August 29, 2011

In 1984, Pope John Paul II wrote, "The sacrament of Penance is in crisis." The World Synod of Bishops held the previous year was an attempt to respond to that crisis and, among other things, encourage a greater use of the sacrament.

Now, 27 years later, one might ask whether we have made our personal contribution to ending this crisis.

Pope John Paul cited several symptoms of the crisis. The crisis was not only that of Catholics failing to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation as regularly as in the past.

"The sacrament of Confession," the pope wrote, "is indeed being undermined, on the one hand by the obscuring of the moral and religious conscience, the lessening of a sense of sin, the distortion of the concept of repentance and the lack of effort to live an authentically Christian life.

"And on the other hand, it is being undermined by the sometimes widespread idea that one can obtain forgiveness directly from God, even in a habitual way, without approaching the sacrament of Reconciliation.

"A further negative influence is the routine of a sacramental practice sometimes lacking in fervour and real spontaneity, deriving perhaps from a mistaken and distorted idea of the effects of the sacrament" (Reconciliation and Penance in the Mission of the Church Today, 28).


St. Francis de Sales, in his Introduction to the Devout Life, recommends that one make a humble, devout Confession every week.

It is worth recalling that in the last article in this series, I mentioned that Francis also recommended receiving Communion reverently and frequently - weekly, if possible, although not necessarily every time one attends Mass. In other words, in his view one should receive Confession as often as one receives the Eucharist.

Anyone who makes a weekly Confession is a person who is fervently serious about driving sin out of his or her life. One can, in fact, be overly scrupulous, seeing sin where there is none and being more neurotic than devout. That, however, is not the most common problem today.

For most of us, as Pope John Paul suggested, our sense of sin needs to be heightened and our effort to lead an authentically Christian life intensified.

The late pope also referred to the practice of Confession as "sometimes lacking in fervour and real spontaneity."

My own experience as a child was that of having our entire school trooped over to the nearby church every month to make our Confession. The intention behind this practice was likely to inculcate in children the habit of ongoing self-examination and regular Confession. The result, however, was the turning of a beautiful sacrament into an imposed, routine formality.


Francis de Sales urges us to make our Confession humble and devout. It should be accompanied by a feeling of sorrow at having offended the loving and gracious God who has given us all that there is. More importantly, we should have "a firm resolution" to correct our sins and not to commit them again.

This, of course, is easier said than done. Our abject failure, however, should not cause discouragement but rather greater perseverance and greater reliance on God's grace.

Pope John Paul II saw the frequent use of the sacrament of Reconciliation as crucial to living a Christian life.


Pope John Paul II saw the frequent use of the sacrament of Reconciliation as crucial to living a Christian life.

Francis de Sales urges penitents to avoid "pointless accusations." Don't merely accuse yourself of some generality such as not loving God sufficiently, not praying enough or not loving your neighbour. "Every saint in heaven and every man on earth might say the same thing if they went to Confession."

Instead, dig into your conscience for particular examples that lead you to accuse yourself and confess those specific incidents.

Look also for the motive that led you to sin. If, for example, you told a lie, why did you do it? Was it to ingratiate yourself to others or to avoid responsibility for a wrongdoing?


The purpose of Confession is to root out sin and that cannot be accomplished without uncovering the root. Sinful acts can be habitual but they have their roots in distorted desires, insecurities and inclinations that lie hidden deep in one's soul. The more light we can shine on those hidden tendencies, the greater will be the opportunity to eradicate them.

Forgiveness of sins through the sacrament is a great grace. Grace is also given to avoid sinning in the future. The effects of that grace do not usually transpire miraculously. Our active cooperation is required.

For anyone serious about becoming more closely united to God, a regular humble devout Confession based on a piercing examination of conscience is a necessity. If more and more of us take up that challenge, the crisis of which Pope John Paul spoke will be overcome.