Penance & Reconcilation


‘A pure heart create for me, O God,
Put a steadfast spirit within me.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit:
a humble and contrite heart you will not spurn.’

Penance is the sacrament instituted by Christ for the forgiveness of sins; it is also known as the sacrament of ‘conversion’, ‘confession’ or ‘reconciliation’. This sacrament answers our deep need to acknowledge and confess our sin, to receive pardon from God our Father and so be reconciled to Him and to those we have harmed by our sins. In the sacrament of Penance we encounter Christ, our divine Physician, who loves us with an unconditional and everlasting love, so this sacrament is also known as sacrament of healing.


Through the sacraments of Christian initiation – Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist – we receive the new life of Christ; yet we are still subject to suffering, illness and death, and this new life can be weakened and even lost by sin.

There are two kinds of sin: mortal and venial. Mortal or deadly sin is a deliberate and radical turning away from God arising from clear knowledge and with full consent in a truly serious matter. It brings the loss of sanctifying grace and the risk of eternal exclusion from the kingdom of God. Venial sins damage a person’s relationship with God and with others, but do not entail a fundamental choice to turn against God.

The seven deadly sins are considered to be the root of all other sins: pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth.

Institution of the Sacrament

In the Old Testament God called his people to repentance:

‘Come back to me with all your heart... turn to your God again, for he is all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, and ready to relent’ (Joel 2:12-13).

In a passage like this we can see God’s desire for the healing of the human race from its addiction to sin. Christ is the embodiment of this desire and also the means by which the healing from sin takes place.

Jesus instituted in his Church the sacrament of penance (Jn 20:22). To Peter, who was made the firm foundation of the Church, when he had professed Jesus to be the Messiah, He said: I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matt. 18.18).

After He rose from the dead, Jesus extended this power of binding and loosing to his disciples. He showed himself to his apostles, and as He breathed on them He said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit, if you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’

Since then the Catholic Church has exercised this authority, and has always believed that Christ continues to forgive sins in His Church.
Thus the faithful who fall into sin after Baptism may be reconciled with God and renewed in grace.

Inner and Outer

Each sacrament has an outward, visible sign that we can see, touch and hear and this external sign assures us of the inward, spiritual grace we receive. In the sacrament of Penance, the physical, outward sign is the penitents’ confession of their sins and the absolution given by the priest; the spiritual or inward grace is the cleansing from sin and guilt, and the grace given to loosen the power of sin in our lives.

Three things make up confession:

  • contrition: real sorrow in the heart;
  • confession: expressing our sorrow; and
  • amendment: sincerely intending to follow God’s will in the future.

The virtue of Penance consists in a real desire to turn from sin and be once again oriented towards God. If we are truly sorry we shall want to make amends and will try our hardest not to sin again. Making amends, or penance, can take various forms: prayer, fasting, almsgiving or some other good work, and should facilitate the conversion from sin to God.

The Rite of Reconciliation

We can make our confession to the priest anywhere. He will never tell anyone what we have told him in confession; this is called the ‘seal of the confessional’.

Before presenting ourselves to the priest for the sacrament of Penance we should make an examination of conscience; we need to ask the Holy Spirit to help us to see and to admit our faults, and the Spirit of God will enable us to recall the kind of choices we have made according to the requirements of the Ten Com-mandments, and especially the great commandment that Jesus gave, that we love one another.

As we present ourselves to the priest, either in the confessional or in open confession (face to face) we make the sign of the cross and ask for pardon and absolution. We tell the priest how long it has been since our last confession, and then proceed to accuse ourselves of those sins we have committed through our own fault: in thought, word and deed, and in those things that we ought to have done but have failed to do.

The priest will help us with any difficulty we may have in identifying or voicing our faults and failings. It is wise to remember that we are confessing to our Lord Himself - who is full of mercy, kindness, and forgiveness towards us - no matter what we have done or not done.

When we have finished telling our sins, the priest may give us counsel and advice for particular sins or difficulties we have mentioned. He will ask if there is anything else we may wish to add before inviting us to make an act of contrition; this prayer to our Heavenly Father can be in our own words or we can say a form of words such as: ‘O my God, because you are so good, I am very sorry that I have sinned against you and by the help of your grace I will not sin again’.

The priest will ask us to make amends, and to make an act of penance; for example, using some of the prayers of the Church - the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory be, and so on. He will then say the words of absolution:

‘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 give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’.


The spiritual effects of the sacrament of Penance are: reconciliation with God by which the penitent recovers grace; reconciliation with the Church; remission of the eternal punishment incurred by mortal sin; remission, at least in part, of temporal punishments resulting from sin; peace and serenity of conscience, and spiritual consolation; as well as an increase of spiritual strength for the Christian battle against evil.

The parable of the Prodigal son clearly illustrates for us the sacrament of reconciliation: it shows the working of sin in the younger son, his selfishness, greed and lust. It also shows his gradual awareness of his folly and his following conversion and repentance. The parable tells of the total forgiveness of the father who has not once stopped hoping for his son’s return, so that when the son eventually reaches home dejected and heartily sorry for his behaviour, the father runs lovingly to greet him. And this is what happens for Christians in the sacrament of Penance: God our Father lovingly ‘runs’ to meet us as we return to Him, humbly admitting our faults.

Although the sacrament of Penance normally takes place privately, secretly between priest and penitent, there are also communal acts of penance, and services of reconciliation, although the Church teaches there must always be the individual confession of sins and individual absolution. These usually take place in Lent and Advent, as part of our spiritual preparation for the two great feasts in the Church’s year: Easter and Christmas. The Ash Wednesday mass is a great public act of penance. The whole season of Lent is an opportunity to consider carefully our failings and make recompense for them, and to make an extra effort to improve our relationship with God and our neighbour.

The Psalmist reminds us that ‘To You, O God, all flesh will come with its burden of sin. Too heavy for us, our offences, but you wipe them away’.
For the only one who can bridge the gap that exists between man with his burden of guilt (arising from wrong choices) and the holiness of a just and righteous God, is one who is himself both God and man - Jesus Christ.

These pages have been provided by Margaret Delfanne, a catechist and professional artist living in Kent, England.