The Elements of Confession
From the June
In the last few months, we have discussed the purpose of confession and
described how the sacrament is practiced in our community. This month,
we will turn our attention to what confession itself entails. There are
several essential elements to confession that must be present for the
sacrament to be effective. These are the stages of the spiritual process
that unfolds in the mystery of repentance.
The most fundamental element is conviction, sometimes described
as contrition. This is the sense that one in fact has done something
wrong, that one has violated God’s commandments and contradicted His will.
Simply put, it is the recognition that by specific deeds, words, or thoughts
– or by failing to do what one should do - one has not loved God completely
or one’s neighbor as oneself. Divine grace operating in and through the
conscience brings this realization to us. The Holy Spirit illumines our
heart, and we know we have sinned and stand guilty before God.
Sorrow, regret, or remorse accompany the recognition of one’s
sin. This sorrow arises from a sense of having offended God, from the
realization that one’s fellowship with him has been ruptured or compromised,
and possibly, from the knowledge that one has hurt another person. A person
may recognize that he has sinned, but unless sorrow for the sin is present,
he has not experienced conviction or contrition.
Conviction, however, goes further than mere sorrow for sin. A person
who is truly contrite is not only sorry for his sin; he detests it. He
hates the thought of what he has done. He recognizes its evil, and the
baneful effect it has on his relationship with God and others. Although
this may or may not involve strong emotion, he is sure of the nature of
his sin and wishes it removed from him.
Hatred of one’s sin then gives rise to another movement in the
soul: the desire to amend. A person who truly detests his sin wishes
to renounce it and be better. He hopes never to fall into it again, and
so aspires to a virtuous life. Thus, with the desire to leave behind his
sin forever and henceforth to lead a God-pleasing life, his contrition
stimulates him to seek the sacrament of confession. He knows he has sinned
and is uneasy with himself because of it. He carries a burden of guilt
and finds it nearly intolerable. He knows he needs forgiveness for his
spiritual equilibrium to be restored. He detests his sin, wants to be
rid of it, and desires to amend his life.
Contrition then must be completed by confession, that is, by the active
acknowledgement of one’s specific sins in the presence of the priest as
the minister of Christ. It is obvious that the actual confession of
one’s sins is necessary to the process of repentance. Once one has
spoken forth his sins, the priest may offer some counsel and/or impose
a penance. These are not essential to the sacrament in all cases, but
may be required in some cases. We will discuss them later.
The final essential spiritual element in the process of confession is absolution. This is the declaration by the priest, upon evidence
of the penitent’s sincere repentance, of God’s forgiveness of his sins.
In the Byzantine tradition, the last couple of lines in the prayer of
absolution read as follows: “May that same God forgive you all things,
both in this world and the world to come, and set you uncondemned before
his dread judgement seat. And now, having no further care for the sins
that you have confessed, you may go in peace." With that, all the
stages of the process of confession have been completed, and the mystery
of repentance has been fulfilled.
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