Sacrament of Penance Fr. David Bara

Fr. David Bara

The Sacrament of Penance, one of the seven sacraments, is instituted by Christ. Its biblical foundations are found in Hb. 29:23 and Mt. 16-19, whereupon the powers of keys are given to the apostles. In order to understand the present legislation, it is appropriate to go down in history and trace the development of the practice of the sacrament.

1 Cor. 5:1-13 and Tim. 1:19 speak of an official segregation of sinners. The consequence of the commission of grave sins was a definite removal of sinners from the community. However, this commission was not final but remedial. Pastor Hermes in the 2nd century spoke of only one single reconciliation for grave sins after baptism. Tertullian also advocated ‘one penance only”. One single reconciliation implied a pedagogical severity and concern for holiness among the neophytes. Confessions of grave sins were made to the Bishop. The bishops were bound by secrecy. Sin remained secret but the penance was public. Sinners were inducted in the Order of Penitents by impositions of hands and warning. Penance varied in duration and severity, such as ban from military service, use of marriage etc. The rite of reconciliation was performed by the Bishop on Maundy Thursday. The idea of ‘one penance’ prevailed resulting in postponement until the time of death.

In the East as per the need the practice of confession sins started by monks to the Abbot. Gradually lay people started approaching monks for confession in spite of official protest. In the West still in 6th and 7th centuries the sacramental penance was delayed till the end of life. Penance was still very rigid. The new practice of going to the monks for confession was still condemned. However, the practice spread in the west through Celtic missionaries from Ireland. Gradually the grouping of penitents as a class disappeared and the monastic practice of confession was popularized. Private confessions increased. Absolution then started being granted without delay anticipating the completing of penance. From 8th century onwards the practice of confession even in the west was allowed three times a year. Confession gained prominence in the 12th century. Finally the Ecumenical Council Lateran IV (1215) made annual confession obligatory.

In the actual canonical legislation the sacramental penance demands the formal intervention of priests. Powers of Orders and jurisdiction are required to absolve sins. Jn. 20 indicated the jurisdictional character as it speaks of power of forgiving and retaining. After Lateran IV priests in order to absolve validly needed jurisdiction. The Council of Trent ruled that absolution without jurisdiction was invalid. With Lateran IV the discipline of sacramental secrecy reached its final form. According to the actual canonical legislation can. 966 demands that the confessor has the faculty to hear confession.

The minister receives the faculty either by law or by concession. Roman Pontiff. Cardinals and all Bishops have the faculty to hear confession of all. A Diocesan Bishop may prohibit another Bishop to hear confession in his territory. (Can. 967,1). By law Local Ordinary, Canon Penitentiary Parish priests and those who are in the place of parish priest have the faculty by law within their territory. (Can. 968, 1). Those who have faculty by office have then the faculty to hear confession all over the world.

Chaplains (cc. 565 – 572) in hospital, jail, religious house of Sisters/brothers, in ship and in army have the faculty to hear confession of the faithful entrusted to them. Priests who do not have the faculty by law can obtain from the local Ordinary of the diocese of incardination or the local Ordinary of their domicile (can. 967,2). Habitual faculty is to be given in writing (can. 973). Local Ordinary should not grant the faculty to an outside priest unless the proper Ordinary of the priest has been consulted (can. 971).

Religious priest receive faculty in the manner as diocesan priests. In clerical religious institutes and societies of apostolic life of pontifical right superiors can in virtue of their office hear the confessions of their subjects and of all who live day and night in the religious house (can. 968, 2). The same superiors can give the faculty to both member priests and to any other priests to hear confessions of their subjects and of those who live day and night in the house (can. 969, 2).

The faculty cases by the loss of office, by the loss of domicile or excardination. The local Ordinary or the competent superior may not revoke the grant of a habitual faculty without a grave reason (can. 974, 1). For a grave reason those who can give the faculty may also revoke the faculty. Those who lose the faculty may not hear confession anywhere.

In danger of death any priest even a laicized priest has the faculty to absolve a penitent from all sins and censures even if another priest is present (can. 976). In case of inadvertence when faculty has expired a priest hears the confessions validly (can. 142, 2). In case of common error a priest absolves penitents validly (can. 144). In accordance with the norm in can. 844, 2 a catholic, who has the physical or moral grave inconvenience in approaching a catholic minister, can approach a minister of a non-catholic church who can validly administer the sacrament of reconciliation.

Earlier we have mentioned that Lateran IV made the annual confession obligatory. This binds a person only in case of mortal sin (can. 989). However, the Church today in the present legislation advocates frequent confessions of devotion. Canons 276, 5, 664 and 246, 4 respectively direct the clerics, the religious and seminarians to approach the sacrament of penance frequently.

Each time a penitent is required to make an integral confession, Integrity of confession demands that all mortal since committed which have not yet been submitted to the power of keys be confessed in according to the species and number. Venial sins are fee matter of confession. Confessions should be made orally. However, for a just reason written confession is legitimate. In accordance with the directives of the Holy See as per the Declaration of the Congregation of Sacraments (24/5/1973) the practice of sacramental penance before First Holy Communion is to be kept. It also said that all experiments to the contrary were to cease.

Sacramental confession by the baptized joining the Catholic Church: Here thre are two categories, i.e the validly baptized and the doubtfully baptized. Those who re validly baptized make the sacramental confession. Confession preferably is to be made before the rite of reception in the Catholic Church because while being received in the Church they receive the sacrament of confirmation and Holy Eucharist. In case of those who are doubtfully baptized, conditional baptism is given. However, it is fitting that confession is made and absolution is given conditionally.

On some occasions like retreat there is a practice of making general confession in which a penitent confesses all the mortal sins of the whole life and his habitual tendencies to sins. It is a confession of devotion; it is beneficial if a person is more deeply sorry and prays for a fuller spiritual healing. However, a confessor may not oblige a person to make a general confession. In such confessions new sins should be clearly indicated.

In danger of death if a person is still conscious he should be helped to make confession and must be absolved unless the right disposition is certainly lacking. In case of doubt absolution is given conditionally. In danger of death if a person is not conscious any more, he should be given absolution if he before lapsing in unconsciousness gave a sign of sorrow. If there is reasonable doubt regarding his proper disposition, absolution should be given conditionally. If no previous sign of repentance is shown but the person is known to be a good catholic, then absolution must be given. In accordance with the provision made in can. 1357 a priest while hearing confession can remit a latae sententiae censure of excommunication or interdict which has not been declared if it is difficult for the penitent to remain in the state of grave sin. However the recourse to the competent authority is to be made within a month which can be done through the confessor,

General absolution: The practice began in war situations and it was declared expired in 1919. On 10th December, 1940 Sacred Penitentiary again granted permission to give general absolution when individual confessions were not possible. Present legislation prescribing the conditions for licit general absolution and valid reception of the sacrament is following:-

Conditions for licit general absolution: (can. 961 #1)

– threat of danger of death such as war and epidemic

– the adequate number of priest not available for individual confessions or the confessor has no time and the penitents may be deprived of sacramental grace or holy communion for a lengthy period of time.
Conditions for valid reception of general absolution:


– make true contrition
– resolve to confess grave sins in due time.
– Externally manifest the desire to receive absolution.

Seal of confession: The strict norm regarding the seal of confession ws promulgated at Lateran IV. The present day legislation is contained in cc. 983 – 985.

Ways in which confessional seal may be violated are the following:-

– Revelation of the identity of the penitent and sins (Direct violation)
– Revelation in such a manner that there is a danger that the hearer might identify either the sinner or the sin (Indirect violation)
– Use of confessional knowledge.
If there is direct violation, the priest incurs latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Holy See (can. 1388, 1). If there is deliberate indirect violation the priest is to be punished accordingly to the guilt and gravity (can. 1388, 2).

Persons bound by confessional seal:

– confessor
– interpreter
– persons who overheard
– persons to whom confessional matter is revealed.
Abuses in the celebration of the sacrament:

a. Absolving the accomplice with whom the confessor committed sexual sin (can. 977). The priest incurs latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Holy See (can. 1378, 1).

b. Solicitation: In confession if the confessor solicits a penitent to commit sexual sin, he is to be punished according to the gravity of the offence, with suspension, prohibition and deprivations. In more serious cases he is to be dismissed from the clerical state (can. 1387).

I conclude by making a reference to can. 986 which speaks of the pastors’ obligation to hear confessions of the faithful, and of making sacramental grace available to them. This is the duty of the pastors.