Sancta Missa - Rituale Romanum (Roman Ritual) - Penance - General Rules




1. The holy sacrament of penance was instituted by Christ the Lord so that the faithful who have fallen back into sin after baptism may be restored to God's grace. This sacrament must be dispensed all the more carefully where it is approached with greater frequency, thus demanding so much for its worthy and proper administration and reception. The three things required essentially are matter, form, and minister. Its remote matter are the sins in question, its proximate matter the acts of the penitent, namely, contrition, confession, and satisfaction. The form consists in the actual words of absolution: I absolve you, etc. The minister is a priest who possesses either ordinary or delegated power to absolve. Yet when there is danger of death any priest, whether approved for hearing confessions or not, can validly and licitly absolve any penitent from all sins or censures, no matter how reserved or how notorious; and this even when an approved priest is available. Required in the minister of this sacrament are goodness, knowledge, and prudence; moreover, he is obligated by the seal of a secret confession to strictest perpetual silence regarding it. Confessors must conscientiously see to it that they are well grounded in these and other requisite qualifications.

2. A confessor should keep in mind above all that he holds the office of both judge and physician, and that he has been constituted by God a dispenser equally of divine justice and mercy, so that like an arbiter between God and men he may advance the cause of God's honor and souls' salvation.

3. So that he may be competent to judge rightly, discerning between one leper and another leper, and like a skilled physician understand how wisely to heal the diseases of souls and know how to apply a suitable remedy to each case, let him strive to the utmost--by means of fervent intercession before God, judicious counsel from men of experience, and consultation with experienced authors, especially the Roman Catechism--to acquire the fullest knowledge and prudence for his office.

4. He should know which cases and censures are reserved to the Holy See or which ones to his bishop, as well as the regulations of his particular diocese, and carefully observe them.

5. Lastly, he shall be studious in learning the full doctrine of this sacrament, together with any other matters necessary to its correct administration; and in exercising this ministry he should follow the rite as given below.

Rite for Administering the Sacrament of Penance

6. A priest who is called upon to hear confessions should do so promptly, and make himself easily available. Before he enters the confessional, he shall, if time allows, earnestly implore God's help, so that he may rightly and devoutly fulfill this ministry.

7. The proper place for sacramental confession is a church or a public or semipublic oratory.

8. The confessional for female penitents should always be located in an open and conspicuous place, generally in a church or otherwise in a public or semipublic oratory designated for women. The confessional should be built so that there is a stationary perforated grating between confessor and penitent.

9. Confessions of female penitents should never be heard outside a confessional, except in the case of illness or some other real necessity, and observing then such precautionary measures as the local Ordinary deems opportune. Confessions of men, however, may be heard even in a private home.

10. A surplice and purple stole should be worn by the priest, as occasion and place warrant.

11. The penitent, when necessary, should be instructed to approach this sacrament with becoming humility of soul and demeanor, to kneel upon entering the confessional, and to sign himself with the sign of the cross.

12. After which the confessor shall inquire about the penitent's state of life (unless he already is aware of it), how long since his last confession, whether he has fulfilled the penance imposed, whether his past confessions have been made properly and completely, and whether he has examined his conscience as he ought.

13. If the penitent is involved in some reserved case or is under a censure from which the confessor himself cannot absolve, the latter must delay absolution until he has obtained faculties from his superior.

14. Whenever the confessor perceives that the penitent (depending on the individual's capability) does not know the rudiments of Christian faith, he should briefly instruct him if time allows, explaining the articles of faith and other matters which must be known in order to be saved. In fine, he should reprove the penitent for his lack of knowledge, and admonish him to familiarize himself thoroughly with these things in the future.

15. The penitent says the "Confiteor," either in Latin or in the vernacular, or at least the following words: "I confess to almighty God and to you, father." Next he confesses his sins in detail, being aided whenever necessary by the priest. The latter is not to reprove the one confessing until the enumeration of sins is completed (see below), nor is he to interrupt with questions, unless this becomes necessary for fuller understanding. Accordingly he will instill confidence in the penitent, kindly encouraging him to acknowledge all sins honestly and in their entirety, undaunted by that false shame which hinders some, at the devil's prompting, from courageously confessing their sins.

16. If the penitent does not mention the number, species, and circumstances of sins which require such explanation, the priest shall prudently question him.

17. But he must be careful not to discourage anyone by curious or useless questions; let him especially avoid imprudent questioning of young boys or girls (or others) concerning matters with which they are unacquainted, lest they be scandalized and learn thereby to commit certain sins.

18. Only after he is finished hearing the confession does he weigh the gravity and number of the sins acknowledged by the penitent, and administer with fatherly understanding the rebuke and admonition that he considers necessary, in keeping with the individual's condition in life and the gravity of his sins. Moreover, he will attempt in moving words to inspire the penitent with contrition, induce him to amend his life, and suggest remedies against sin.

19. Finally, he shall impose a suitable and salutary satisfaction, as Wisdom and prudence will dictate, keeping in mind the state of the penitents and various considerations such as their sex, age, and disposition. But let him be careful not to impose too light a penance for grievous sins, and by such possible connivance become a party in another's sins. The confessor must bear in mind that satisfaction is not intended merely as a means for betterment and remedy for weakness, but also as a chastisement for past sins.

20. Therefore, he should strive as far as possible to enjoin as penances practices which are opposed to the sins confessed, for example, almsgiving in the case of the avaricious, fasting or other mortifications of the flesh for the dissolute, acts of humility for the proud, exercises of piety for the lax. In the case of persons who come to confession irregularly or very seldom, as well as such who fall back readily into sin, it will be most advantageous to counsel frequent confession, about once a month or on occasions of special feast days. Likewise he will advise them to communicate that often, if this is practicable.

21. A confessor must not enjoin a penance which would be remunerative to himself, neither may he exact nor accept anything at all from the penitents in return for his services.

22. He must not impose a public penance for sins that are secret, no matter what their enormity.

23. The priest must take great pains to decide in which instances absolution should be given, denied, or deferred, lest he absolve such as are indisposed for this benefit--persons, for example, who give no indication of contrition, who refuse to put an end to hatred and enmity, to make restitution when they are able, to give up an approximate occasion of sin, or in any other way refuse to forsake their sins and amend their life. To this class belong also persons who have given public scandal, unless they make public satisfaction and remove the scandal. Moreover, he cannot absolve any whose sins are reserved to higher authorities.

24. But if anyone who is in danger of death goes to confession, he must be absolved from all sins and censures, regardless of how they are reserved, for in this case every instance of reserved sin becomes void. Yet whenever possible he should first make satisfaction, if any is required of him. And if later he recovers, and there is any reason why he would normally have had to seek absolution from higher authority, he must have recourse to this authority as soon as possible, and be ready to do whatever is required.

25. If a sick person while he is confessing or even before he begins should happen to lose the power of speech, the priest should endeavor to ascertain the penitent's sins by means of nods and signs, in so far as he is able. And having ascertained them either in a general way or in detail, the party is to be absolved, whether he gave evidence directly or through another that he was desirous of confessing.

26. Furthermore, the priest should remember that one may not impose a heavy or onerous penance on the sick. At most he may simply indicate the type of penance which they could fulfill at an Opportune time, should they get well. In the meantime, the priest may enjoin a type of prayer or light satisfaction suitable to the condition of the sick person, and after the latter has accepted it he should be absolved, as the case requires.

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