If Our Sins Are Forgiven in Confession, Why Do We Get a Penance?

04-10-2022Weekly Reflection

Satisfaction is the final act which crowns the sacramental sign of Confession. The sacramental sign is the absolution of our sins by Jesus through His priest. The act, which the forgiven and absolved penitent agrees to perform after receiving absolution, is precisely called his penance. Making satisfaction is the third act of the penitent, after contrition for sins and the confession of sins. Absolution does not take away all the disorder sin has caused: harm to self and to neighbor. This must be healed in this life or in the life to come.

Recall that all sin has two consequences it either kills (mortal sin) or weakens (venial sin) the life of grace which is our union with God the Blessed Trinity, whereby He dwells in the Christian and makes the Christian a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Even after forgiveness sins leaves wounds. This type of wound is the unhealthy attachment to creatures which must be purified. In other words our love for God must be purified of rival loves which exist in opposition to Him and harm our relation with Him. There will remain also a certain facility for making wrong judgments: a certain disorder in the sensual appetite ... They are the weakened scars of actual sin and the disordered tendencies left in man by original sin, which are brought to a head by our personal sins.

It is not enough to remove the arrow from the body, says St John Chrysostom; we also have to heal the wound caused by the arrow. It is the same with the soul; after we have received forgiveness for our sins, we have to heal the wound that remains through penance. Even after absolution, there remains in the Christian a dark area, due to the wound of sin, to the imperfection of love in repentance, to the weakening of the spiritual faculties. It is an area in which there still operates an infectious source of sin which must always be fought with mortification and penance. St. Paul tells us what mortification means: Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Colossians 3:5 Penance involves increased prayer, self-knowledge, and self-denial. This is the meaning of the humble but sincere act of satisfaction. For all of these reasons we must put a lot of love into fulfilling the penance the priest gives us before granting absolution. It is usually easy to perform and, if we really love God, we will be aware of the great disparity there is between our sins and the penance we have been given. It is yet another reason for increasing our spirit of penance during this Lent, when the Church calls us to it in a special way

We are aided in healing the wounds of our sins through indulgences. What does that mean? An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven, which the faithful Christian, duly disposed, can gain under certain prescribed conditions. It is either plenary or partial. The temporal punishment due to sin is an unhealthy attachment to creatures, the tendency to do the sin again.

We do not go it alone in our need to make up for our sins! Every Christian is joined to Christ and he or she is joined to all the other Christians who make up the Body of Christ, the family of the Church including those being purified in Purgatory and the angels and saints in heaven. Hence there is an everlasting link of love which joins all Christians together. In this exchange the holiness of one profits the other. This holiness includes Christ’s merits and all the spiritual goods of all the members of Christ’s Body, especially the prayers and good works of the Virgin Mary and the saints. They are truly immense, and pristine in their value before God. The Church through her power to bind and loose in Christ’s name through an indulgence gives the Christian a special share in the holiness of the treasury of the Church to help heal his or her own wounds from sin but also to be applied to those of our family who are being purified in the afterlife in the state called purgatory.

Hence indulgences involve shared love flowing from the mercy of God which heals. The plenary indulgence heals all the wounds of our sins. The partial indulgences heal those wounds partially. Every day in our morning-prayer we should make the intention to God to gain any and all indulgences attached to our prayer, devotion, and good works.

The Church grants indulgences for various activities or special occasions. A book called The Enchiridion of Indulgences contains many of the grants of indulgences to benefit the spiritual lives of Catholics. For example a plenary indulgence was granted for the public praying of the prayer Veni Creator Spiritus on January 1. However many Catholics (most?) don’t know about indulgences and/or why they are important for our spiritual lives. Sad to say indulgences are rarely preached about or referenced by the clergy.

Nevertheless indulgences are part of the Catholic Faith and they form part of the instruction on the sacrament of confession. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1471 and following.) Recall that in approaching the sacrament of Confession three acts of the penitent are involved:

  1. Contrition whereby the penitent expresses sorrow for sin. (NOTE: Perfect contrition arises from a love by which God is loved above all else. This forgives venial sins. Imperfect contrition is sorrow because of the ugliness of sin and the fear of punishment.)
  2. The confession of sins whereby all mortal sins must be recounted by number and kind to a priest. (NOTE: The confession of venial sins is strongly recommended by the Church. This helps to form the conscience, to fight against our evil tendencies. This gives healing from Christ and we progress in the life of the Holy Spirit. This is called a confession of devotion.)
  3. Making satisfaction is the third act of the penitent. All sins even after forgiveness leave a wound. Absolution does not take away all the disorder sin has caused: harm to self and to neighbor. This must be healed in this life or in the life to come. To help heal the wound of sin the Church makes available indulgences to us.

Invoke the Heart of Holy Mary, with the purpose and determination of uniting yourself to her sorrow, in reparation for your sins and the sins of men of all times. And pray to her – for every soul – that her sorrow may increase in us our aversion from sin, and that we may be able to love the physical or moral contradictions of each day as a means of expiation.