‘Penance is an enormous gift of God’s grace and mercy’

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A file photo shows a crown of thorns at St. Bonaventure Church in Paterson, N.J. The sacrament of penance in the Roman rite sounds slightly different this Lent, thanks to approved changes in the English translation set to take effect in a few weeks. OSV News photo/Octavio Duran

The season of Lent is quickly approaching; the season of prayer, fasting and charity as the Church prepares to celebrate Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection.

It all begins with Ash Wednesday, which falls on Feb. 22, this year.

While not a holy day of obligation, Ash Wednesday is one of the largest Masses of the year, said Father John Hammond, pastor of St. Patrick Church in South Nashville and Judicial Vicar and Vicar General for the Diocese of Nashville.

“People really resonate with Ash Wednesday. They like the sign, they like the outward visible symbol, they like the realism that comes with Ash Wednesday,” Father Hammond said. “It’s a very realistic feast day because we’re saying, ‘I acknowledge that I’m weak. I acknowledge that I’m a sinner.’”

Ash Wednesday is what starts the understanding that Lent is also a season of penance in which Catholics everywhere prepare their hearts and minds for the celebration of Easter. One of the most important ways to do this is to partake in the sacrament of Reconciliation, said Father Peter Stryker, CPM, a member of the Fathers of Mercy congregation in Auburn, Kentucky.

“Lent is a time of the liturgical year when Catholic Christians are obligated to prepare our hearts and purify our souls for the great feast of Easter, and that we be able to receive Holy Communion sometime during the Easter season if not on Easter Sunday itself,” Father Peter said. “The sacrament of penance and reconciliation is going to be an important element of preparing our hearts and purifying our souls for the celebration of Easter.

“Living in the 21st century, we often take it for granted that people are able to make it to heaven, but prior to our Lord’s suffering and death on the cross, no human beings were in heaven,” he added. “Heaven only opened for human beings after Jesus suffered and died on the cross. That is what makes Holy Week and Easter so very special.”

“Lent is a dedicated season of penance for Christians, a time of sorrow for sins and reconciliation with God,” added Father Hammond. “It’s a particularly worthy time to go to confession, both as an act of penance and reparation for sin, as well as a powerful preparation for celebrating the Easter joy of the Resurrection.”

Penance restores grace

The sacrament of Reconciliation is the most important way the Church offers Catholics the opportunity to return to the state of grace they received at baptism, Father Peter said.

“Even after we are baptized, we still have disorder in our souls, so we are still tempted, we are still fallen, we still make mistakes,” Father Peter said. “We can make small mistakes or venial sins, or we can make very serious mistakes, which are mortal sins. When we commit a mortal sin, we lose the gift of grace.

“A mortal sin has to be something which is very serious and something which we do knowingly and willingly,” he explained. “The ordinary way to get back into a state of grace is through the sacrament of penance and reconciliation.”

In contrast, venial sins, those that are committed without malice or intention, can be forgiven in other ways, Father Peter said, including during the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass or through a “worthy and heartfelt reception of holy Communion.” But even then, confessing venial sins through the sacrament of reconciliation is just as beneficial as it is to confess mortal sins.

“It helps us to grow in self-knowledge, it helps us to grow in humility, and it helps us to avoid mortal sin,” Father Peter said. “Through it, we’re not only receiving forgiveness of our venial sins, but we’re also receiving special graces and growing in holiness of life.”

Penance is a right

Every person that is truly sorry for their sins has a right to receive God’s mercy, Father Peter said.

According to St. Faustina’s “Diary of My Soul,” “Jesus says when people are sorry for their sins, ‘they have a right to my mercy, they deserve my mercy. They have a claim on my mercy,’” he explained. 

Therefore, Catholics should not be afraid to approach Christ in the sacrament.

“We want to recognize that our Lord desires our happiness,” Father Peter said. “The sacrament of penance and reconciliation can require some courage and humility for those who might be afraid, but they should look upon the sacrament as a great opportunity to have their souls purified and to receive a fresh start in living out the Catholic Christian life and being on a safe path to heaven.”

They shouldn’t fear the priest’s presence either, he said.

“The faithful have a right to receive the sacrament anonymously,” Father Peter explained. “It’s also the responsibility of priests to be gentle in the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. Very often it is said that a priest should be like a lion in the pulpit, telling people like it is, but a lamb in the confessional.”

Making a good sacramental confession

Several of the most recent popes in Church history including St. John Paul II, the late Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis have encouraged the faithful to make a good sacramental confession once a month.

To do so, Father Peter encouraged Catholics to do several things in order to prepare themselves.

“Use a good examination of conscience,” Father Peter said, noting that the Fathers of Mercy congregation has one on the homepage of their website (fathersofmercy.com) that people can download. “Second, pray and ask the Holy Spirit to help and enlighten your mind and heart regarding what you need to confess and confess it in a good way.”

Then, if one is struggling with what to confess, “other people can help us, too,” he said.

Actively intending to make a full sacramental confession is important, particularly for those who are confessing a mortal sin.

“If we do not confess all of our mortal  sins, then the whole sacrament becomes invalid,” Father Peter said. “We don’t receive forgiveness of any sins.” 

The new translation

As Catholics everywhere seek the sacrament of reconciliation this Lent, they may notice some slight modifications to the experience as a new translation of the Order of Penance has officially been approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and confirmed by the Apostolic See, said Father Hammond.

“This new translation is the latest effort in the suite of newly translated liturgical texts, which already includes the Roman Missal and the Orders of Baptism and Marriage, for which new translations are already in use,” Father Hammond said. “These replace the earlier English translations prepared quickly and immediately after Vatican II.

“They are the fruit of a more precise translation of the original Latin texts, an attempt to capture the poetic beauty of the texts,” he said, “and the putting into practice the principles laid out during the pontificate of St. John Paul II in the important instruction ‘Liturgiam Authentican,’ which called for these new translations and guides their preparation.”

The main change comes with the prayer of absolution given by the priest at the end of the sacrament. The new translation, with the changes in italics, reads:

“God, the Father of mercies, through the Death and Resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and poured out the Holy Spirit for the 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.”

Penance is a blessing for all

Both Father Hammond and Father Peter said offering the faithful the opportunity to receive the sacrament of reconciliation is an important part of their priestly ministry.

“Hearing confessions is one of my favorite things to do as a priest, not because the sins themselves are interesting, but because the experience of redemption is so beautiful to witness and to be a part of,” Father Hammond said. “The sacrament of penance is an enormous gift of God’s grace and mercy … and is an enormous source of grace, healing, and strength.”

As a Father of Mercy, “our very name implies that we are very enthusiastic about the two sacraments of mercy – the holy Eucharist and the sacrament of penance and reconciliation,” added Father Peter. “Those are the two sacraments of mercy where God super abundantly shows his great love to us who are sinners and yet who desire a friendship with God.”

Father Peter entered the Fathers of Mercy in August 1991 and was officially ordained in 1998. While his congregation is based in the Diocese of Owensboro, he regularly visits the Diocese of Nashville to bring priestly ministry to the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation as well as employees at the Catholic Pastoral Center.

The Fathers of Mercy religious order was founded by Father Jean Baptiste Rauzan, at the invitation of Cardinal Fesch of Lyons, France, following the French Revolution’s effect on people’s faith. Pope Gregory XVI officially dubbed the missionary priests with the name “Fathers of Mercy” in 1834.

“It’s been a wonderful experience because God draws us into a friendship with him, especially through religious life,” Father Peter said. “Then, especially through the priesthood, Jesus calls his brother priests his friend.

“He wants us to be close to him, and he provides us with special grace to overcome any defects in our personality and to draw all the more deeply in friendship with him,” he said. “To represent him and to bring his mercy to those who desire his mercy both through preaching the word of God and especially through the sacramental life of the Church is a great blessing.” 

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