“Receive the Holy Spirit,” said the risen Lord to his apostles. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The sacrament of Penance, instituted by Christ himself, is one of the greatest gifts of Divine Mercy, but it is widely neglected. To help rekindle a new appreciation for such a profound gift of Divine Mercy, the Register presents this special section.
The sacrament of reconciliation, also called the “second baptism” or “second reconciliation,” plays a central role within the sacramental septenary, within the seven great signs, instituted, directly or indirectly, by Christ and entrusted to his Church.
After baptism and together with the Eucharist, sacramental reconciliation is truly the “sacrament of the way,” the indispensable sacrament for constant personal and social conversion.
Perhaps never before has its urgency been more felt, at a time when we are called to a profound personal revision, to review our lifestyles, to rethink our very own life itself. As often happens, we realize the importance of a reality only when we are deprived of it. Just think of all the parts of the world where it has become impossible, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, to celebrate Holy Mass with the People of God. A great many — too many — people can only pray through the media, making spiritual communion. We are certain of what St. Augustine says: “God who has bound salvation to the sacraments has not bound himself to the sacraments.”
Nevertheless, this “suspension” of ordinary sacramental practice is certainly a serious wound to the Body of the Church, as well as to the hearts of the faithful; like all wounds, it must heal. The sacrament, let us always recall, is the very touch of Christ, of the Incarnate Word; the sacrament obeys exactly the logic of the Incarnation, of salvation that passes through the mediation of flesh and matter.
Therefore, the sacrament of reconciliation is, in itself, indispensable, and the norms promulgated on March 20 by the Apostolic Penitentiary, and signed on March 19, the Solemnity of St. Joseph, patron saint of the universal Church, tend only to emphasize this indispensability.
Linked to the sacrament is, of course, the inner attitude of the heart: repentance, which is the first act of the penitent, necessary for the valid celebration of the sacrament. It is contrition of charity (perfect contrition for sins), or attrition (imperfect contrition, that is, fear of damage or fear of the consequences of one’s sin).
The Act of Contrition, composed by St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, the founder of moral theology, is a prayer unsurpassed, both for its popular simplicity and for its theological completeness and correctness.
Combining the act of contrition with a truly penitent heart, that is to say, with what is called the virtue of penance, it is possible to obtain, even by extra-sacramental means, the forgiveness of sins, even mortal ones, by internally expressing the votum sacramenti, that is, the intention to confess as soon as possible (as soon as the urgency is over) the mortal sins of which one is aware.
A conversion on all levels appears urgent and necessary — first of all, starting from personal conversion, the truth and quality of our faith, of our personal relationship with God. He is the Lord and Creator, and too often we have forgotten him. This extraordinary, dramatic circumstance also educates us to recover the supernatural perspective of life: that is, the certainty that not everything ends up on the perspective of this world.
The recovery of the supernatural perspective does not debase earthly life; on the contrary, it exalts its irreplaceable importance, for eternal life is built on, and “gains,” by participating in Christ’s victory on the cross, through the attitudes assumed and the works accomplished in this earthly life.
If we do not recognize eternal life, even earthly life loses all meaning! Christ has promised us that we will rise with him if we die with Jesus.
The Lord Jesus Christ did not come into this world for a simple “30-year apparition,” but became man in order to save man from the inside and to open up to him the horizons of Trinitarian life, of grace and divinization.
Let us universally recover the penitent attitude and listen to the words of the Lord who, still today, repeats to us, with extraordinary truth, the words of Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.”
Only by recognizing his divinity and recognizing our dependence on him, at all levels — simple and intellectual, of people and rulers, of individuals and nations — can we obtain the grace of forgiveness and see our lives and societies renewed.
May the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy, obtain for us this grace, and may she make an ever-penitent heart grow in us, and atonement for our sins and those of the whole world. Let us always focus on two fundamental elements: faith and humility.
Cardinal Mauro Piacenza is the major penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican dicastery that oversees the absolution of excommunications reserved to the Holy See, the dispensation of sacramental impediments reserved to the Holy See, and the issuance and governance of indulgences. This essay was translated from the original Italian.