The Confession Post…

Eamonn Clark

There is nothing our accuser in Hell hates more than a self-accuser, nothing he loves more than a self-excuser.

There are many means to fight against sin and everlasting death – principally, baptism, but also frequent prayer, fasting and other penances, and almsgiving, together with a constant desire to grow in virtue, the reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation, and the reception of the Eucharist.

But all of it will profit one nothing if the Sacrament of Confession is neglected. In fact, it will be to one’s eternal shame and confusion that all the spiritual resources of the Church found in this sacrament (in the midst of the other advantages named above) were so readily available and yet were ignored. In fact, it would perhaps have been better for such a person never to have received faith at all than to have thrown away its gifts in this way. (2 Peter 2:21-22) Many souls who consider themselves to be spiritual are dragged down to Hell because of their stubborn refusal to humble themselves by using the order of forgiveness of sins instituted by Christ Himself, an order already implied even in the Old Testament, when the dynamic between the priests and lepers is described (see Leviticus 13; cf. Matthew 8:4, Luke 17:4 regarding the cleansing of the ten lepers by Christ – “Go, show yourself to the priest,” etc.). The soul which needs to go to confession is a spiritual leper; half dead, half alive, in need of healing and purification.

Today is the day to resolve to go to confession.

First, I want to lay out the basic points of Catholic doctrine and law on Confession. Second, I will address the most common excuses for avoiding Confession. There will come a time when arguments will cease, however…

First, Catholic doctrine and law.

The Sacrament of Confession is administered to the baptized by a duly authorized priest for the remission of personal sins committed after baptism. An integral (or “real”) confession requires several parts: confession, contrition, absolution, and penance (or satisfaction). In turn…

Confession: One approaches a priest and names one’s mortal sins in kind and number, after an honest attempt to recall them to memory; one may also confess venial sins (although these may be forgiven in other ways, such as the reception of the Eucharist, or certain prayers and sacramentals, as long as one is not already in mortal sin). Any attempt to hide a mortal sin by consciously failing to confess it when one knows it to be a mortal sin with reasonable certitude renders the entire confession invalid and constitutes a sacrilege – an enormous sin. Mortal sins remembered only after the confession have been forgiven but must still be made known in the sacrament at a later time, which time one should not postpone. This is because the act of confession is related to the order of the person’s soul and also to the Church; not only must one do appropriate penance under obedience within the judicial framework established by Christ (the hierarchical/ministerial priesthood) for his sin for his own sake, but he must also rectify the harm he has done through his sin to the entire Body of Christ, the Church, which is wounded by every sin. (Some extraordinary sins also carry canonical penalties which require a special juridical process – but we leave this aside here.)

Contrition: One is truly sorry for his sins because they offend God, in addition to fearing punishment for them. The Sacrament of Confession takes one’s fear of punishment (servile fear) and makes up for the lack of the fear of God as a Friend and Father (filial fear) by the grace contained in the sacrament. The former kind of sorrow is called “attrition,” the latter is called “contrition.” (NB: the person who is absolutely unable to go to Confession who makes a good act of contrition – that is, a real apology to God because of the offensiveness of one’s sins – is forgiven by God. However, when it becomes possible to go to Confession, one must do so, and this intention needs to be there, at least implicitly, in the act of contrition outside the Sacrament; see the section above, and note the need for doing penance under obedience.) Without contrition for mortal sin, one is not a friend of God. All the prayer and penance of such a person amounts to nothing except a disposition to reconcile with the Lord. One who dies without restoring this friendship (called “charity”) condemns himself to the pains of Hell, forever. Effectively God says to such a person, “Thy will be done.” One receives something other than God, for all eternity. Contrition also implies a purpose of amendment, meaning, one intends to avoid all sin in the future, even though we all know that we will continue to fail. The point is that one wants to do the will of God starting “right now,” not later.

Absolution: The priest delivers the formula of absolution, essentially consisting in the words, “Ego te absolvo” (which can be translated, “I absolve you”). There are usually other words which accompany this fundamental form, which are important for driving home what is occurring but not essential for validity.

Penance: One must intend to do the penance which is delivered by the priest in reparation for the sins which were confessed. (A failure to do the penance after the fact does not invalidate the sacrament – but it is obligatory nonetheless.) Again, we note that the key is obedience to the juridical order established by Christ – in doing our penance (provided it is not a sin itself – in which case, one should approach another priest in Confession and explain the situation, also if it seems extremely unreasonable or inappropriate), we do the will of the Church as such. We can be assured that this is what God wants us to do for Him. This is freedom.

The law of the Church regarding the use of Confession is in fact so important that it constitutes one of only five “precepts” of the Church, each of which are interrelated (perhaps worth its own post) and aim at sustaining the bare minimum of commitment to the spiritual life that is generally necessary for avoiding total spiritual catastrophe. They admit of special exceptions (like missing Sunday Mass due to sickness), but they generally bind the conscience. The five precepts are: to contribute to the material needs of the Church; to attend Mass on Sundays and other prescribed days (e.g. Christmas, Immaculate Conception, etc.); to fast and abstain from meat on the prescribed days (e.g. during Lent); to receive Holy Communion once a year during the Easter season; to go to Confession once a year.

It used to be a widespread problem that Catholics would hardly ever receive Holy Communion, despite frequent attendance at Mass, sometimes accompanied by an automatic or “rote” use of Confession. Today, we usually have the opposite problem – infrequent use of Confession, automatic and rote reception of Holy Communion. (We should recall that to receive Holy Communion while consciously in mortal sin is a sacrilege – once again, an enormous sin. In cases of grave necessity, one may attempt to elicit an act of perfect contrition, which includes the intention of going to Confession when possible, and then receive Holy Communion – but these are very rare instances.) It seems Christ would be much more pleased with very few receptions of Holy Communion with many receptions of forgiveness in Confession, rather than the other way around. For example, St. Francis of Assisi may have only received Holy Communion three times in his entire life.

The precepts of the Church are the most fundamental “rules” which the Church prescribes. The Church has the commission to teach, to govern, and to sanctify, in accord with Christ’s own teaching, governing, and sanctifying power and authority (prophet, king, priest – frankincense, gold, myrrh) – the precepts invoke the full authority of the Church in governing the spiritual lives of the members of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. In other words, it is Christ Who gives these precepts. Therefore, to neglect any of the precepts knowingly and willingly constitutes mortal sin, and though ignorance of the precepts “as” precepts could excuse one from grave sin (e.g. “I didn’t know I had to go to Mass on Sundays”) it is practically impossible to avoid mortal sin without doing what the precepts tell us to do – that’s why the Church puts them forward: it is for our benefit. So, it is obligatory under pain of mortal sin to confess one’s sins once a year – and if you think you have nothing to confess after a whole year, try asking your friends and relatives (especially your spouse) for some ideas. They will set you straight on that. Then you can also confess pride and self-ignorance. Even if you don’t have mortal sins to confess, you still have the opportunity to examine how you can do better.

In sum: it is seriously obligatory to confess one’s sins once a year, to be sorry for them, to receive absolution, and to do the penance assigned.

Second, the most common objections against the use of the Sacrament of Confession. Maybe you can find other excuses – but if you are honest with yourself, you will find that they are always derived from a distrust of Christ and His Church, and/or inordinate self-reliance.

“I just confess my sins to God.”

This is certainly a good thing to do. As we have already noted, God can and does forgive sins when one is truly contrite – and venial sins can be forgiven apart from Confession by the use of prayers, sacramentals, or the reception of the Eucharist (unless one is in mortal sin already). The first problem, however, is that when dealing with the matter proper to Confession (mortal sin), one who “confesses to God” cannot be fully sure of his own motivation for his sorrow – fear of punishment, authentic love of God, or maybe some other motive (psychological discomfort, for instance). Confession removes this lack of clarity – all one must do is make a good effort to make an integral confession. Furthermore, as we also already saw, the key is the order of judgment and reparation (or penance) instituted by Christ: one’s sins – especially and principally one’s grave sins – wound not only the soul of the individual sinner (who frequently is not even aware of the depth of that damage and therefore needs Father to drive the point home), but it also wounds the whole Church. Therefore, when it is possible, one must subject himself to that judicial order, which is the sacrament. If we deny this, we are calling the sacrament superfluous, unnecessary, unimportant – we are implying that we would have advised the Risen Christ not to bother instituting this sacrament in the first place (John 20:23 – “Those whose sins you forgive are forgiven, those whose sins you retain are retained”). What an insult to the Son of God. (This is part of the core of the Protestant doctrine on forgiveness of sins, by the way.) God wants us to confess our sins to Him in the way that He indicated by instituting the Sacrament of Confession to begin with.

“I am embarrassed of my sins/I am afraid/it’s too difficult.”

This is a more understandable and less offensive cause of avoiding the sacrament. However, it is still completely insufficient, for a few reasons. To begin with, unless it is Father’s first few months as a priest, you can be pretty well assured that he has heard it before, or at least something very close. Even if not, you are quite unlikely to say something all that “shocking,” and the sorrier you are in your expression of your sins, the less shocking it will be. “But you don’t understand – my impiety/sexual perversion/whatever/etc. is so extreme/weird/shameful that it is just too much to mention.” Well, your sin is probably not quite as “out there” as you think, but the discomfort is telling you something; that you are ashamed, which is right and just. It should be uncomfortable to say what you did, because it is evil – but you should not fear saying it. It is you who make it difficult to the point of being impossible. If it comes down to it, write your sin down, and just resolve to read it – that could help you get through it. But the discomfort actually can provide the condition for the great feeling of freedom – the secret is out, even though God already knew what you did. Now your mind is free, and your soul is cleansed. And the sin dies in the confessional. Do not fall into the false humility of Simon Peter in the boat – “Depart from me O Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8) It is precisely because you are sinful that the Lord should not depart, and you should ask His forgiveness in the way that He wants.

“I will feel too good about being forgiven.”

Sometimes, a person will make the argument that it is this precise feeling of freedom which is a “trap” of some kind. The idea is that it is “purer” to apologize to God directly and avoid the Freudian “release” of the confessional process. Often this is a pious-sounding cover for a deeper problem – for example, inordinate shame of sin (see the section above), which could be the real reason motivating any of these excuses – but perhaps such a person really think it is “more spiritual” to avoid the sacrament. After all, one might “feel holy” instead of being holy by going to Confession, right? The problem is, once again, the order of forgiveness instituted by Christ is contradicted. In fact, one of the advantages of the sacrament is precisely the feeling of being forgiven – it is a good feeling (or it can be) – which is supposed to teach us to love the forgiveness of the Lord and to keep seeking it. God actually wants people to feel good about forgiveness, at least sometimes. This is to make no mention of the fact that being forgiven does actually make a person holy, even if not perfectly so. In actuality, a person who lets himself believe the lie that “avoiding feeling holy” justifies avoiding confession is deceived far more than a person who tends toward thinking that “feeling forgiven” is the same as holiness… the former lets himself think that his own psychology is more important than the order established by Christ and commanded by the Church in His Name, while the latter simply feels a little too spiritual when actually doing something which Christ truly wants. Disobedience with the feeling of pure intentions is far worse than obedience with the feeling of being a bit holier than one really is. Disobedience is a higher kind of pride than a mere swelling of the ego. Better to do God’s Will poorly than to do well what is not His Will.

“I just don’t have time/it’s too much effort/it’s inconvenient.”

Nonsense. We put plenty of time and energy into all kinds of pursuits which are not even that important for our natural, temporal lives… Hobbies, socializing, getting ahead at work… Surely, we can muster the energy and make the time to drive to the local parish on a Saturday afternoon to put our souls in order – instead of watching television and surfing the internet. And if there is no time for Confession advertised at the parish that is convenient, make an appointment at your leisure – or just show up at a daily Mass and tell Father you want to make confession before or after. (But if you need to go to confession, don’t dare to receive Holy Communion in the meantime.)

“I am afraid of becoming scrupulous.”

It is true that there is an abuse of the sacrament by overuse, or rather, inappropriate frequency deriving from a warped sense of morality. To be clear – some saints went to Confession once a day (such as Ignatius of Loyola), and it was not abnormal for many to go two or three times per week in centuries past. However, this is probably not advisable for the average layman, or even the average priest (once or twice a month is a standard practice). In any event, a person who is tending toward going to Confession every day is most likely doing so because of a neurosis, an overly sensitive conscience, a poor understanding of morality or of the sacrament… not because they are the next Ignatius of Loyola. This is a problem, but the fear of such a problem is insufficient for avoiding the sacrament altogether, as it still remains the order of the forgiveness of sins which Christ wants used. If a person really is afraid of a “runaway train” then he should approach a priest and explain this fear, and ask for his advice on how often to go to confession (except when one is absolutely sure one has committed a mortal sin – sure in the way one could swear on a stack of Bibles that it is so), and then obey it. If it’s once a year during Lent, then it’s once a year. If it’s once a month, so be it. Obedience is the key – just like we have already been pointing out.

“The priest might not be holy.”

So what? None is good but God alone. And yet the Lord wants to use broken instruments to show His power and glory. It is insulting to the Lord to assume that He cannot work well through bad instruments – and clearly, He wanted to use mere men to do His work, even evil ones like Judas. The thought which animates this objection is heretical in the strict sense – it is Donatist (and Protestant). Christ is the Voice which says the words, “Ego te absolvo,” through the priest – be he adulterer, murderer, or idolater. If you have been falling into the Donatist heresy, you should bring that up at your next confession, by the way.

“I had a bad experience.”

It happens – and it can be a great psychological obstacle. Sometimes, Father is exhausted and short on patience. Sometimes, he is just plain short on virtue (see above). Well, thank God, in most places there is more than one priest available. Try again – it is Christ you are seeking, not Father So-and-So. Maybe start by saying how bad your last experience was with confession, and go through what happened… that could be helpful.

“My sins are too great.”

No, they are not. See above about Simon Peter in the boat – “Depart from me O Lord!” This too is its own sin – to assume that God is not powerful enough, or merciful enough, to forgive you. There are plenty of sinners much worse than you who have come back to the Lord. My favorite Old Testament example is King Manasseh – an idolatrous genocidal maniac who finally turned his life around after decades of terrorizing Jerusalem (see 2 Kings 21 and 2 Chronicles 33). St. Paul was the leader of the Jewish version of ISIS, then he became “the Apostle.” A popular modern example is Rudolf Hoss – commandant of the holocaust death-camp at Auschwitz, who is likely happy in Heaven now. You are not that bad. (You are also likely not as bad as the groveling and apostate Simon Peter in the courtyard, denying knowing the Lord Who sat just around the corner, nor as bad as the soldiers who crucified Christ – whom He forgave during the act itself.)

All of these excuses are great short-term investments in psychological comfort. They are very bad spiritual investments in both the short-term and the long-term. You will not regret overcoming your excuses – and in Hell, one only regrets his state… no longer is one capable of the kind of regret which leads to repentance. The regret of Judas leads to confusion, pain, despair – the regret of Simon Peter leads to repentance. Their sins were basically equal, but their outcomes could not have been more different. Choose wisely.

Conclusion

The soul which neglects making at least an annual confession slides slowly into more and more problematic sins – and then eventually is solidified in his favorite vices. When there are many people neglecting the sacrament in one place, such as in a parish, the devotional life will become more and more anthropocentric (no prayer before and after Mass, clapping for musicians, careless reception of the Eucharist, little tolerance for “challenging” homilies, a preoccupation with “being involved” with the Mass, etc.), and “social justice” initiatives will tend to overshadow what is left of the devotional life. This is not a good trend, and it is gaining ground in many areas around the world. More and more preaching on the need for the use of the Sacrament of Confession is called for – consider this my small contribution. Let us walk while we have the light… for soon the light will be taken away, and the darkness will come. (John 12:35)

GO TO CONFESSION! (And please share this post if you think it could help someone – spread this net far and wide…)

I am providing a few good resources here:

A formula for perfect contrition (it is not “magic,” remember – though it could be a good practice to say once or twice a day): “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, 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 Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.”

My own post on learning chastity – perhaps the least favorite virtue of the young, especially young men… be ashamed of sins of lust, but be more ashamed not to confess such sins!

A good examination of conscience for single adults …and for married people … and for young adults/teens … and just in case you want it, for kids.

More advice on how to make a good confession

The Summa Theologiae on the necessity of Confession (composed by a colleague of St. Thomas, based on another of his works)

The Council of Trent on the Sacrament of Confession (Session 14), and the Roman Catechism (from Trent) on the Sacrament of Confession (promulgated by Pope St. Pius V)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Sacrament of Confession

Some detailed history and theological analysis of the Sacrament of Confession and also especially of Absolution

If you liked this post, please share and subscribe!

Reflections of a New Priest

Fr. Peter Gruber

Before I was ordained, I was asked what I looked forward to most about being a priest. My answer happened to be the same thing that filled me with the greatest uncertainty: hearing confessions.

Everything else about being a priest seemed somehow already familiar – daily Mass had made me accustomed to the priest’s role, diaconate ordination acclimated me to preaching, I had already adjusted to our primary ministry to the students at our universities.

However, hearing confessions was an entirely new experience. Sure, I had grown used to being on the penitent side of the screen, but the idea of encountering other people in what seems their most personal details had given me pause. Would I have anything to offer?

But upon being ordained, I quickly found hearing confessions the most impactful and formative aspect of being a priest of Jesus Christ.

I’m a priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri and hearing confessions is a particularly Oratorian thing to do – St. Philip Neri did the bulk of his pastoral care within the sacrament of Penance. Even the time spent waiting for the next penitent has become a new facet of my spiritual life. More than any other time do I get to practice what Blessed John Henry Newman would call (in his Advent sermon of the same name) “watching.” I pray that I may have the same zeal as St. Philip, who would go throughout the streets of Rome to attract people to the confessional early in his priesthood, and later would “attract souls as a magnet draws iron.” To support such zeal, I all the more have to be rooted in intimacy with Christ in prayer, as St. Philip was.

In one of our confessionals, we have a small statue of St. Padre Pio. A few years ago, while I was still in college, I found Padre Pio’s Prayer after Communion, and since then, St. Pio has accompanied me through this prayer with every communion. And now, he accompanies me as a priest. I’m reminded when I see him there how his advice in the confessional was short but filled with insight, and I pray that I may have something of his depth or brevity in my counsel.

As a mediator of Christ, it is His mercy that I dispense. Behind that screen, at the intersection of God’s love and human misery, I have to make real the words of John the Baptist, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). It’s His cross, His sacrifice, that I witness to, and I pray that I do not get in the way of his outpouring mercy.

More than anything, I have found that sins do not make us who we are. The priest does not see our deepest selves when he hears our confession; he sees our deepest selves when he gives us absolution. “We are not the sum of our faults,” St. John Paul II says, “we are the sum of the Father’s love for us.”