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In the days of the Dutch masters of art, there was a noted painter who had wasted his youth in wickedness and depravity. Coming to his senses later in life, he bitterly regretted his sins and resolved to make up for them.
One of the painter's best-known works depicts the 13th Station of the Cross, the taking down of Our Lord from the Cross. Prominent in the painting is the man who pulled the nails from our Savior's sacred Flesh. The person painted into that role was the painter himself. When asked why he used himself as the model for that man, he replied (with considerable feeling), "God knows I've driven innumerable cruel nails into my Lord, crucifying Him over and over with my sins. Don't you think it's about time for me to tenderly and lovingly pull out a few of those horrid nails?"
This is a man who understood the value of confession and penance, both of which are topics of this article. We've already looked at the first three elements necessary to make a good confession: an examination of conscience, contrition and a firm purpose of amendment. Now, let's continue with the fourth element — confession of our sins to a priest.
Confession is the actual telling of our sins to a priest. This is the only way a priest can absolve us of our sins, as he has no way of knowing what to absolve without first hearing it.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church lays out confession this way:
The confession (or disclosure) of sins, even from a simply human point of view, frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an admission, man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church (in order to make a new future possible).
When I'm teaching non-Catholics interested in joining the Church, this is ordinarily where I begin to teach them the proper form and sequence for the actual act of confessing in the confessional. But we lack the room here, and I don't want to insult those who have gone to confession since childhood, even if irregularly. Believe me, there are plenty of sources around for you to learn this from, and your confessor would be most happy to help you learn the proper way to go to confession.
While we must confess every mortal sin when going to confession, the Church strongly encourages us to confess venial sins as well.
"Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church," the Catechism instructs. "Indeed, the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit."
The Church requires us to confess all "grave sins" at least once a year (during the Easter season). Her pastors have suggested that we go at least once a month, but tell us the best thing for the benefit of our soul is to go every week, even if the matter for our confessions consists only of venial sins.
We receive a penance from the confessor, to make at least some present satisfaction for our sins. The sacrament of penance always removes all the eternal punishment in Hell that is the wages of mortal sin, but it doesn't necessarily remove all of the temporal punishment. The debt of temporal punishment can only be satisfied on earth or in Purgatory. Since there's no merit in Purgatory, and since Purgatory isn't a pleasant place, we're far and away better off to satisfy the debt we owe God in this life.
The means of satisfying this debt, which also contribute to our own sanctification, are as follows:
Since we mentioned indulgences in the last paragraph, let's talk about them for a moment — especially since so few people even know what they are anymore. An indulgence is the remission of the whole or part of the temporal punishment we are owed due to forgiven sin, granted by the pope or bishops out of the Church's spiritual treasury (which is made up of the infinite redemptive merits of Jesus Christ and the superabundant merits of the saints). An indulgence can remit the whole or part of the punishment due the sinner by God. Remember, Jesus told Peter (Matthew 16:18) and the Apostles (Matthew 18:18) that they have the power of binding and loosing.
The divine power of the Church to grant indulgences can be better understood if we analogously compare it with the State's power to remit all or part of a convicted felon's court-imposed punishment. The president (in federal cases) and the governors (in cases pertaining to their respective state) each have a right to commute a felon's sentence. Moreover, such executives can give prisoners time off their sentences for good behavior.
The State may grant a convicted felon a pardon or commutation even if he isn't sorry for his crime. The Church, however, never remits temporal punishment unless the sinner has true sorrow.
Indulgences are granted in two forms — plenary and partial. A plenary indulgence remits all of the punishment for forgiven sins. A partial indulgence remits a portion of the punishment for forgiven sins. And although we should be interested in gaining indulgences for ourselves (because Purgatory isn't any fun), we may also gain them for the poor souls in Purgatory (who know Purgatory isn't fun).
We gain indulgences by being in a state of grace, having the desire to gain the indulgence and performing the good acts required by the Church. For a plenary indulgence, these Church-required acts include making a good confession and receiving Communion within a reasonable period before or after the indulgenced act.
Now that we've covered sufficiently (but by no means deeply) the sacrament of penance, I hope you will more frequently avail yourself of its benefits. Regarding indulgences, I also hope you'll begin to seek them out for yourself and your loved ones who have gone ahead of you to eternal life. Next, we will look at the anointing of the sick.