THE SACRAMENT of Penance involves both inner peace, which the Spirit alone can bring, and the search for inner wholeness, which the Holy Spirit inspires in a contrite heart. These are the essential components of a complete conversion of life, something Jesus demands right at the beginning of His preaching.“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God and saying,‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel'”(Mk 1, 14-15). Conversion involves two necessary movements: We renounce our sins; and we adhere with positive faith to Christ and, through Him, to the Holy Trinity.

Metanoia, or repentance, is an indispensable part of every serious conversion. When we commit sins after Baptism, this metanoia involves a confession or declaration of our faith in the power of grace. The Christian joyfully struggles with the weaknesses left in his character after the Fall.“Nevertheless the new life received in Christian initiation has not abolished the frailty and weakness of human nature, nor the inclination to sin that tradition calls concupiscence, which remains in the baptized”(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1426). We all struggle with this on a daily basis. We die on a daily basis.

A great aid in this struggle is the Sacrament of Penanceor “'confession'—acknowledgmentand praise—of the holiness of God and of his mercy toward sinful man”(CCC, 1426). The renunciation of sin always involves a positive proclamation of the power of God's grace and love. Like all love though, it must be acknowledged and interiorly sought in order to be fruitful.

Interior fruitfulness of any sort expresses a movement of the mind and heart. The movement away from sin has traditionally hinged on three required acts on the part of the penitent:“be contrite of heart, confess with the lips, and practice complete humility and fruitful satisfaction”(Roman Catechism II, V, 21; Council of Trent {1551}: DS 1673; CCC, 1451).

Many people have either lost the sense of sin in their lives completely or they make mechanical confessions of deeds, as though they were mere instances of behavior involving body only—without any relationship to the formation of the heart. All spiritual authors agree that a true conversion of heart begins with a desire to free oneself from sin and to pursue virtue.

Interior sorrow for sin is the first requisite for ongoing conversion. One moves away from those acts which destroy or compromise our connection to inner life with God. This is contrition. One may have perfect contrition because of pure love of God. To obtain forgivenessinconfession,however,sorrowfor motives that are less pure, like the fear of hell, suffices. This is called attrition or imperfect contrition.“In itself … imperfect contrition cannot obtain forgiveness of grace sins, but it disposes one to obtain forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance”(CCC, 1453). Perfect contrition can remit mortal sins, but to do this it must include“a firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible”(CCC, 1452).

Some think that the general confession which the faithful make at the beginning of Mass is sufficient for the forgiveness of grave sins and that they can continue to receive Communion for many years without actually ever enunciating their sins to a priest. This is true of venial sins, but not for mortal sins. Interior movements of the heart must lead to external acts, speaking our sins out loud. How would one measure the devotion of a lover who protested that he has great interior love for his beloved but never visits her, never expresses his regret for injuries done her, never kisses her, never expresses his love for her? Contrition of heart is proven by confession on the lips.“Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance:‘All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligentself-examinationareconsciousmustbe recounted by them in confession'”(CCC, 1456).

Private confession to Christ—through the mediation of the Church in the person of the human priest— is an essential expression of sorrow. The penitent reveals that part of his personal life to which he wishes to apply the healing remedy of divine grace. To purposely hide sins in confession or to avoid confessing them reveals a lack of honest contrition.“Anyone who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion, even if he experience deep contrition without having first received sacramental absolution, unless he has a grave reason for receiving Communion and there is no possibility of going to confession”(CCC, n. 1457).

Personal conversion includes the desire to make right our wrongs, including those done to another. For thisreason,everyonewhoconfessesreceivesa penance to perform which strengthens the sincere desire to make amends. This is also known as making satisfaction.“Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused”(CCC, 1459). Making satisfaction is most fruitful when the penitent performs the penance assigned by the confessor and looks on each joy and suffering as an opportunity to seal one's repentance.

Father Brian Mullady, O.P., teaches theology at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Conn.