I was born and received the early sacraments—Baptism, First Confession, and First Communion—during the papacy of Pius XII. Admittedly this was a long time ago; I mention it only to highlight how a sacrament has fallen from favor over the passage of time, and to look at some of the aspects of it which make it extraordinarily valuable.
Confession, then Penance, then Reconciliation
During my primary and secondary school years, it was not uncommon to go to the church on a Saturday afternoon, or other hours when this sacrament was offered, and find some number of people (12, 17, 21, or more) in line waiting to go into the confessional. It rather felt as if you had won the lottery if, when you arrived, you were the third or fourth person in line. In those days, Confession was also known as Penance, and the two terms were interchangeable. These two terms, while descriptive, only dealt with fragments of what happens during the Sacrament.
The above scenario at the confession lines is, alas, much less common today, but the recent years have also brought a new development that may help us understand this sacrament better. Over the passage of time, the Magisterium assigned it a new name, one that is fuller and much more descriptive—Confession became Reconciliation.
This name tells more than simply what we do when we receive this sacrament, i.e., confess our sins and do penance. It tells what the sacrament brings about: we are reconciled with God and with His Church. The Catechism, quoting Lumen Gentium, summarizes this truth: “Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from God’s mercy for the offense committed against Him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example, and by prayer labors for their conversion” (CCC 1422).
This is what happens every time absolution is given. The soul receives pardon from God and full restoration of its relationship with Him. This applies even when those who come for it are generally Catholics in good standing, as even small sins can push us farther from God if we do not repent of them. Thus, He offers us the sacrament of Reconciliation, so that we may come back to His forgiving, healing love after each fall. The Catechism goes on to say, “It is called the sacrament of Reconciliation, because it imparts to the sinner the love of God Who reconciles” (CCC 1424).
“Metanoia”: Changing Our Direction
Many of our non-Catholic friends seem to think that we can go out and commit all sorts of sins or crimes, go to Confession and then go out and do the same things time after time. This is not even close to the truth. At the end of each Confession, we pray in the Act of Contrition, “I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to sin no more . . .” If it is your intent to go to Confession only to get it out of the way and then go commit the same sins again, why not simply stay home?
This is not to say that, if a person commits a sin again after confessing it, this means his contrition was not genuine the first time. Given the fallenness of our nature and the faults of individuals, a person may fight a long time against certain sins and have to confess them repeatedly. However, his intention not to commit the sin again, his desire to do better in the future, must be sincere and firm.
When He was speaking at the start of His ministry, Christ Jesus told the people, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” The word which has been used in Greek is “Metanoia.” This word is most often used as a noun, but can be easily used as a verb. Metanoia means a change of heart, or a complete change in direction. Using the Greek words, His phrase becomes: “Repent (metanoeite) and believe (pisteuete) in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15; cf. Matt. 4:17)
In Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini, written in 1966, Pope Paul VI observed: “These words constitute, in a way, a compendium of the whole Christian life.” They are the sum and substance of being Christian. This is the Gospel in a nutshell, That is, “Metanoia is the sine qua non [the Latin phrase means “without which not”] of the Christian life. You cannot be a Christian without it.” (“Repent and Believe! Metanoia: The Fundamental Datum of Christian Existence,” by Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq. Catholic Online (https://www.catholic.org) 2/20/2013)
“We are Christian only if we encounter Christ,” Pope Benedict XVI said in one of his audiences. “Only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One do we really become Christians.” Again, John Paul II said succinctly in an address in Guatemala: “The Gospel is somebody: it is Jesus Christ, the Lord.”
The encounter with Christ needs to transform us. This process is ongoing throughout our lives, which is why we always need to return to confession; but we need to put all our hearts into cooperating with the grace He wants to pour into us. This will mean a thousand little changes, and sometimes big ones as well. If we are willing, He will help us.
How Repentance Can Change Our Lives
Let’s look at a practical example about repenting, metanoia, and a fundamental shift in attitude or behavior. Suppose that, over the passage of time, your lunch hour has routinely become 75 to 90 minutes. On a weekly basis, that translates to 1-1/4 hours to 2-1/2 hours per week, or up to 20 hours of your pay you have stolen in the two months since your last confession. If you confess this, but have no intention of correcting it, why bother? Metanoia means that you recognize the issue and wish to correct it by a change in attitude or thinking. You resolve to hold your lunch hour to under 50 minutes, so that there is a tiny bit of wiggle room if a special circumstance exists. To get this accomplished, you resolve to eat in the cafeteria rather than going out to a local restaurant for lunch.
Metanoia, therefore, is a fundamental shift in thinking and acting. It can be seen as an “about-face” in your actions. Metanoia requires a complete examination of conscience, and a willingness—better yet, a commitment—to change. We cannot be Christians without it.