Catholicism 101

Welcome to Catholicism 101!

We’re here to help you become a better Catholic. Here is some basic information about the Catholic Faith to get you started:

Christ Resurrected

Catholicism 101:

  • The Ten Commandments
  • The Seven Sacraments
  • How do I become Catholic?
  • Making a Good Confession

Are you a practicing Catholic?

Remember, “practice makes perfect!”

To consider yourself a practicing Catholic, try out the “Precepts of the Church” for size! (cf. CCC # 2041-43)

Precepts of the Church:

1. Attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation
2. Confession at least once a year
3. Receive Holy Communion during the Easter Season
4. Observe the days of fasting and abstinence
5. Provide for the needs of the Church
6. Marry according to Church regulation

If you attend Sunday Mass half the time, you’re a “50% practicing Catholic.”  And if 50% of Catholics are “50% practicing Catholics”, then the presence of Jesus Christ in the world has been diminished by 75%!

On the other hand, if only 10% of Catholics received Holy Communion daily and confessed their sins monthly, the presence of Jesus Christ would change the world.

The Ten Commandments

What is the Purpose of the 10 Commandments?

The Ten Commandments state what is required in the love of God and love of neighbor. The first three concern love of God, and the other seven love of neighbor. – CCC 2067

The 10 Commandments

What Does Each Command & Forbid?


COMMANDS: faith, hope, love, and worship of God; reverence for holy things; prayer.

FORBIDS: idolatry; superstition; spiritism; tempting God; sacrilege; attendance at false worship.


COMMANDS: reverence in speaking about God and holy things; the keeping of oaths and vows.

FORBIDS: blasphemy; the irreverent use of God’s name; speaking disrespectfully of holy things; false oaths and the breaking of vows.


COMMANDS: going to church on Sundays and holy days of obligation.

FORBIDS: missing church through one’s own fault; unnecessary servile work on Sunday and holy days of obligation.


COMMANDS: love; respect; obedience on the part of children; care on the part of parents for the spiritual and temporal welfare of their children; obedience to civil and religious superiors.

FORBIDS: hatred of parents and superiors; disrespect; disobedience.


COMMANDS: safeguarding of one’s own life and bodily welfare and that of others.

FORBIDS: unjust killing; suicide; abortion; sterilization; dueling; endangering life and limb of self or others.


COMMANDS: chastity in word and deed.

FORBIDS: obscene speech; impure actions alone or with others.


COMMANDS: respect for the property of rights and others; the paying of just debts; paying just wages to employees; integrity in public office.

FORBIDS: theft; damage to the property of others; not paying just debts; not returning found or borrowed articles; giving unjust measure or weight in selling; not paying just wages; bribery; graft; cheating; fraud; accepting stolen property; not giving an honest day’s work for wages received; breach of contract.


COMMANDS: truthfulness; respect for the good name of others; the observance of secrecy when required.

FORBIDS: lying; injury to the good name of others; slander; talebearing; rash judgment; contemptuous speech and the violation of secrecy.


COMMANDS: purity in thought.

FORBIDS: willful impure thought and desires.


COMMANDS: respect for the rights of others.

FORBIDS: the desire to take, to keep, or damage the property of others.

The Seven Sacraments



Scripture shows that John’s baptism was a symbol of repentance, but not a sacrament. It did not confer grace. In the Acts it is clear that those who received Christian baptism also received the Holy Spirit, had their sins forgiven and became members of Christ, and thus of the Church. It is the foundational sacrament, the only one Philip thought necessary to confer on the Ethiopian eunuch.

Matthew 3:16; Matthew 28:19; Mark 1:8; Mark 16:16; John 3:5; Acts 1:4-5; Acts 2:38; Acts 8:16; Acts 8:36-38; Acts 11:16; Acts 16:15; Acts 16:33; Acts 18:8; Acts 19:3-6; Acts 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 5:25-26; Col. 2:12; 1 Peter 3:20-21, and many others.


Christ gave authority, the keys, to the apostles to forgive sin, to decide between absolving or retaining guilt. This requires “confession” of sins for this judgment not to be arbitrary, hence the popular name of the sacrament. This authority was passed on to bishops, and from them to priests, with ordination.

Matthew 16:19; John 20:21-23; Rev. 1:18.

The Eucharist

The Eucharist is visibly bread and wine but is in reality the Body and Blood of Christ. No mere symbols can effect eternal life. And abuse of no mere symbol can be worthy of damnation. In the early centuries the name of the Mass was the breaking of the bread. Yet, when word got out of what the Eucharist really was the Romans accused Christians of sacrificing babies and cannibalism, because they heard they ate human flesh.

Matthew 26:26-29; Luke 24:35; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 11:24-27;


Completes Baptism by a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit and enables the Christian for mission. This was seen at Pentecost with respect to the apostles. In the early Church it was often accompanied by charismatic signs, though these are not intrinsic to the sacrament. Conferred by the laying on of hands. In Acts 19:3-6, especially, it is clear that John’s baptism, Christian baptism and Confirmation are all distinct realities. Also, in Hebrews 6:2 baptizing and laying on of hands are distinguished.

Isaiah 44:3; Ezekiel 39:29; Joel 2:28; John 14:16; Acts 2:4; Acts 8:14-17; Acts 19:3-6; Hebrews 6:2.


Marriage is, as St. Paul states, a mystery (mysterion). The Latin word used to translate mysterion is “sacramentum”. The sacraments are mysteries (as Eastern Christians still call them), for one thing is visible and something else is known by faith. By faith, matrimony is a sign of Christ and the Church, as well as a special calling.

Mt. 19:10-11; Eph. 5:31-32.

Holy Orders

The threefold division of sacred ministers (bishops, priests and deacons) prefigured in the Old Law (high priest, priests, Levites) is clearly revealed in Scripture. Yet, most so-called “bible-believing” Protestant churches do not have them.

Acts 6:3-6; Acts 13:2-3; 1 Tim. 3:1; 1 Tim. 3:8-9; 1 Tim. 4:14; 1 Tim. 4:16; 1 Tim. 5:17-19; 1 Tim. 5:22.

Anointing of the Sick

Anointing prepares the person for death, and only incidentally may produce physical healing. The salvation and resurrection spoken of in James are in the first place spiritual.

James 5:14-15.

Sacrament. From the Latin sacramentum, a word which denoted the oath of loyalty sworn by soldiers to their earthly lord, the emperor. It was applied by Tertullian around 200 AD to the Christian mysteries, by which man adhered to God. It thus acquired, as a technical term, the same implication as the Greek word mysterion, mystery, which is used to this day for the sacraments in Eastern Christianity.

Many times in Scripture God’s action, presence, or the working out of His plan in history is said to be a mystery. The “mystery” is known to Him alone and those to whom He reveals it (Eph. 1:9, 3:3, 3:9). Only by faith in Divine Revelation can the spiritual truth behind actions and events be discerned. The Incarnation is such a mystery, since only by faith do we believe that the man Jesus Christ whom we see, read about, or have preached to us, is God. Further, Jesus is a mystery concealing not just His divinity but His Father. As he told Philip, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Thus, we can say that Christ is a sacrament of His Father. The Church is a mystery, since it is the mystical Christ, Head and members. Vatican II speaks of the Church as the sacrament of Christ. Finally, the seven sacraments are mysteries which unfold in our souls and in our lives the working of Christ and His grace.

In each of the sacraments we can see that there is an outward sign of the mystery taking place, a sign in matter/deed and in word (Eph. 5:26), and that the sign bears a relationship to the spiritual grace or reality conferred by the Holy Spirit’s action. In Baptism, for example, the individual is baptized in water, since water cleans, effecting an interior cleansing and renewal by God’s gift of Himself (John 3:5, Acts 2:38). It also symbolizes dying and rising with Christ (Rom. 6:3-4), especially when performed by immersion. While the action of baptism is performed the word which Christ commanded is spoken (Mt. 28:19), completing the sign. Catholic teaching speaks of these two elements of the sign as matter (water) and form (“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit”).

Finally, one needs to remember that the New Testament is not a how-to manual of the sacraments and liturgy. Scripture witnesses to them, the early Christians didn’t need more. Baptism is the most frequently spoken of, because it was a necessary part of  evangelization. Once people were baptized the Church’s pastors (bishops, priests and deacons) who received their instructions from the apostles, carried out the sacraments as they had been taught (2 Thes. 2:15). This is what is meant by Tradition, the communication of the apostolic teaching in the preaching, teaching and ritual practices of those who were appointed to lead the Church after the apostles.

Used with permission from EWTN

Becoming Catholic

Becoming a Catholic is one of the most profound and joyous experiences of life. Some are blessed enough to receive this great gift while they are still infants, and over the course of time they grow into a recognition of the enormous grace that has been bestowed upon them, of the dignity and wonder of their identity as Catholics.

Others come into the Catholic fold while they are older children or adults. In these cases it is necessary for people to have a grasp of the joyful process by which one becomes a Catholic.

A person is brought into full communion with the Catholic Church through reception of the three sacraments of Christian initiation—baptism, confirmation, and the holy Eucharist—but the process by which one becomes a Catholic can take different forms.

A person who is baptized in the Catholic Church becomes a Catholic at that moment. One’s initiation is deepened by confirmation and the Eucharist, but one becomes a Catholic at baptism. This true both for children who are baptized Catholic (and receive the other two sacraments later) and for adults who are baptized, confirmed, and receive the Eucharist at the same time.

Those who have been validly baptized outside the Catholic Church become Catholics by making a profession of the Catholic faith and being formally received into the Church. This is normally followed immediately by confirmation and the Eucharist.

Before a person is ready to be received into the Catholic Church, whether by baptism or by profession of faith, preparation is necessary. The amount and the form of this preparation depends on the individual’s circumstance. The most basic division in the kind of preparation needed is between those who are unbaptized and those who have already become Christian through baptism in different denominations.

For adults and children who have reached the age of reason (age seven), entrance into the Church is governed by the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), sometimes called the Order of Christian Initiation for Adults (OCIA).


Preparation for the Unbaptized

Preparation for reception into the Church begins with the inquiry stage, in which the unbaptized person begins to learn about the Catholic faith and begins to decide whether to embrace it.

The first formal step on the road to becoming a Catholic takes place with the rite of reception into the order of catechumens, in which the unbaptized express their desire and intention to become Christians. “Catechumen” is a term the early Christians used to those preparing to be baptized and become Christians.

The period of catechumenate lasts for a variable period of time—sometimes even years—depending on how much the catechumen has learned and how ready the catechumen feels to take the step of becoming a Christian. However, the catechumenate often lasts for something less than a year.

The purpose of the catechumenate is to provide the candidates with a thorough background in Christian teaching. “A thoroughly comprehensive catechesis on the truths of Catholic doctrine and moral life, aided by approved catechetical texts, is to be provided during the period of the catechumenate” (U.S. Conference of Bishops, National Statues for the Catechumenate, Nov. 11, 1986). The catechumenate is also intended to give the candidates the opportunity to reflect upon and firm up their desire to become Catholics, and to give them the chance to show that they are ready to take this serious step (cf. Luke 14:27-33; 2 Pet. 2:20-22).

The second formal step is taken with the rite of election, in which the catechumens’ names are written in a book of those who will receive the sacraments of initiation. At the rite of election, the catechumen again expresses the desire and intention to become a Christian, and the Church judges that the catechumen is ready to take this step. Normally, the rite of election occurs on the first Sunday of Lent, the forty day period of preparation for Easter.

After the rite of election, the candidates undergo a period of more intense reflection, purification, and enlightenment, in which they deepen their committment to repentance and conversion to the Christian faith. During this period the candidates, now known as the elect, participate in several further rituals.

The three chief rituals, known as “scrutinies,” are normally celebrated at Mass on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent. The scrutinies are rites for self-searching and repentance. They are meant to bring out the qualities of the candidate’s soul, to heal those qualities which are weak or sinful, and to strengthen those which are positive and good.

Normally during this period, the candidates are also formally presented with the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, both of which they will recite on the night they are initiated.

The initiation itself usually occurs on Easter Vigil, the evening before Easter Day. That evening a special Mass is celebrated at which the candidates are baptized, then given confirmation, and finally receive the holy Eucharist. At this point the candidates become Catholics and are received into full communion with the Church.

Ordinarily the bishop oversees the Easter Vigil service and confers confirmation upon the candidates, but often—due to large distances or numbers of candidates—a local parish priest will perform the rites.

The final state of Christian initiation is known as mystagogy, in which the new Christians are strengthened in the faith by further instruction and become more deeply rooted in the local Catholic community. The period of mystagogy normally lasts throughout the Easter season (the fifty days between Eastern and Pentecost Sunday).

For the first year of their life as Christians, those who have been received are known as “neophytes” or “new Christians.”


Preparation for Christians

The means by which those who have already been validly baptized become part of the Church differs considerably from that of the unbaptized.

Because they have already been baptized, they are already Christians and are not catechumens. Because they have already become Christians, the Church is very concerned that they not be confused with those who are still in the process of becoming Christians. In its National Statues for the Catechumenate (hereafter, NSC), the U.S. Conference of Bishops stated: “The term ‘catechumen’ should be strictly reserved for the unbaptized who have been admitted to the order of catechumens . . . and never used of those baptized Christians who are received into the full communion of the Catholic Church” (NSC 2).

“Those who have already been baptized in another Church or ecclesial community should not be treated as catechumens or so designated. Their doctrinal and spiritual preparation for reception into full Catholic communion should be determined according to the individual case, that is, it should depend on the extent to which the baptized person has led a Christian life within a community of faith and been appropriately catechized to deepen his or her inner adherence to the Church” (NSC30).

For those who were baptized but who have never been instructed in the Christian faith or lived as Christians, it is appropriate for them to receive much of the same instruction in the faith as catechumens, but they are still not catechumens and are not to be referred to as such (NSC 3). As a result, they are not to participate in the rites intended for catechumens, such as the scrutinies. Even “[t]he rites of presentation of the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the book of the Gospels are not proper except for those who have received no Christian instruction and formation” (NSC 31).

For those who have been instructed in the Christian faith and have lived as Christians the situation is different. The U.S. Conference of Bishops states: “Those baptized persons who have lived as Christians and need only instruction in the Catholic tradition and a degree of probation within the Catholic community should not be asked to undergo a full program parallel to the catechumenate” (NSC 31). For this reason they should not share in the same, full RCIA programs that catechumens do.

The timing of their reception into the Church is also different. The U.S. Conference of Bishops states: “It is preferable that reception into full communion not take place at the Easter Vigil lest there be any confusion of such baptized Christians with the candidates for baptism, possible misunderstanding of or even reflection upon the sacrament of baptism celebrated in another Church or ecclesial community . . . ” (NSC 33).

Rather than being received on Easter Vigil, “[t]he reception of candidates into the communion of the Catholic Church should ordinarily take place at the Sunday Eucharist of the parish community, in such a way that it is understood that they are indeed Christian believers who have already shared in the sacramental life of the Church and are now welcomed into the Catholic Eucharistic community . . . ” (NSC32).

It is therefore important for Christians coming into the Catholic Church to coordinate carefully with their local pastor and/or bishop concerning the amount of Catholic instruction they need and the exact timing of their reception into the Church.

The sacrament of baptism removes all sins committed prior to it, but since Christians have already received this sacrament, it is necessary for them to confess mortal sins they have committed since baptism before receiving confirmation and the Eucharist. In some cases, this can be difficult due to a large number of years between the Christian’s baptism and reception into the Catholic Church. In such cases, the candidate should confess the mortal sins he can remember by kind and, to the extent possible, indicate how often such sins were committed (as always with the sacrament of reconciliation, the absolution covers any mortal sins that could not be remembered, so long as the recipient intended to repent of all mortal sins).

Christians coming into the Church should be encouraged to receive reconciliation frequently while waiting to be received: “The celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation with candidates for reception into full communion is to be carried out at a time prior to and distinct from the celebration of the rite of reception. As part of the formation of such candidates, they should be encouraged in the frequent celebration of this sacrament” (NSC 36).

The Christian fully enters the Church by profession of faith and formal reception. For the profession of faith, the candidate says: “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.” The bishop or priest then formally receives the Christian into the Church by saying, “[Name], the Lord receives you into the Catholic Church. His loving kindness has led you here, so that in the unity of the Holy Spirit you may have full communion with us in the faith that you have professed in the presence of this his family.”

The bishop or priest then normally administers the sacraments of confirmation and celebrates the holy Eucharist, giving the new Catholic the Eucharist for the first time.



Reception in Special Cases

In some situations, there may be a doubt concerning whether a person’s baptism was valid. All baptisms are assumed valid, regardless of denomination, unless after serious investiation there is reason to doubt that the candidate was baptized with water and the Trinitarian formula (“. . . in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”) or that the minister or recipient of baptism did not intend it to be an actual baptism.

If there is reason to doubt whether a person’s baptism was valid (or whether the person was baptized at all), then the candidate will be given a conditional baptism (one with the form, “. . . if you are not already baptized, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”).

“If conditional baptism . . . seems necessary, this must be celebrated privately rather than at a public liturgical assembly of the community and with only those limited rites which the diocesan bishop determines. The reception into full communion should take place later at the Sunday Eucharist of the community” (NSC 37).

Another special case is that of those who have been baptized as Catholics but who not been brought up in the faith or not received the sacraments of confirmation and the Eucharist. “Although baptized adult Catholics who have never received catechetical instruction or been admitted to the sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist are not catechumens, some elements of the usual catechumenal formation are appropriate to their preparation for the sacraments, in accord with the norms of the ritual, ‘Preparation of Uncatechized Adults for Confirmation and Eucharist'” (NSC 25).

A final case is that of Catholics who received confirmation and the Eucharist but who left the Church by a formal act, such as joining another church or denomination. Normally individuals in this situation can come back to the Church and become Catholics again by going to confession and being reconciled. Unless there are complicating circumstances, most priests have the faculty to receive people back into the Church in this manner.


Waiting for Reception

It can be a time of anxious longing while one waits to feel the warm embrace of the Church and to be immersed into Catholic society. This time of waiting and reflection is necessary, since becoming a Catholic is a momentous event of great importance, but waiting can be quite painful as one looks forward with anticipation to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and to the joys of Catholic life—the strength and security that being a faithful Catholic bestows on one’s life. Yet even before being received, those waiting to be incorporated already have a very real and very special relationship with the Church.

In the case of those who are already Christians, their baptism itself forms a certain sacramental relationship with the Church (cf. Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio 3; Catechism of the Catholic Church 1271). They are also joined to the Church by their very intention to enter it, as are the unbaptized who inted to do so: “Catechumens who, moved by the Holy Spirit, desire with an explicit intention to be incorporated into the Church are by that very intention joined to her. With love and solicitude mother Church already embraces them as her own” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium14:3; CCC 1249).

Thus even before one is fully incorporated into the Church, one can already enjoy the status of being recognized by the Church as one of her own, precious children.


This article appeared in the September 1995 issue of This Rock magazine.

Provided Courtesy of:
Eternal Word Television Network

A copy of the National Statutes for the Catechumenate by the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops is found in Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1988), pp. 391-396.

Making a Good Confession

A Guide to the Sacrament of Penance

from the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference of Bishops

Discover God’s Love Anew

Dear Brothers and Sisters in the Lord,

Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has asked “for renewed pastoral courage in ensuring that the day-to-day teaching of Christian communities persuasively and effectively presents the practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 37). A renewed appreciation for this wonderful sacrament which leads many to return to the life of grace will bring about a new springtime, a new era of growth and life for the Church.

In response to the Pope’s invitation, this statement will speak of our need for reconciliation and explain how we receive it. While we hope that all Catholics properly understand the nature and importance of the sacrament of Penance, this statement is directed in a special way to those who do not understand it or who have drifted away from its use.

We invite every Catholic to celebrate the sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation or, as we have traditionally said, “go to Confession,” on a regular basis. There can be no better way to make progress on our spiritual journey than by returning in humble repentance and love to God, whose forgiveness reestablishes us as his children and restores us to peace with his Church and our neighbors.

With every prayerful best wish, we remain,

Sincerely yours in Christ,

The Bishops of Pennsylvania
February 2002

What is Confession?

Confession is a sacrament instituted by Jesus Christ in his love and mercy. It is here that we meet the loving Jesus who offers sinners forgiveness for offenses committed against God and neighbor. At the same time, Confession permits sinners to reconcile with the Church, which also is wounded by our sins.

The sacrament, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, is known by many names. Sometimes “it is called the sacrament of conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus’ call to conversion” (1423). But it is also better known as “the sacrament of Penance, since it consecrates the Christian sinner’s personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance, and satisfaction” (1423).

For many of us it still continues to be known as “the sacrament of confession, since the disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is an essential element of this sacrament” (1424). At the same time, the Catechism reminds us that “it is called the sacrament of forgiveness, since by the priest’s sacramental absolution God grants the penitent ‘pardon and peace’” (1424). Finally, it is also called the sacrament of Reconciliation because it reconciles sinners to God and then to each other (1424). In this text, we will refer to the sacrament as the sacrament of Penance.

Through this sacrament, we meet Christ in his Church ready and eager to absolve and restore us to new life. The graces of Christ are conferred in the sacraments by means of visible signs – signs that are acts of worship, symbols of the grace given and recognizable gestures through which the Lord bestows his gifts. In the sacrament of Penance, the forgiveness of sins and the restoration of grace are the gifts received through the outward sign, i.e., the extension of hands and words of absolution pronounced by the priest.

What is sin?

Unfortunately, in society today, many people have lost the understanding of sin. Our Holy Father has stated that “it happens not infrequently in history, for more or less lengthy periods of time and under the influence of many different factors, that the moral conscience of many people becomes seriously clouded. . . . Too many signs indicate that such an eclipse exists in our time” Reconciliation and Penance, 18). In our day, many people have lost the sense of sin and feel that they can do whatever they wish without considering or fearing the consequences.

For such people, the term “sin” has no meaning. Yet we know that sin is a terrible evil which all of us must come to understand and with which all of us must struggle. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sin “is an offense against God as well as a fault against reason, truth and right conscience. Sin is a deliberate thought, word, deed, or omission contrary to the eternal law of God” (1849, 1853). In other words, sin is willfully rejecting good and choosing evil. In judging the degree of sin, it is customary to distinguish between mortal and venial sins. “Mortal sin,” the Catechism teaches, “destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law . . . Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it” (1855). (Refer to the Glossary below on Mortal and Venial Sin at the end of the page.)

Why is Confession necessary?

We need the sacrament of Penance because each of us, from time to time, sins. When we recognize that we have offended God who is all deserving of our love, we sense the need to make things right. Like the prodigal son in the Gospel, we long to know again the loving embrace of a forgiving father who patiently waits for each of us. Jesus himself has established this sure and certain way for us to access God’s mercy and to know that our sins are forgiven. By virtue of his divine authority, Jesus gives this power of absolution to the apostolic ministry. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “in imparting to his apostles his own power to forgive sins the Lord also gives them the authority to reconcile sinners with the Church” (1444).

We need to know that our sins are forgiven. There is something in our human nature that calls out for the assurance that our sins are actually forgiven. Confession is the visible manifestation of God’s mercy that provides us, in human terms as well, the clear awareness that God has forgiven us.

What is the source of forgiveness for our sins?

Jesus invites us to reconciliation with God. It is Christ, the Good Shepherd, who offers us forgiveness and the power to turn
away from sin. Writing to the Corinthians, Saint Paul reminds us that just as sin came into the world through Adam and Eve, so too grace and new creation come to us through Jesus Christ. Just as death came through a human being, so too the resurrection of the dead came through a human being. As in Adam all people die, so in Christ all shall be brought to life – a fullness of life, a new creation already beginning in us through grace (cf. 1 Cor 15).

This is the message we proclaim when we face the mystery of sin. Just as Adam brought sin, death, disharmony, confusion, disruption and struggle into our lives, Christ, the new Adam, gives us grace, redemption, new life and salvation. (Refer to the Glossary on Original Sin at the end of the page). It is in Jesus Christ that we find the beginnings of the new creation. He leads us back to the Father, overcomes the tragic alienation of sin and restores harmony. Jesus gives us newness of life in grace that begins to restore our relationship with God and that will lead to full communion with God in glory. Grace is the beginning of a new creation for all of those baptized into Christ. In short, Jesus’ passion and death have rescued us and given us new life.

How is the Church able to forgive sins?

The Church professes belief in “the forgiveness of sins” and is fully aware that only God forgives sins. It also believes that Jesus, through his death, washed away all sin and, after his resurrection, gave to his Church the power and authority to apply to us the redemption he won on the cross, namely God’s forgiveness of our sins.

As the Catechism points out, our faith in the forgiveness of sins is tied to faith in the Holy Spirit and the Church: “It was when he gave the Holy Spirit to his apostles that the risen Christ conferred on them his own divine power to forgive sins: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (976; cf. John 20:22-23).

We bring our failings to the Church, then, because Jesus imparted to his apostles, their successors, and through them to all ordained priests, his own power to forgive sins, to restore and reconcile the sinner with God and also the Church. This power to forgive sins is often referred to as the “power of the keys”, the power entrusted to the Church when Jesus told St. Peter, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:19). This power is manifested and operative in the sacrament of Penance.

Why do we continue to need forgiveness if we are already saved?

The new life received in Christ does not abolish the weakness of human nature or our inclination to sin. “If we say, ‘We are without sin,’” Saint John wrote, “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). There are a great many kinds of sins, some mortal, others venial. But all sin has a detrimental effect. It impedes the soul’s progress in the exercise of the virtues and the prevalence of the good. “Sin creates a proclivity to sin,” the Catechism reminds us. “It engenders vice by repetition of the same acts” (1865).

As a result, even though we are baptized into new life, we must continue to return to the sacrament of Penance to cleanse ourselves of sin and receive God’s mercy. We are always in need of God’s forgiveness through the sacrament of Penance if we are to grow in a life of grace.

Why do I need to go to a priest for Confession?

It is most unfortunate that many people have adopted a mindset that they do not need to go to Confession. Many say “I just tell my sins to God and he forgives me.” There is on the part of such persons a failure to recognize that the sacrament of Penance is not an invention of the Church. Rather, the sacrament of Penance is Christ’s gift to the Church to ensure the forgiveness he so generously extends will be made available to every member of the Church. Once again, we cite the words of our Holy Father in highlighting the connection between Christ, his Church and the sacrament of Penance:

“From the revelation of the value of this ministry and power to forgive sins, conferred by Christ on the Apostles and their successors, there developed in the church an awareness of the sign of forgiveness, conferred through the Sacrament of Penance. It is the certainty that the Lord Jesus himself instituted and entrusted to the Church – as a gift of his goodness and loving kindness to be offered to all-a special Sacrament for the forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism” (Reconciliation and Penance, 3).

As a result, even though we are baptized into new life, we must continue to return to the sacrament of Penance to cleanse ourselves of sin and receive God’s mercy. We are always in need of God’s forgiveness through the sacrament of Penance if we are to grow in a life of grace.

What is the role of the priest in forgiving sins?

In establishing his Church, Christ passed on to her the power to forgive sins. Just as he forgave sins, so would those chosen by him to be his apostles have the extraordinary power to forgive sins. In the priesthood today, the visible external sign of Christ’s mercy and forgiveness is exercised in confession. Just as the whole Church makes visible in our world the presence of Christ, so the priest makes visible the forgiveness and mercy of Jesus in the sacrament of confession. The priest who by ordination is configured to Christ absolves sinners, not in his own name and power, but in the name and person of Jesus.

What do I need to do to be forgiven?

What leads us to the sacrament of Penance is a sense of sorrow for what we have done. The motivation may be out of love of God or even fear of the consequences of having offended God. Whatever the motive, contrition is the beginning of forgiveness of sin. The sinner must come to God by way of repentance. There can be no forgiveness of sin if we do not have sorrow at least to the extent that we regret it, resolve not to repeat it and intend to turn back to God. While we cannot be certain that we will not sin again, our present resolve must be honest and realistic. We must want to change, to be faithful to the Lord, and intend to take steps to make faithfulness possible. Christ’s forgiveness always calls for such a commitment: “Go, and do not sin again” (John 8:11).

What happens in Confession?

In the sacrament of Penance, the contrite sinner comes before Christ in the person of the priest who hears the sins, imposes a penance and absolves the sinner in the name and by the power of Christ.

The sinner comes before the merciful judgment of God and approaches the Lord in sorrow, admitting guilt before his representative. It is in the person of Christ that the priest hears the confession of guilt. The words spoken in Confession are guarded by the most solemn obligation of complete confidentiality. In fact, Church law prescribes a serious penalty for any confessor who directly violates the “seal of Confession.”

It is in the name of Christ that the priest pronounces the Savior’s mercy: “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The Catechism reminds us that “absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused” (1459). Thus, the priest imposes a penance on the penitent, which can take the form of “prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear” (1460).

How do I prepare for Confession?

Confession is not difficult, but it does require preparation. We should begin with prayer, placing ourselves in the presence of God, our loving Father. We should harbor in our hearts a sense of sorrow for all we have done. The motivation for our sorrow may be out of love of God or even fear of the consequences of having offended God. Whatever the motive, contrition is the beginning of forgiveness of sin. We need to have sorrow at least to the extent that we regret it, resolve not to repeat it and intend to turn back to God.

With this disposition of heart, we should review our lives since our last confession, searching our thoughts, words and actions to discover those that did not conform to God’s love, to his law or to the laws of the Church. This is what is known as an “Examination of Conscience.”

How do I go to Confession?

The following may be helpful in preparing for confession. Above all, do not be afraid. If you are hesitant about what to do, ask the priest for help:

The priest welcomes the penitent warmly and greets him or her with kindness.

Sign of the Cross:
Then the penitent makes the Sign of the Cross, which the priest may also make.

Invitation to Trust in God:
The priest invites the penitent to have trust in God using one of the formulas in the ritual or similar words. If the penitent is unknown to the priest, it is proper for the penitent to indicate his or her state in life (married, single, or clergy), the time of his or her last confession and anything else that may help the confessor in exercising his ministry.

Reading of the Word of God:

Confession of Sins and Acceptance of Satisfaction:
The penitent confesses his or her sins and accepts the prayers or deeds that the priest proposes as a penance.

Prayer of the Penitent and Absolution:
The priest asks the penitent to express sorrow by praying one of the prayers found in the ritual or in his or her own words. The priest then prays the Prayer of Absolution, to which the penitent responds: “Amen.”

Proclamation of Praise and Dismissal:
The priest continues: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.” The penitent responds: “His mercy endures for ever.” The priest then dismisses the penitent, using one of the formulas found in the ritual.

NOTE: This is taken from the ritual for Roman Catholics. Eastern Churches utilize a different formula.

Why do I receive a penance?

To complete the process, a penance is imposed. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all disorders caused by sin. While we are not capable of truly satisfying God for the evil we have done and its consequences, we must make satisfaction for our sin through some action or prayer that will express our desire to make amends and to repair something of the disorder, damage or harm which our sinful actions have brought into the world. The penance imposed takes into account the penitent’s personal situation and serves to support his or her spiritual good. It corresponds as much as possible to the gravity of the sins confessed. It may be a prayer, an offering, works of mercy, sacrifices or service to another. But this penance is in a real way our share in the Cross and helps us to be more closely joined to Christ.

In the Introduction to the Rite of Penance, we are reminded that true conversion is completed by acts of penance or satisfaction for the sins committed, by amendment of conduct, and also by the reparation of injury. The kind and extent of the satisfaction should be suited to the personal condition of each penitent. In this way the penitent is helped to be healed of the evil which caused him to sin. Therefore, it is necessary that the act of penance really be a remedy for sin and a help to renewal of life.

How often should I go to Confession?

Individual and integral confession remains the only ordinary way for us to reconcile ourselves with God and the Church. A Catholic who has committed mortal (grave) sin is obliged to seek God’s forgiveness in this sacrament as soon as possible.

In ordinary circumstances, a Catholic who has committed mortal sin should not receive Holy Communion before receiving sacramental absolution. Not only does God forgive our sins, but we also receive the power of God’s grace to struggle against sin and to be strengthened in our commitment to God and the Church.

So powerful is the grace of this sacrament that the Introduction to the Rite of Penance reminds us that frequent and careful celebration of this sacrament is also very useful as a remedy for venial sins. This is not a mere ritual repetition or psychological exercise, but a serious striving to perfect the grace of baptism so that, as we bear in our body the death of Jesus Christ, his life may be seen in us ever more clearly.

As we complete these thoughts on the sacrament of Penance, we might well reflect that the deepest spiritual joy each of us can sense is the freedom from whatever would separate us from God, a loving and merciful Father who receives each of us with all the forgiveness and love lavished on the prodigal son. Renewed, refreshed and reconciled in this sacrament once more, we who have sinned become a “new creation.” Once more we are made new. It is this newness of spirit and soul that we hope all of us experience time and again in the sacrament of Penance.

Examination of Conscience

As you prepare to make a good confession, you want to ask God’s forgiveness for any way in which you have offended him but particularly for any serious sin. If you are not certain what you should bring to the priest in confession, do not be afraid to ask him for help. The priest is there to assist you and to share with you God’s love and mercy.

Many people find the Ten Commandments to be a good frame of reference for an examination of conscience. The Commandments are listed here as a reminder that you might find helpful.

  1. I am the LORD your God: you shall not have strange Gods before me.
  2. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
  3. Remember to keep holy the LORD’S Day.
  4. Honor your father and your mother.
  5. You shall not kill.
  6. You shall not commit adultery.
  7. You shall not steal.
  8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.

Act of Contrition

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 they offend 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.

Glossary of Terms

Original Sin is the sin committed by Adam and Eve, the first human beings. This sin was a willful act of disobedience, a rejection of God’s command that was so devastating that it ruptured the relationship which our first parents enjoyed with God. As a result of this sin, paradise was lost to them and to their descendants until our Redeemer, Jesus Christ came to conquer sin and death and restore us to our inheritance of the Kingdom of God. Original sin taints all human beings and is washed away through the sacred waters of baptism. However, while original sin is removed, its effects remain. One of these effects is concupiscence, that disordered desire within us which produces an inclination to sin (1264, 1426, 2515).

Mortal Sin is defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “a grave infraction of the law of God that destroys the divine life in the soul of the sinner (sanctifying grace), constituting a turning away from God. For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must be present: grave matter, full knowledge of the evil of the act, and full consent of the will” (1855, 1857). The Catechism emphasizes that “to choose deliberately – that is both knowing it and willing it – something gravely contrary to the divine law and to the ultimate end of man is to commit a mortal sin. This destroys in us the charity without which eternal (happiness) is impossible. Unrepented, mortal sins brings eternal death” (1874). This “eternal death” we call Hell, where those who have died unrepentant of mortal sin suffer the eternal separation from God and loss of eternal happiness, i.e., seeing God face-to-face.

Venial Sin, according to the Catechism, “does not destroy the divine life in the soul, as does mortal sin, though it diminishes and wounds it” (1855). Venial sin is a failure to observe necessary moderation, in lesser matters of the moral law, or in grave matters acting without full knowledge or complete consent” (1862). We must realize, however, that while venial sins do not have the grave effects of mortal sin, “deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin” (1863). It should be the goal of every Christian to strive, through steadfast prayer, acts of penance and works of charity, for a life free of sin.

© 2002 Pennsylvania Catholic Conference
Used with permission.

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