Here are some basic teachings about the Sacrament of Penance from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
How can we prepare for the Sacrament of Penance?
The reception of this sacrament ought to be prepared for by an examination of conscience made in the light of the Word of God. The passages best suited to this can be the Gospels and apostolic Letters, such as the Sermon on the Mount and apostolic teaching (CCC, no.1454).
What is the seal of Confession?
The Church declares that every priest who hears confession is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the “sacramental seal,” because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains “sealed” by the sacrament (CCC, no. 1467).
How does the reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation anticipate a person’s judgment before God?
In this sacrament, the sinner, placing himself before the merciful judgment of God, anticipates in a certain way the judgment to which he will be subjected at the end of his earthly life. For it is now, in this life, that we are offered the choice between life and death, and it is only by the road of conversion that we can enter the Kingdom, from which one is excluded by grave sin. In converting to Christ through penance and faith, the sinner passes from death to life and “does not come into judgment” (CCC, no. 1470, citing Jn. 5:24).
What is this Sacrament called?
It is called the Sacrament of Conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus’ call to conversion, the first step in returning to the Father from whom one has strayed by sin.
It is called the Sacrament of Penance, since it consecrates the Christian sinner’s personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance and satisfaction.
It is called the Sacrament of Confession since the disclosure or confession of sins is an essential element of this Sacrament. In a profound sense, it is also a “confession” – acknowledgment and praise – of the holiness of God and of his mercy toward sinful man.
It is called the Sacrament of Forgiveness, since by the priest’s sacramental absolution, God grants the penitent “pardon and peace.”
It is called the Sacrament of Reconciliation because it imparts to the sinner the love of God who reconciles: “Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). He who lives by God’s merciful love is ready to respond to the Lord’s call: “Go, first be reconciled to your brother” (CCC, nos. 1423-1424, citing Mt 5:24).
Why do we confess sins to priests?
God alone can forgive sins. Jesus could say “Your sins are forgiven” (Mk 2:5) only because he is the Son of God. And priests can forgive sins in Jesus’ place only because Jesus has given them that authority.
Many people say, “I can go directly to God; why do I need a priest?” God, though, wants it otherwise. We rationalize our sins away and like to sweep things under the rug. That is why God wants us to tell our sins and to acknowledge them in a personal encounter. Therefore, the following words from the Gospel are true of priests: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20:23).