What is the difference between Reconciliation, Confession and Penance?

There is no difference! These three names all refer to the same sacrament. However, each of these names points to a different aspect of the sacrament. “Confession” used to receive the greatest emphasis, however now it is seen as just one step in the total process. Confession of sin can only be sincere and meaningful if it is preceded by a true change of heart. It is actually the external expression of the interior transformation we have experienced. Look at the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32). The father, seeing his son in the distance, runs out to meet him with an embrace and a kiss. The son’s confession is not the most important thing here; the important thing is that the son had a change of heart and returned to his father!

“Penance” describes the change of heart, or interior transformation that leads to confession. In other words, penance refers to our repentance, sorrow and resolution to amend our life with God’s help. This word is also used to describe the “task” the priest assigns us to perform after leaving the celebration of the sacrament (such as doing an act of kindness or saying certain prayers). This act of penance is by no means a punishment for our sins. Rather, it is a way of expressing our change of heart and desire to make amends for the brokenness we have caused.

Finally, “Reconciliation” emphasises that this sacrament is about healing and restoring right relationship – between myself and God, between myself and others, and within myself.

Why do I need to confess to a priest?

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a very personal experience. Even in a communal Reconciliation service that you might attend during Advent or Lent, individual confessions are private. The Catholic Church maintains, however, that there is also a social aspect to sin. Sin not only affects our relationship with God, sin also alienates us from other people and even estranges us from our true selves.

In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Jesus provides us with a way of being reconciled to God and to those we’ve hurt, and a way to be strengthened in our connection to God’s entire family. This is more than symbolic; it is spiritual reality expressed through ritual. Human beings need rituals and ceremonies to celebrate the important moments in life.

For more, watch this wonderful short clip.

How do I actually go to Confession?

Here is a Step-by-Step Guide to the Sacrament of Reconciliation

When and where?

The times for the Sacrament of Reconciliation will be mentioned in your parish bulletin or the parish website. Parish contact details can be found here. Alternatively, you can make an appointment with a priest to go to confession. You can go to confession anywhere – it doesn’t have to be your geographical parish. One goes to Confession privately – either behind a screen or face-to-face with the priest. It is a good practice to go to Reconciliation regularly, such as once a month.

  1. Preparation for the Sacrament of Reconciliation involves making an examination of conscience. Click here for a sample way of making an examination of conscience. Please note, however, that the Holy Days of Obligation in Australia are only 15th August (Assumption) and 25th December (Christmas) – in addition to all Sundays.
  2. The actual Sacrament of Reconciliation itself begins with: (a) the Sign of the Cross and; (b) the penitent (that’s you!) greeting the priest with the words, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was ….” (however many weeks, months, years ago).
  3. The penitent confesses his or her sins to the priest, who is present in the name of Christ and the Church. The priest will help you make a good confession. If you are unsure or uneasy, ask the priest to help. Place your trust in God, a merciful Father who wants to forgive you. Rest assured that it is the absolute duty of priests not to reveal anything they learn from penitents during the course of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
  4. Following the confession of sins, say something like this to conclude: “This is all I can remember. I am sorry for these and all my sins.”
  5. The priest will assign you a penance. It may be something like a prayer, works of mercy, or an act of service.
  6. The penitent will then pray an Act of Contrition. This prayer expresses true sorrow for the sins confessed and resolve to amend one’s life. This prayer may be expressed in one’s own words or one may use one of the formal prayers of sorrow. Here is a sample Act of Contrition:

    O My God, I am very sorry that I have sinned against you,
    Because you are so good and with your help
    I will try not to sin again. Amen.

  7. The priest, acting in the person of Christ, will absolve you from your sins by saying the prayer of Absolution. At the end of the prayer, the penitent makes the Sign of the Cross and responds, “Amen.”
  8. The priest will express some words of blessing. The penitent responds by saying something like “Thank you, Father” and leaves.
  9. The penitent then completes the assigned penance.

How can I help my child prepare for his or her First Reconciliation?

Here are some ideas for preparing your child for his or her First Reconciliation.

  1. Use teachable moments such as when your children have just had a disagreement, or your child is struggling with another child at school. These are good times to connect their lived experience with the spirit of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Ask questions like: “What would have made it easier to forgive your brother?” “Would it have made a difference if she’d said sorry and meant it?” “Would it have helped if he’d tried to make up for what he’d done, even if he couldn’t fix it?”
  2. Sometimes there are moments when your child has stuffed up (so to speak!) and they are genuinely sorry for what they did. Those moments are sometimes good to say right then, and gently, “You know, that might be something that you’d like to say sorry for in Reconciliation.” It’s critical not to shame children. When we shame children for things they’ve done wrong it actually makes them more afraid to go to Reconciliation. After all, if Mum and Dad (who are supposed to love me) are ashamed of me then what’s the priest going to think?
  3. Be a role model by making use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation yourself. Think about making it a monthly practice for the whole family to attend the Sacrament of Reconciliation together (although you confess individually, of course!).
  4. Learn to ask for forgiveness as a parent. This is another way of cultivating the spirit of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in your family. For instance, if you’ve been too harsh about something say: “I’m sorry. You did the wrong thing, but I was too harsh with the consequences.” Or, “Okay, I can see now that perhaps that wasn’t fair and I’m sorry.” Or, “Perhaps Mum took that joke a bit far and I’m sorry.”
  5. Also, be forgiving as parents. Children will learn about God’s forgiveness through how you, as parents, forgive.
  6. Finally, talk to your children about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Helping your children to have a personal relationship with Jesus is very important if we want them to make the most of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If you don’t feel comfortable with this kind of conversation, there are some great DVDs and other resources out there!

How can I help my child with special needs celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation?

Loyola Press has produced a wonderful resource called the “Adaptive Reconciliation Kit” which is especially for individuals with autism and other special needs.

Where can I find more information about the Sacrament of Reconciliation?

To find out more about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, have a chat with your parish priest. You can also check out the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 1422-1498.

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