What is the Sacrament of Penance? Trent Catechism

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

The Catechism of the Council of Trent

(Part II, Chapter 5)


Aggravating circumstances when necessary to be mentioned in confession. 

In confession we should employ all that care and exactness which we usually bestow upon worldly concerns of the greatest moment, and all our efforts should be directed to effect the cure of our spiritual maladies and to eradicate sin from the soul. With the bare enumeration of our mortal sins, we should not be satisfied; that enumeration we should accompany with the relation of such circumstances as considerably aggravate or extenuate their malice. Some circumstances are such, as of themselves to constitute mortal guilt; on no account or occasion whatever, therefore, are such circumstances to be omitted. Has any one imbrued his hands in the blood of his fellow man? He must state whether his victim was a layman or an ecclesiastic. Has he had criminal intercourse with any one? He must state whether the female was married or unmarried, a relative or a person consecrated to God by vow. These are circumstances which alter the species of the sins: the first is called simple fornication; the second adultery; the third incest; and the fourth sacrilege. Again, theft is numbered in the catalogue of sins; but if a person has stolen a guinea, his sin is less grievous than if he had stolen one or two hundred guineas, or a considerable sum; and if the stolen money were sacred, the sin would be still aggravated. To time and place the same observation equally applies; but the instances in which these circumstances alter the complexion of an act, are so familiar and are enumerated by so many writers, as to supersede the necessity of a lengthened detail. [When unnecessary.] Circumstances such as these are, therefore, to be mentioned; but those, which do not considerably aggravate, may be lawfully omitted.

Concealment of a sin in confession a grievous crime: the confession is to be repeated.

So important, as we have already said, is integrity to confession, that if the penitent wilfully neglect to accuse himself of some sins which should be confessed, and suppress others, he not only does not obtain the pardon of his sins, but involves himself in deeper guilt. Such an enumeration cannot be called sacramental confession: on the contrary, the penitent must repeat his confession, not omitting to accuse himself of having, under the semblance of confession, profaned the sanctity of the sacrament. [Omission of a sin thro’ forgetfulness does not render it necessary to repeat the confession.] But should the confession seem defective, either because the penitent forgot some grievous sins, or because although intent on confessing all his sins, he did not explore the recesses of his conscience with extraordinary minuteness, he is not bound to repeat his confession: it will be sufficient, when he recollects the sins which he had forgotten, to confess them to a priest on a future occasion. We are not, however, to examine our consciences with careless indifference, or evince such negligence in recalling our sins to our recollection, as if we were unwilling to remember them; and should this have been the case, the confession must be reiterated.

Confession should be plain, simple, undisguised.

Our confession should also be plain, simple, and undisguised, not clothed in that artificial language with which some invest it, who seem more disposed to give an outline of their general manner of living, than to confess their sins. Our confession should be such as to reflect a true image of our lives, such as we ourselves know them to be, exhibiting as doubtful that which is doubtful, and as certain that which is certain. If, then, we neglect to enumerate our sins, or introduce extraneous matter, our confession, it is clear, wants this quality.

Prudent, and modest.

Prudence and modesty in explaining matters of confession are also much to be commended, and a superfluity of words is to be carefully avoided: whatever is necessary to make known the nature of every sin, is to be explained briefly and modestly.

Secrecy to be observed by priest and penitent.

Secrecy should be strictly observed as well by penitent as priest, and, hence, because in such circumstances secrecy must be insecure, no one can, on any account, confess by messenger or letter.

Frequent Confession

But above all, the faithful should be most careful to cleanse their consciences from sin by frequent confession: when oppressed by mortal guilt, nothing can be more salutary, so precarious is human life, than to have immediate recourse to the tribunal of penance; but could we even promise ourselves length of days, yet should not we who are so particular in whatever relates to cleanliness of dress or person, blush to evince less concern in preserving the lustre of the soul pure and unsullied from the foul stains of sin.

The minister of the sacrament of penance.

We now come to treat of the minister of this sacrament—That the minster of the sacrament of penance must be a priest possessing ordinary or delegated jurisdiction, the laws of the Church sufficiently declare: whoever discharges this sacred function must be invested, not only with the power of orders, but also with that of jurisdiction. Of this ministry we have an illustrious proof in these words of the Redeemer, recorded by St. John: “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven, and whose sins you shall retain they are retained;” [John xx. 23.] words addressed not to all but to the Apostles only, to whom, in this function of the ministry, priests succeed. This admirably accords with the economy of religion, for as the grace imparted by this sacrament emanates from Christ the head, and is diffused through his members, they who alone have power to consecrate his true body, should alone have power to administer this sacrament to his mystical body, the faithful; particularly as they are qualified and disposed by means of the sacrament of penance, to receive the Holy Eucharist. The scrupulous care which, in the primitive ages of the Church, guarded the right of the ordinary priest, is very intelligible from the ancient decrees of the Fathers, which provided, “that no bishop or priest, except in case of necessity, presume to exercise any function in the parish of another without the authority of the ordinary;” a law which derives its sanction from the Apostle, when he commanded Titus to ordain priests in every city, [Tit. i. 5.] to administer to the faithful the heavenly food of doctrine and of the sacraments. [Any priest, the minister in an extreme case.] But in case of imminent danger of death, when recourse cannot be had to the proper priest, that none may perish, the Council of Trent teaches that, according to the ancient practice of the Church of God, it is then lawful for any priest, not only to remit all sorts of sins, whatever faculties they might otherwise require, but also to absolve from excommunication. [Sess. 14. c. 6. de pœnit.]

Qualifications of the minister.

Besides the power of orders and of jurisdiction, which are of absolute necessity, the minister of this sacrament, holding as he does, the place at once of judge and physician, should also be gifted with knowledge and prudence. [Knowledge.] As judge, his knowledge, it is evident, should be more than ordinary, for by it he is to examine into the nature of sins, and, amongst the various sorts of sins, to judge which are grievous and which are not, keeping in view the rank and condition of the person. [Prudence.] As physician, he has also occasion for consummate prudence, for to him it belongs to administer to the distempered soul those sanative medicines, which will not only effect the cure of her present malady, but prove preservatives against its future contagion. [Ex Basil, in reg. brevibus, q. li. 29.] [Integrity of life.] The faithful, therefore, will perceive the great importance to be attached to the choice of a confessor, and will use their best endeavours to choose one who is recommended by integrity of life, by learning and prudence, who is deeply impressed with the awful weight and responsibility of the station which he holds, who understands well the punishment due to every sin, and can also discern who are to be loosed and who to be bound.

The seal of confession.

But as all are anxious, that their sins should be buried in eternal secrecy, the faithful are to be admonished that there is no reason whatever to apprehend, that what is made known in confession will ever be revealed by any priest, or that by it the penitent can, at any time, be brought into danger or difficulty of any sort. All laws human and divine guard the inviolability of the seal of confession, and against its sacrilegious infraction the Church denounces her heaviest chastisements.[Ex Leonis Papæ epist. 80.]  “Let the priest,” says the great Council of Lateran, “take especial care, neither by word nor sign, nor by any other means whatever, to betray, in the least degree, the sacred trust confided to him by the sinner.” [Cap. 21.]

Negligence of sinners.

Having treated of the minister of this sacrament, the order of our matter requires, that we next proceed to explain some general heads, which are of considerable practical importance with regard to confession. Many, to whom, in general, no time seems to pass so slowly as that which is appointed by the laws of the Church for the duty of confession, so far from giving due attention to those other matters, which are obviously most efficacious in conciliating the favour and friendship of God, are placed at such a distance from Christian perfection, as scarcely to recollect the sins, which are to be the matter of their confession. [The confessor will observe if the penitent be truly contrite.] As, therefore, nothing is to be omitted, which can assist the faithful in the important work of salvation, the priest will be careful to observe, if the penitent be truly contrite for his sins, and deliberately and firmly resolved to avoid sin for the future. [How to be treated if contrite.] If the sinner is found to be thus disposed, he is to be admonished and earnestly exhorted, to pour out his heart in gratitude to God for this invaluable blessing, and supplicate unceasingly the aid of divine grace, shielded by which he may securely combat the evil propensities of corrupt nature. He should also be taught, not to suffer a day to pass, without devoting a portion of it to meditation on some mystery of the passion, in order to excite himself to an imitation of his great model, and inflame his heart with ardent love for his Redeemer. The fruit of such meditation will be, to fortify him more and more, every day, against all the assaults of the devil; for, what other reason is there, why our courage sinks, and our strength fails, the moment the enemy makes even the slightest attack on us, but that we neglect by pious meditation, to kindle within us the fire of divine love, which animates and invigorates the soul? [If not contrite:] But, should the priest perceive, that the penitent gives equivocal indications of true contrition, he will endeavour to inspire him with an anxious desire for it, inflamed by which he may resolve to ask and implore this heavenly gift from the mercy of God.

(To be continued)

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