“Repentance is grace; it is a grace that we recognize our sin; it is a grace that we realize the need for renewal, for change, for the transformation of our being.
Repentance, the capacity to be penitent, is a gift of grace. And I must say that we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word penitence – it seemed to us too difficult. Now, under the attacks of the world that speak of our sins, we see that the capacity to repent is a grace. And we see that it is necessary to do penance, that is, to recognize what is wrong in our lives, open ourselves to forgiveness, and prepare ourselves for pardon by allowing ourselves to be transformed.” Pope Benedict XVI, Homily for Mass with Members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Pauline Chapel, Apostolic Palace, 15 April 2010.
We have a “confessional culture.” It seems at every moment someone, somewhere is shouting for our attention, eager to confess from the rooftops what Catholics have the opportunity to whisper in the confessional. The “confessional culture” around us shouts itself hoarse for it can confess, but there is no absolution. Sin confessed but unredeemed either leads to despair or is trivialized. We see the despair in the vast anguish that fuels an enormous therapeutic industry. We see the trivialization in the celebrity scandals that become not occasions for averted eyes, but fodder for jokes.
Our culture does not need to be taught how to confess; it needs to discover where forgiveness can be found. Our culture does not need to further expose the stain of its sinfulness; it needs to discover the only One who can wash it away. We Catholics have the blessing of teaching our “confessional culture” about true mercy, but we cannot give what we do not have!
My fellow Catholics, reading the four Gospel accounts together, we can see that the Sacrament of Penance is not some kind of later invention, some afterthought, something leftover, and something ancillary. Rather it belongs to the very heart of Christ’s saving and redeeming work. On the day that His passion begins, the Lord Jesus gave us the Eucharist and the priesthood. On the day of the resurrection, the Lord Jesus gave us the Sacrament of Penance and, as it were, completed the institution of the priesthood. All three sacraments are born from the heart of the Church in the Cenacle; all three are inserted into the heart of the redemptive and salvific work of Christ Jesus; all are three lie at the heart of the Catholic life in every age.
Indeed, the Cross lives between the altar and the confessional!
The words of forgiveness (absolution) the priest speaks over the person in the confessional are beautiful, “God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church may God grant you pardon and peace and I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen”.
Pastoral Letter to the People of New York by Cardinal Timothy Dolan on March 17, 2011