By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

“In the sacrament of penance Christ crucified and risen, through His ministers, purifies us with His infinite mercy, restores us with His infinite Mercy, restores us to communion with the heavenly Father and our brothers, and makes a gift of His love, joy and peace in us.” – Pope Benedict XVI, Feb. 15, 2010

Lent, more than any other season, is a time when Catholics are most likely to avail themselves of the sacrament of penance.

Within the city of Philadelphia, this is most noticeable at downtown churches that are frequented by visitors and office workers, as well as parishioners.

At St. Patrick Church near Rittenhouse Square, Father Daniel Mackle is experiencing a perhaps surprising but pleasant trend.

“There is an increase of young people availing themselves to the sacrament,” he said. “There seems to be a willingness to acknowledge sin and a deeper humility. They realize they can’t do anything by themselves and there is a need for God. They are seeking not only forgiveness but a healing of weaknesses in their lives.”

Pope Benedict echoed this sentiment: “The sins we commit distance us from God, and if they are not humbly confessed, trusting in spanine mercy, they will finally bring about the death of the soul.”

“Lent is a time of purification and enlightenment. It is a time for us to turn away from sin and a time to be more faithful to the Gospel with God’s grace,” said Father G. Dennis Gill, director of the archdiocesan Office for Worship.

During Lent, as we prepare for the great feast of Easter, “We carry out penance to be renewed as baptized Christians with the reception of Communion.” he said. The sacrament of penance “is one of the chief means for this renewal.”

Lent, Father Gill explained, is the primary penitential season. The catechumens, who will receive baptism during the Easter triduum, carry out their penance “through the prayer of the Church for them; baptized Catholics do this through receiving the sacrament of penance,” he said.

The Office for Worship has prepared a pamphlet, “Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation” for use at the March 13 Men’s Spirituality Conference at Archbishop Ryan High School, which covers exactly what is involved in making a good confession.

“The basic requirements for a good confession are to have the intention of returning to God like the ‘prodigal son’ and acknowledging our sins with true sorrow before the priest,” the pamphlet explains at the outset. “Among the penitent’s acts, contrition occupies the first place. Contrition is ‘sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again.'”

Confession is preceded by an examination of conscience to recall what sins one has. The pamphlet lists the Ten Commandments with a brief explanation of how one may sin against each of them. (Penitents may also find reviewing the Beatitudes helpful; sins of omission may be just as serious as the sins of commission covered mostly by the Decalogue.)

During the actual confession, the priest will welcome the penitent. The penitent begins by making the sign of the cross and the priest invites him or her to have trust in God. He also quotes a brief passage from sacred Scripture for the penitent.

There is not a precise formula for words the penitent must use during confession, although most people will say, “Bless me father for I have sinned,” and tell how long it has been since their last confession.

The penitent then confesses the sins committed and to the best of his or her ability, the number of times they were committed, and may end by saying, “I am sorry for these and all my sins.”

The priest assigns a penance and offers advice to help the person be a better Christian.

He then asks the penitent to make an act of sorrow (contrition). The Act of Contrition printed in the pamphlet is a formula familiar to many:

“O my God I am heartily sorry for having offended you, and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. But most of all, because I have offended you, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of Your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance and to amend my life. Amen.”

There are variations of this prayer that may also be used, or as Father Gill notes, “it could be something the penitent would rather say, always expressing sorrow.”

The priest then extends his hand and gives absolution, and Father Gill said, he must use the Prayer of Absolution from the ritual book: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

After the absolution, the priest may say, “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good.” The penitent should respond, “His mercy endures forever.”

The priest then dismisses the penitent by saying these or similar words, “The Lord has freed you from your sins, go in peace.”

It is recommended the penitent perform the penance given to him or her immediately so it won’t be forgotten.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.