Project Canterbury

Confession and Absolution
The Congress Books: No. 31

Father Vernon, SDC

London, The Society of Saints Peter and Paul,
First Edition 1923

Transcribed by Dr. Elizabeth G. Melillo
AD 2000

Authority for the Sacrament - 1

We find it is a universal experience in human life that men and women, when they have wronged their fellow beings, are never really satisfied or at rest till they have confessed and owned up to the wrong which they have done. To confess that one is wrong is almost the most difficult thing in life, because it strikes at the root of our greatest weakness, pride. Endless homes are wrecked and ruined because husband or wife or child refuses to admit they are wrong. To own up to one's faults is the mark of a strong character, it cannot be done by a weakling. Yet so great is the necessity that the most unlikely people are driven to do it, because only so can they find peace and rest in their hearts.

A second fact with which we are faced is the universal fact that all men and women are agreed that the noblest capacity in human nature is its capacity to forgive. Provided the person who seeks our forgiveness is really penitent, we all know it is our duty to forgive: if we do so it develops all that is noble, chivalrous, and good within us, but if we do not we become hardhearted, cynical, and cruel.

Our Lord's whole gospel is based upon these facts - man’s need of penitence and confession, and God’s willingness to forgive.

And so we find that his first public message is ‘Repent!’

The most beautiful of all our Lord’s parables, that of the prodigal son, deals with just these facts - the fatherhood of God, man’s sonship, man’s free will; his choice of evil which separates him from his Father; his return in penitence and his confession of sin; and finally the Father’s forgiveness.

So penitence is not the miserable weakness of a morbid worm, as men and women of the world would have us believe, but it is the only intelligible attitude for the man who faces the great facts of life as they really are - God - our human nature - sin and our responsibility for it. It is not the attitude of one crushed down, but that of a man rising from the mire or dust to shoulder his burden and face his Father trustfully.

But our blessed Lord not only spoke of forgiveness: he had in himself the very power to forgive which all humanity so needed. In the case of the palsied man we see our Lord imparting to the man God’s forgiveness and convincing people of it by an outward sign - ‘The Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins,’ ‘Arise and take up thy bed and go thy way’ (Saint Mark ii. 1-12).

And so men and women came to him in their anguish not because he merely talked of God and God’s forgiveness, but because in him they found God himself and God’s own forgiveness; and so he was called ‘the friend of sinners.’

Look at the scene in Simon’s house. Jesus is dining with him, and a woman, known only because she was a sinner, comes, forces her way in, and stands sobbing her heart out at his sacred feet. Her tears are her confession; she has no need to speak. Jesus breaks the silence: ‘Thy sins are forgiven, thy faith hath saved thee, go in peace’ (Saint Luke vii. 36-50).

And now we come to Calvary. What was given to the palsied man is now given to all the world - ‘Father forgive’ are his first words from the cross. All forgiveness flows from Calvary: the cross of Jesus is the great sacrament of God’s forgiveness, the outward and visible sign through which alone that forgiveness flows.

So he was crucified and by his cross purchased forgiveness for us all. On Easter morning he rose from the grave. What then? He appears to his apostles in the upper room. What does he say? What does he do? He shows them his sacred wounds through which his Precious Blood had poured for the sins of the world, and showing them these marks of his atoning sacrifice he says, ‘As my Father hath sent me, so send I you. Receive the Holy Ghost. Whose soever sins ye forgive they are forgiven and whose soever sins ye retain they are retained’ (Saint John xx. 23).

The first thing our Lord does after his resurrection is to give the apostles the power to forgive sins in his name. And through his apostles he gave this power to his Church for all time; the power to administer to the souls of men that forgiveness which he won for us upon the cross: not which the apostles had won - they are only his instruments, the agents by which that forgiveness is to be applied to men.

Authority for the Sacrament - 2

But some people will say ‘Are you not reading too much into those words of our Lord - I can see that he gave the power to his apostles, but are you thereby sure that every priest ordained today has that power, are you sure that these words really mean the sacrament of Confession and Absolution?’

The answer is this. The Catholic Church has all along interpreted them to mean priestly absolution, and for 1,500 years there was no question about it.

So that if the words do not mean priestly absolution the whole Church was misled for 1,500 years, which is, to say the least, most unlikely, since our Lord promised that the Holy Spirit should guide his Church into all truth.

Not only this, but wherever you find the Catholic Church today you find the sacrament of Confession and Absolution, in the Eastern Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the English Catholic Church.

What does the Prayer-Book say? The following are the passages where Confession and Absolution are mentioned.

The Ordination Service:

‘Receive the Holy Ghost for the Office and Work of a priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the Imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain they are retained.’

Morning and Evening Prayer:

‘Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner …. Hath given power, and commandment, to his Ministers to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins.’

Holy Communion:

‘If there be any of you who by this means cannot quiet his own conscience … let him come to me or to some other discreet and learned Minister of God’s Word and open his grief; that by the ministry of God’s holy Word he may receive the benefit of absolution,’ etc.

Visitation of the Sick:

‘Here shall the sick person be moved to make a special Confession of his sins, if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter. After which Confession the Priest shall absolve him (if he humbly and heartily desire it) after this sort.

‘Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences: And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.’

This then is our authority for the sacrament of Confession and Absolution. It finds its origin in our Lord’s own words when he gave his apostles power to administer to the souls of men the forgiveness which he had bought on Calvary. The Church has administered this gift through the sacrament of Confession and Absolution; and the English Church has made provision for it in the Prayer-Book.

The Sacrament and How to Use It

There are many people who have heard of the sacrament of Confession and Absolution, who have studied it, have realised that it is part of the Church’s teaching, and who see that our Lord himself gave this power of absolution to his Church to be administered by his priests. These people in their heart of hearts are anxious to make their Confession, and to receive Absolution, but cannot come to the point; either because they are, like all English people, very reticent about speaking of their religion and their souls, and can only do so with very great difficulty; or because they don’t know how to set about it or what to do. We will therefore consider the sacrament itself and how to use it.

Confession and Absolution is a sacrament because it is an outward and visible sign conveying with it an inward and spiritual grace or spiritual gift.

There are two parts of the outward and visible sign: first, the confession of the penitent person: ‘And many that believed came, and confessed and showed their deeds’ (Acts xix. 18); and secondly the words of absolution spoken by the priest: ‘By his authority committed unto me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, In the Name of the Father, ‘ etc. (Prayer-Book, Visitation of the Sick). The inward gift is God’s forgiveness of all our sins, together with grace to live better.

The conditions necessary for making a confession are two, repentance and faith. These are the two conditions which our blessed Lord laid down in the gospels, and these are the two condition laid down very clearly in the Prayer-Book. We find this in the office for the Visitation of the Sick: ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him.’

To anybody who thinks for a moment it is clear that without these two things, repentance and faith, the sacrament would be valueless. There must be a real repentance or contrition, for without this the whole thing would be a hideous mockery. There must be a right belief, too, in our blessed Lord as being the Saviour of mankind, who can forgive sins, and has handed that power to his Church to be administered by his priests.

Repentance and faith then are the two necessary conditions for making a good Confession and receiving Absolution.

How are we to prepare to make a Confession?

The moment a person really believes in Jesus and accepts him as his Saviour, and is really penitent, from that moment he realises his sin as never before. For it is the knowledge of Jesus, not argument, which convinces men of sin; and when a man is convinced of his sin he inevitably starts to examine his conscience; and so we find that self-examination is essential for a person who is preparing to make a confession. How is this done?

We must get alone with God, either at home or in some church, try to realise his presence, and then ask him to give us a contrite heart, saying some such prayer as the collect for Ash Wednesday.

‘Almighty God … who dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent, create and make in me a new and contrite heart,’ etc. Then make your self-examination. You will find it easier if it is divided up into two: (a) my relationship with God; (b) my relationship with my neighbours. Think quietly over what our blessed Lord said, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart’ - ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’: and consider too what he has revealed about the ways in which he expects mankind to show this love.

Make a few notes on a piece of paper if it helps you to do so, and then go to some priest. And this is the difficult part; this is where we shall be tempted to turn back; for the actual making of our first Confession is a very great struggle and requires no end of pluck.

Remember two things:

  1. There is no need to be nervous, or afraid of what the priest will think. The priest is hearing Confessions every day, and just as a doctor very soon knows all the diseases which the human body is heir to, so the priest knows all the sins by which human hearts are tempted.
  2. Nothing spoken of in the Confession may ever be mentioned outside the confessional, except with the express leave of the penitent himself. This is called the Seal of Confession. If a priest were to break the Seal, and reveal directly or indirectly what he had learnt through a Confession to a third party, in any possible circumstances, he would imperil his own soul, and commit a grievous sin: so sacred is the Seal, far more so than the confidence which a patient gives to his doctor in bodily matters.

In the case of emergency any priest will do, for every priest ordained in the English Church has been given the power to absolve; but if you can do so, always go to a priest of wide experience and holy life. Find out at what time he is accustomed to be in church to hear Confessions and go boldly up to him and ask him to help you, and he will do so with the greatest joy.

You will then kneel down and say the following words:

‘I confess to God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, before the whole company of heaven, and before you, my father, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed, of my own fault, my own great fault, especially in the following sins: (here mention what is burdening your conscience: then continue). For these and all my other sins which I cannot now remember, I am heartily sorry and firmly resolve never to sin again, and ask of you, my father, pardon, penance, and counsel.’

The priest will then give you a few words of advice, or encouragement, or warning, after which he will absolve you in the Prayer-Book words:

‘Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences, and by his authority committed unto me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.’

When the confession is made and the absolution given there remains one thing more. The penitent person will naturally long to make amends for the past. The only real way of making amends for the past is to live a converted life in the future, to struggle perseveringly against all those faults which have overcome us in the past, and to try to do all the good we can for Jesus’ sake. In order to keep this need before the mind of the penitent the priest always gives him a very simple ‘penance’ to perform as the first-fruits of his new life; for instance, he tells him to meditate on a certain passage of Scripture, or to say some hymn over on his knees, or the Lord’s Prayer. It is best to do this before you leave the church.

When this is done you will thank God for the wonderful peace in your heart, you will realise the power of the Precious Blood as never before, and you will wonder why you did not have the courage to go before, because it has all been so simple.

Having made our first Confession, it does not end there, for we shall find we desire to go regularly, for two reasons: first, because the sacrament of Confession and Absolution is not a merely negative thing, that is to say, it is not merely an acquittal of past sins, but it conveys to the soul a positive gift of divine grace to help the penitent to persevere in his new life: secondly, because every really penitent person knows that the more he faithfully and regularly uses this sacrament the more he gets to know his own sinfulness and the power of the Precious Blood: nothing deepens self-knowledge so much as the regular use of this sacrament.

A good rule is to go four times a year, before the great festivals of the Church.

Confession and Modern Life

Some who read this may say, ‘We can see the ecclesiastical basis for the doctrine of Confession and Absolution; but how does it apply to modern life? Is it not reviving a mediaeval practice which is quite out of touch with modern needs?’ Our reply is that the sacrament of Confession and Absolution bears upon modern life in a very real way indeed.

On every side we are being told of the essential unity of the human race; the essential unity of continent with continent, nation with nation, class with class, individual with individual, is preached to us from every quarter. The failure of any one continent, nation, class or individual to fulfil its part in the whole scheme of life brings disaster on the whole race: while the proper carrying out of its duty by each part of the civilised world brings blessing to the whole.

Psychology repeats the same truth: it tells us of the effect of character upon character, the play of one personality upon another, quite apart from any word or action. Psychic force it is called, and we read of it everywhere - the power of one character either to aid another in its struggle towards the highest or else to drag it down. We do not live to ourselves, nor do we die to ourselves. Socially and psychologically we are one.

The same law which runs through life in the social and psychological spheres exists just as really in the spiritual sphere.

A man’s sin does not concern merely himself and God, but it also affects the whole of the society in which he lives: he not only sins against God but also against his brother, for the human race is one. Whether the sin is public or not makes no difference, for secret sins are often psychologically the most dangerous. And this we believe is precisely one of the reasons why our blessed Lord has given this sacrament to his Church. For it teaches us that just because, in sinning, man injures the society to which he belongs, therefore the way back to penitence must involve an outward public and social act of humiliation - and so the penitent kneels down in the confessional before any of the faithful who may happen to be in the church, and thus shows his belief in the social character of sin, and his recognition that he owes an outward token of his penitence to the society which he has wronged.

Finally we are faced today with an utter disregard for sin, a complete denial of all moral standards; human nature without Christianity becomes the victim of every conflicting passion. Sin is no longer believed in, and salvation is an empty word.

In the rush of life, men and women are too tired or puzzled to think, or take refuge in pleasure or forgetfulness - and yet they are never really happy, nor can they entirely forget the deeper issues of life.

What is the remedy?

Sin must be preached as sin - and the Precious Blood of Christ must be preached as the only thing that can save human nature from the hell of its own self. Nothing but the gospel of a divine Redeemer can lift men above the present confusion of motives and the awful hopelessness and remorse which it brings in its train.

This the sacrament of Confession and Absolution most certainly does. It drives home to men and women the awful reality of sin; it tells us we must get down on our knees before we can make any advance at all. And it also gives men and women the assurance of the power of the Precious Blood to forgive and to save, as nothing else can ever do.

And those who have made use of this great gift know that it brings a peace which the world can neither give nor take away.

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