As a consequence of our first parents’ fall, human will became weakened. The capacity to recognize and choose the good was also enfeebled. In their relations with God and neighbour and in their attitude towards themselves and their environment, human persons began to be guided not by love and self-giving but by an egotistic exploitation of the other for personal and consumeristic gain. A consequence of the Fall is the loss of every person’s wholeness. This manifests itself in physical and spiritual suffering, in sickness and death.
Christ came into the world to heal and save the human race, to renew the wholeness lost by human persons. During his earthly life, Christ, the healer of human souls and bodies, remitted sins and healed the sick. After his Ascension, he continues to do this in his Church by the power of the Holy Spirit in the Holy Mysteries of Repentance and Holy Anointing.
The Holy Mystery of Repentance
The Holy Mystery of Repentance (or Confession) is a marvellous manifestation of God’s love and mercy towards us sinners. This is because the Lord does not reject us and does not turn away from us when we, having been washed of our sins in Baptism and endowed with divine grace, sin again through malice or weakness. Indeed, the Lord awaits our repentance. He forgives us if we repent and confess our sins (see Lk 15:12-32).
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In the celebration of the Holy Mystery of Repentance, the Church actualizes the words of the Lord to the apostles: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” ( Jn 20:22-23). Every priest continues the apostolic ministry in the Mystery of Repentance when he absolves the faithful of their sins and reconciles them with the Church. The priest pronounces the prayer of absolution (the loosing from the bondage of sin) and every penitent thereby receives Christ’s forgiveness.
Spiritual Struggle and Repentance
The vocation of the Christian to share in the life of Christ and to participate in his mission requires unceasing efforts in the spiritual struggle with passions and sins: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cos-mic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). The spiritual struggle of the Chris-tian begins with the public renunciation of the devil and the joining to Christ in the Holy Mystery of Baptism. Subsequently, the strengthen-ing of the Christian in his or her spiritual growth is realized through participation in the Mysteries of Repentance and the Eucharist.
Nevertheless, God does not turn away from the person who sinned.
In the spiritual struggle, the Christian is not ‘left to fend for himself.’ Rather, by the power of the Holy Spirit the Christian acts together with Christ (in synergy) under the Church’s maternal care. Even though we have been called to grow gradually “to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13), through human weakness we often go astray, lose hope in God’s love, or freely and consciously cooperate with the powers of evil. Nevertheless, God does not turn away from the person who sinned. Instead, in his love and mercy he grants the possibility of repenting—that is, to return to the life that flows from Baptism:
“Remember, then, from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first” (Rev 2:5).
To repent means to come to know and confess one’s faults, and to renounce sin:
Those who confess their sins and accuse themselves for them already work with God. God accuses your sins: and if you also accuse them, you are united to God … And when your own deeds will begin to displease you, from that time your good works begin, as you find fault with your own evil works. The confession of evil works is the beginning of good works: You are doing the truth, and coming to the light.
Ongoing repentance is not about focusing on one’s faults and offenses. It is first of all about discovering God’s love. In the light of God’s love we realize to what extent sin separates us from him and prevents us from abiding in his love. “The one who sins does so because they do not appreciate the value and importance of God’s grace. To bring someone to repentance one must first of all clearly and fundamentally show them the magnitude of God’s gift, which they lose through grave sin.”
Frequent Confession allows us to know not only our faults and offenses, but also our weaknesses and inclinations to sin. Through the grace of the Mystery of Repentance, the Christian overcomes sins and the tendency to sin. This grace also raises up the Christian after a fall, and strengthens him or her in the virtues. The fruits of repentance are good works, almsgiving, purity of heart, and sacrificial love. The gift of the Mystery of Repentance is forgiveness from God and reconciliation with him: “[Give] thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:12-14).
The Rite of Confession
Confession is made before a priest, who is a witness of the sinner’s repentance and a mediator of God’s forgiveness:
Know, O child, that Christ himself, our Saviour, who knows all the hidden secrets of people’s hearts, is invisibly present, accepting your confession. Therefore do not conceal from me, whether from shame or from fear, anything of your sins … Beware that, having come for healing, you do not leave unhealed.
At the same time, the priest helps penitents to know the state of their soul, confirms their faith in God’s forgiveness, offers spiritual counsel, designates an appropriate spiritual remedy (in Greek, epitimia, i.e., penance), and gives the absolution. As regards the contents of a penitent’s confession, the priest is obliged to maintain the strictest secrecy, even after the penitent’s death.
Preparation for Confession requires a prayerful examination of one’s conscience. This consists of aligning our life with the divine commandments, the Church’s precepts, and the Gospel Beatitudes. Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky teaches:
A good Confession requires, perhaps, a lengthier preparation. Before holy Confession we should beseech God in prayer for the gift of repentance, the gift of heartfelt tears. Maybe there is even a need to fast, since you know what Jesus Christ said: “This kind can come out only through prayer and fasting” [see Mk 9:29]. There are sins that cannot be expelled from the soul without fasting, without prayer.346An important condition of Confession is sincere repentance, the desire to change one’s life. This means having contrition, or sorrow for sins, and a resolution to make amends.
Before holy Confession we should beseech God in prayer for the gift of repentance, the gift of heartfelt tears
Sincere repentance is first of all realizing that one is a sinner in need of God’s forgiveness, and seeing that one’s sins have caused a turning away from God and rejection of his love. An important requisite of Confession is also reconciliation with one’s neighbour: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24).
Approaching Confession, the penitent receives from the priest a blessing for the Confession. The penitent signs himself or herself with the sign of the holy cross. The penitent then sincerely confesses all the sins committed since the last Confession, and accepts the guidance of the confessor as well as the assigned penance (epitimia). The priest then pronounces the absolution of sins. The epitimia is an ascetic exercise in virtues that are contrary to the sins that had been committed. The aim is to eradicate the habitual inclination to sin and to correct its consequences.
The epitimia is an ascetic exercise in virtues that are contrary to the sins that had been committed.
If a person has no desire to repent, and refuses to amend the damage caused by sin, he or she thereby becomes incapable of receiving forgive-ness of sins, even if they have come to Confession. In order to help such a person understand their lack of repentance and motivate them to true conversion, the priest can refuse him or her absolution. Anyone intentionally concealing grave sins in Confession remains unhealed and commits a sin of sacrilege. If a person in such a state approaches Holy Communion, he or she offends the Lord and commits a grave sin.
The Significance of Confession in the Spiritual Life
In the Holy Mystery of Repentance, God grants the Christian growth in the grace of Baptism and the virtues. The closer we come to God, we see our own weaknesses and sinfulness more clearly and thus feel the need for more frequent Confession. According to the spiritual Fathers, if a person confesses rarely, he or she gradually loses the capacity to distinguish between good and evil, which has negative consequences for his or her whole life.
Frequent Confession makes a person spiritually sound, capable of resisting temptation; and it increases their vigour in the spiritual struggle. Appropriate occasions for Confession are the [four] fasts of the liturgical year, during which, according to Church custom, the whole family approaches the Holy Mystery of Confession.
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