What do you call the Sacrament by which we confess our sins to a priest and through the power given by Christ to the Church, he offers us absolution? Very often, you can learn a lot about someone by the answer they give. Someone who wants to emphasize the positive aspects of the Sacrament will call it “The Sacrament of Reconciliation.” Those who go regularly tend to call it “The Sacrament of Confession.” And then those who have more legalistic tendencies call it “The Sacrament of Penance.” Yet the Church refers to the Sacrament using all three terms and she does so in order to highlight something very important about the effects of sin and the power of the Sacrament.
While sin is first and foremost a transgression against the law of God, its effects always lay in three dimensions. First it alienates us from God and thus we need the Sacrament of Penance to correct this. Second it separates us from our neighbor and therefore there is a need for Reconciliation to reunite with the community. Finally, by sin we ultimately harm ourselves and therefore the need for Confession to accuse ourselves before our conscience.
Interestingly enough, it seems that in today’s climate the emphasis is on calling it Reconciliation even though we often fail to see how our sin hurts the Church. We’ve all heard that there is no such thing as a private sin, but we do not really understand how this is so. It might be easy to see how a mortal sin cuts you off from the Church, but what about just a tiny venial sin (if such a thing exists)? Why is reconciliation necessary?
Looking at what we actually forfeit when we commit a venial sin makes it clearer. Each time we fall, we deprive ourselves of sanctifying grace. But this is not just about our own personal holiness. As members of the Church, we have an obligation towards the other members of the Church to be as holy as possible. Each grace that we forfeit is a grace that God intended for everyone to benefit from. By not being as holy as we should be, we deprive others of the grace that we were to be channels of. In fact not only do we have an obligation, but the other members of the Church have a right to demand we be as holy as we should be. This is why petty jealousy has no room in the Church—the holier each other member is, the holier I will be.
This is what makes the image of the Church as the Body of Christ so instructive. When an organ is not as healthy as it should be, then it hurts the whole body. It even hurts the functioning of some of the other parts as well. An organ that is healthy adds to the health of the other members.
To remain healthy, organs need continual nourishment. This comes to the members of the Mystical Body through the Eucharist. But nourishment is not enough to maintain optimal health. Our organs also are prone to decay and need tonics in order to remain healthy. So too the members of the Mystical Body need to regularly receive the tonic of frequent confession in order to remain healthy. How can we receive this tonic fruitfully?
With this background in mind, Pope Pius XII in his encyclical on the Church, Mystici Corporis Christi, recommended to the faithful the practice of frequent confession. Speaking specifically against those who said there is no benefit to the frequent Sacramental confession of venial sins he said “[T]o hasten daily progress along the road to virtue we wish the pious practice of frequent confession to be earnestly advocated. Not without inspiration of the Holy Spirit was this practice introduced into the Church…By it genuine self-knowledge is increased — Christian humility grows — bad habits are corrected — spiritual neglect and tepidity are countered — the conscience is purified — the will is strengthened — a salutary self-control is attained — and grace is increased in virtue of the sacrament itself” (Mystici Corporis Christi, 88).
To be clear, if you are conscious of having committed mortal sin (or even if you are questioning whether it is or not) then you should go to Confession immediately. But what the Pope is advocating is frequent confession as a means to fight venial sins and climb the heights of sanctity quickly.
This obviously requires a paradigm shift. Many of us (perhaps because of a bad experience or our own hang-ups) look upon Confession as a wholly bad thing, rather than a holy good thing. We should see the Sacrament of Confession as a positive thing rather than as something to be dreaded. All Sacraments are encounters with the Risen Christ and therefore we should not fear to encounter Him there. There is necessarily some shame because sin is always shameful, but that shame is healthy. It can also be offered to the Sacred Heart for the shame and humiliation of being scourged and crowned with thorns. We also should experience some nervousness. Who wouldn’t be nervous coming into the presence of the One Who is Goodness to accuse ourselves of failing in our own pursuit of goodness? But both these quickly are washed away in the Blood that is poured over us during the words of absolution.
It is also worthwhile to highlight some of the benefits that Pius XII mentions. So often we fall into the trap of thinking that the Sacrament is merely about accusing ourselves before God. But that is truly a small part of it where frequent confession is concerned. In fact for the Sacrament to be valid we need only confess a single venial sin for which we are sorry. Instead the focus ought to be to stir up contrition. Contrition is the sorrow of soul for sin committed and a firm purpose not to commit it again and grow in the virtue of penance. By the sacrament our wills are strengthened and our purposes of amendment firmer. This all comes from the grace of the Sacrament.
This is also why we should not grow discouraged when we continually have the same sins to confess. Each time we confess it, it makes our contrition more perfect. This is what makes Confession such a beautiful gift. It is impossible for us not to commit sin in this life (Council of Trent) but it is possible for us to have perfect sorrow for those sins we do commit. If it is true that “there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than the righteous man who is in no need of repentance” then we know that the God of Mercy takes great pleasure in bestowing the gift of contrition upon us.
It was mentioned that you need only confess a single venial sin (again assuming no mortal sin) in order for the Sacrament to be valid (meaning all our venial sins are absolved, confessed or not). This leads to another important thing to consider in drawing the optimal fruit from the Sacrament as to what we should confess. We should not come to the Sacrament with a laundry list of sins, but instead those faults that we are actively trying to conquer. This is warfare 101. Our enemies, the world, the devil and the flesh, will never be conquered if we fire scatter shot over their lines. Instead, like every good soldier in battle, we should take a divide and conquer approach. Once we have conquered the dominant vice and replaced it with its opposing virtue, we can then move on to the next one. Included in the things we should confess as well are things that we are particularly sorry for and those things that we had previously conquered and have moved back into our lives. Even the sins of our past life that have already been confessed but still hold some appeal to us can be material for confession. Again, if one of the fruits is to stir up contrition then we can more fully express our sorrow for those sins.
This brings up one final point and that is the necessity for a methodical approach to our daily examination. We should focus on one thing in particular and see how we did for the day. Then we can look at the rest of our day. Writing what we discover down in a small notebook will enable us to see our patterns more clearly and also give us the material to make a good confession next time we go. Unless you have not been in a while or are making a general confession, we should avoid using Examination of Conscience material found in prayer books. All too often this leads us to examine someone else’s conscience and not our own. As Pius XII mentioned with the fruit of increased self-knowledge that comes from regular confession we will also be able to examine ourselves better.
In closing, let us all take advantage of this Keep Fit Sacrament and invoke the aid of St. Gemma Galgani for a good confession this weekend:
My crucified God, behold me at Your feet. Do not reject me, a poor sinner, as I appear before You. I have offended You much in the past, my Jesus, but in the future I resolve to sin no more. My God, I put all my sins before You. I have considered them and realize they do not deserve Your pardon. But I beg of you to cast one glance upon Your sufferings and see how great is the worth of that Precious Blood that flows from your veins. My God, at this hour close Your eyes to my want of merit and open them to Your infinite merits. Since You, dear Jesus, have been pleased to die for my sins, grant me forgiveness for them all, that I may no longer feel their heavy burden, which presses me to the earth. My Jesus, help me, for I desire to become good, no matter what it may cost. Take away, destroy, root out completely all that You find in me that may be contrary to Your holy Will. At the same time I beg You, O Jesus, to enlighten me, that I may be able to walk in Your holy light.