Father David Knight tells the fictitious story of a man making his regular monthly Confession. The man enters the confessional, says he has argued with his wife, told four or five lies, had too much to drink a couple of times and yelled at his kids a few times. The priest says some encouraging words, asks him to say some Hail Marys and gives him absolution.
The next one in the confessional is the man's wife. She tells the priest the real story. The man is drunk every night. The two times he confessed were "two weekends when he was so bombed out of his mind he didn't know what city he was in." On it goes, with her unveiling the path of destruction her husband has wreaked.
She finally concludes, "he just goes to Confession every month and then everything is free and clear. You call that a sacrament of reconciliation? You call that a sacrament of healing? This sacrament is destroying my home" (Confession Can Change Your Life, pp. 15-16).
Here is an example of someone who makes frequent Confession and yet has no intention of amending his life and no active desire to draw closer to the Lord. He is abusing the sacrament.
Such a story is probably not typical of many people. But it shows what can happen if we put all our attention on getting absolution in Confession and none on what we can do to reform our lives.
The introduction to the new Rite of Confession says frequent Confession involves "a serious striving to perfect the grace of baptism." But clearly the mere act of making frequent visits to the confessional and reciting a list of sins does not involve "serious striving." Participation in the sacrament must be one outcome of a commitment to ongoing conversion.
The church's traditional understanding of this sacrament focuses not only on absolution by the priest but also on what it calls "acts of the penitent." These acts in the preparation for and celebration of the sacrament — the examination of conscience, contrition, confession and satisfaction -- are one of the strengths of this sacrament. Properly performed, they can lead us to holiness.
First, the examination of conscience. Father Jordan Aumann maintains, "There is no doubt the faithful practice of examination of conscience will have profound effects on one's spiritual life. But in this, as in so many things, its efficacy depends to a great extent on perseverance" (Spiritual Theology, p. 363).
The examination of conscience is not a way to stir up morbid feelings of guilt. It is a way for us to recall our sins and search for their root cause. We cannot be healed until we know the nature of our disease.
For a person who loves God, the examination of conscience should lead naturally to contrition for one's sins. Contrition is an act of the will, not a psychological feeling of sorrow. Pope John Paul describes it as "a clear and decisive rejection of the sin committed together with a resolution not to commit it again" (Reconciliation and Penance in the Mission of the Church Today, 31).
In his classic work Frequent Confession, Abbot Benedict Baur recommends confessing only those venial sins for which one has genuine contrition. He also recommends "universal contrition" — trying to extend one's contrition to every sin one has ever committed. Such contrition enables us to realize the full meaning of sin and the depths of how we have offended God.
The resolution to amend one's life is an intrinsic part of contrition. There can be no genuine contrition without a purpose of amendment. In the case of the man in Knight's fictitious story, contrition was not genuine. He made "frequent Confession" with no purpose of amendment.
Third, the confession of sins is crucial for the sacrament. The confessor has the power to forgive or retain sins. For him to exercise that power, he must know what the sins are. Moreover, the confessor may be able to provide advice to the penitent. To do that, he must know the sins and whatever the penitent can tell him about the root causes of those sins and the occasions under which he is most likely to fall into sin. A good confessor can help one grow in holiness.
Finally, Confession involves providing satisfaction for sins. One's penance, of course, can never make up for or undo the evil which one's sins have created. The Hail Marys which one recites or small acts of charity one performs are but a token. Their most important value lies in linking one's own penance to Christ's atoning death for our sins on the cross. The acts of penance are also concrete signs of the commitment one has made in Confession to amend one's life.
Father Colman O'Neill notes that the specific sins we confess will affect the grace God dispenses through the sacrament. The grace we receive is "tailor-made" to help us amend our lives in the areas of darkness we have revealed.
O'Neill sees this unique sanctifying grace as the primary value of frequent Confession. For it is here that the passion of Christ is applied to the unique weaknesses of the individual members of Christ's body.
We tend to want to hide our weaknesses and make our successes well known. But Christ, through the healing power of Confession, takes those weaknesses and heals them, using them to bear the greatest fruit. In weakness, there is strength. This is one of paradoxes of Christian living, one which we could never come to know by our own natural intelligence. It is revealed to us through the power of the cross.
Christ does the real work of bearing fruit through our weaknesses. But we must cooperate in this task. The acts of the penitent in the sacrament of Confession are one of the chief ways we have of opening ourselves up to God's work of transformation.
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