt. Injustice towards one’s neighbor has a finite, verifiable measure. But every grievous offense against God has an infinite dimension (it merits eternal damnation). The only one who can determine a medicinal, modified measure of restitution for the offense against God is God Himself or someone who represents Him on earth. Christ continues this representation through the ministry of the sacerdotal priesthood. To adjudicate a debt towards a merciful measure requires that the guilty party humbly present its fault before the judge. This can only be done by confessing one’s sins in the proper forum, especially since the greatest debt is the malice of sin itself which can be remedied only by forgiveness.

Satisfaction for Sin

The final part of the virtue of repentance is satisfaction, ‘fruits worthy of repentance.’ Sin ruptures man’s union with God in grace and charity. Death, disorder and damage in creation result. The ruptured union is essentially restored by grace and charity, though a debt remains. Sin is paradoxically repaired by voluntary suffering and death: hence, the Cross and the spilling of Christ’s Blood. The first dimension of reparation, therefore, is penance: some form of voluntary suffering or labor, or the fruits thereof. Alms cover a multitude of sins because they are seen as the fruit of the sweat of the brow.

In the early Church confession was public, and reparation was made by public penances. In addition, the penitent was not absolved until after the penance had been completed, since reparation is part of the virtue of repentance, the matter of the Sacrament over which the priest speaks the words of absolution. Public penance was especially an efficacious reparation for the scandal of sin, which would otherwise have posed a great threat to the common good of the Church. With time, given that Christ’s Blood is the principal reparation for sin, and out of pastoral compassion and in view of the changing needs in the Church the faithful were dispensed from making public confessions and penances. Henceforth these were made privately to the priest, who, inasmuch as the representative of Christ the High Priest and Head, acts both in the name of God and the Church. Similarly, the firm resolve in the will to make restitution came to be understood as formally sufficient for granting absolution before the actual accomplishment of the reparation.

Firm Purpose of Amendment

In reparation and restitution we look to damage and dishonor caused by past sins, and try to put things straight. Satisfaction, however, must also look to the future insofar as it finds a pre-disposition through the past and the present. This means forming a firm purpose of amendment. Clearly, sincere contrition and reparation commit us firmly to avoid sin in the future. This commitment directs itself to the extirpation of vice and the formation of corresponding virtues. This aims particularly towards growth in the love of God, which is lost in every mortal sin.

The Curé of Ars once lamented that if but one confession in thirty were valid, the world would soon be converted. What he lamented was the lack of a firm purpose of amendment that actually manifested itself in ‘fruits of repentance.’ No doubt, he was speaking a bit rhetorically, as he continued to absolve penitents. But we may also be sure that he insisted greatly on real amendment. In this way and with time he brought about complete spiritual reform in his parish. It is certain that the conscientious and frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance will lead souls forward rapidly upon the path of spiritual perfection.

The Holy Angels and Penance

The holy Angels rejoice at the conversion of a single sinner, and are themselves ministerially involved in the process of conversion and forgiveness. They inspire, admonish and accuse us of our faults in the voice of conscience. Simultaneously, they point out to us the merciful love of God. The Fathers of the Church even spoke of an Angel of Penance.

St. Bonaventure said that we may call the Angels doctors because they withdraw us from evil, and teachers because they help us make progress in the good, and friends of the Groom as they lead us to perfection (Serm. 5. On the Angels). These three ministries correspond to the principal works of the holy Angels: purification of the soul, illumination by the light of faith and unification with God. St. Thomas saw that these also wonderfully describe the threefold effects of the sacraments, particularly this sacrament of Penance. Recall how Isaias was purified of sin by a Seraphim applying a glowing coal from the heavenly altar to his lips (Is 6,2ff). Similarly, the High Priest, Josue, was cleansed of sin and clothed anew in garments of holiness by the Angel of the Lord (Zach 3,5ff). Such Old Testament passages are not only prophetic ante-types of the future sacraments of Christ, but foretell the hidden ministry of the Angels in collaboration with Christ and His priests.

It is most fitting for us to call upon our Guardian Angel when examining our conscience and preparing for Penance. He is, indeed, a witness to all our deeds. With the help of the light and grace he mediates and intercedes, we shall come to know our sins more clearly and contritely in the presence of God. His admonitions will remind, encourage and strengthen us in the faithful implementation of our resolution out of love for God. In this the true love of God consists, and its growth is secured in the spiritual life.

Fr. William Wagner, ORC

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