In 1983, bishops from all over the world gathered at a synod in Rome to discuss reconciliation and the sacrament of Penance. A year later, Pope John Paul wrote a document reflecting on that synod. The pope noted that in the preparation for, as well as during the synod, the message came across that the sacrament of Penance is in crisis. The use of this healing sacrament has declined noticeably, especially in the Western world.
The pope cites many reasons for this crisis. More important, however, is what we lose by not making frequent use of the sacrament of Penance. This sacrament provides the penitent with abundant grace which turn his or her failings into bountiful fruit for God's kingdom. It also provides a discipline which enables the penitent to struggle against those failings. Frequent Confession can reform our lives and draw us closer to God.
If we are serious about growing in holiness, few practices are as helpful as that of frequent Confession. We will make use of this sacrament not only when we fall into serious sin, but even in our fight against our common failings. No sin is truly minor. They all stand in the way of our closer union with God. To the extent that we love God, we will strive to live up to Jesus' call in the Sermon on the Mount: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).Reconciliation with God occurs in the hidden places of the human heart where no creature can intrude. But this does not mean confession of one's sins to a priest is extraneous. The sacrament is not a substitute for true inner conversion. It is an aid to conversion.
Father Colman O'Neill maintains that personal faith alone is never enough to share in the life of Christ's body, the church. "Faith must always be sacramentalized, expressed, that is, and nourished through the ritual of the church" (Meeting Christ in the Sacraments, pp. 265-66). The priest who hears the Confession is not just a sort of spiritual counsellor. He administers the sacrament in persona Christi. When we tell our sins to the priest, we are telling them to Jesus. And when the priest says the words of absolution, it is Jesus saying them.
Further, when we tell our sins to a priest, we tend to make our examination of conscience and our acts of contrition, resolving to amend our lives and to do penance more carefully than in the case of extra-sacramental forgiveness of sin.
Confession is an especially salutary means of finding forgiveness for venial sins and receiving the graces and developing the discipline necessary for ongoing conversion. How frequent should frequent Confession be? St. Francis de Sales urged lay people: "Make a humble, devout Confession every week."
Few people use the sacrament this often. But if we are serious about ongoing conversion, we will probably want to go to Confession at least once a month. More important than the precise frequency, however, is one's disposition in receiving the sacrament. Ongoing conversion aims not at changing God — by presuming to hold back his "wrath" — but rather at changing oneself.
Moreover, if our goal is to be perfect as God is perfect then we must seek not only to rid ourselves of faults and sinful habits, but also to bear fruit. In the account of the Last Judgment in Matthew's Gospel, the "goats" were condemned to hell not for the evil they had done but because of the good they had failed to do.
Germain Grisez and Russell Shaw argue the frequent reception of Confession can help to organize the Christian's life (Fulfillment in Christ, pp. 372-75). It not only helps one avoid evil but also to do good.
They argue, first, that in seeking holiness, one will sooner or later have to root out sinful elements in every aspect of one's life. Second, Confession helps one avoid mortal sin even if one only dreads the prospect of having to confess a mortal sin. Third, it helps one avoid temptation by avoiding situations where temptation is most intense. Fourth, one who is serious about the sacrament of Confession will also seek to do good in order to make up for one's sins. "Thus, for someone striving to avoid evil and do good, the whole of Christian life assumes a penitential character" (p. 375).
One could look at this from a different angle. Confession ought to spur one to do good, as Grisez and Shaw maintain, but the failure to confess can also prevent one from doing good.
Father Jordan Aumann lists four effects of venial sin which are detrimental to the spiritual life. First, sin deprives one of many actual graces God would otherwise have given. Second, it lessens the fervor of one's charity and generosity. Third, sin makes it more difficult to exercise virtue. "Deprived of many actual graces that are necessary to keep us on the path of good, and weak in fervor and generosity in the service of God, the soul gradually loses more and more of its spiritual energy" (Spiritual Theology, p. 155). Fourth, venial sin disposes one to commit mortal sins.
The Christian ought to do everything possible to avoid even venial sin and overcome its effects in one's life. Fighting that battle will not only make one less inclined to sin, it will lead one to do good. If we are not making frequent use of this sacrament, we are missing an important opportunity to grow in holiness, to grow closer to the loving God who has created us to be his friends.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.