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Chapter 4: Repentance, the Sacrament of Penance, and the Struggle against Sin


As a result of sin, people are alienated from God, at odds with one another, and inwardly divided. Revelation therefore comes as an offer of salvation and a promise of reconciliation, while the call to faith—the commitment by which one accepts God’s offer—also is a call to change one’s life radically. It follows that the Church is a community of repentance and reconciliation.

Seen in this perspective, Christian asceticism aims at human fulfillment. Moreover, since the call to authentic repentance is essential to the gospel, one’s responsibilities in this sphere should be gladly accepted. Still, sins and their effects last; they are not easy to overcome. Thus, the responsibilities to repent and be reconciled are continuous, while one’s growth toward holiness is gradual and should be lifelong.

Besides the sacrament of penance and the acceptance of suffering with resignation, Christian life should include other penitential works. Some acts are more appropriately penitential than others, and the traditional triad of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving remain highly fitting. At the same time, one’s personal penance should be supplemented by taking advantage of indulgences.

The sacrament of penance should be received when appropriate. That means rather often, even if one is not guilty of mortal sin, since the sacrament is effective in the struggle against venial sin. The sacrament requires self-examination and contrition for sins, and contrition includes the will to confess and a firm purpose of amendment, that is, the determination to avoid future sin. While penitents are free within limits to choose their confessors, they should do so carefully.

The confession of sins is essential to the sacrament of penance, and would be prudent even if it were not essential. All mortal sins committed after baptism must be confessed. Satisfaction for sins, the “penance” imposed by the confessor, also is essential.

Besides using the sacrament of penance, people should strive to overcome sin by prayer, self-denial, and serving others; the Eucharist is the basic way of overcoming sin. Also, it is necessary to avoid or modify the occasions of sin and to expect and resist temptations.

One’s responsibilities for the moral welfare of others include admonishing (traditionally called “fraternally correcting”) those who seem to be sinning and avoiding leading others into sin (“giving scandal”).

Finally, it is necessary to see the whole of Christian life as a preparation for death. This includes facing the likelihood of death realistically and humbly submitting to God’s will. Christians should visit those who face death, and pray and worship with them; and the dying should prepare themselves spiritually by receiving Holy Communion and the sacrament of anointing.1

1. Many of the topics treated in this chapter were treated in CMP, 32, which centers on the sacrament of penance as an organizing principle of Christian life. So, although the present treatment stands on its own, study or review of CMP, 32, will be profitable.