edited by Russell Shaw
Together with his sins, three acts of the penitent make up the matter of the sacrament of Penance. These are contrition, confession, and satisfaction. “Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance” (CCC 1456).
Fundamentally, confession is verbal self-accusation to another individual. Within the context of the sacrament of Penance, it involves acknowledging one’s sins to a priest. As an ordained minister of the Church, the priest acts in the Person of Christ. He is thus bound under the gravest seal not to disclose or make any use of anything he has heard with regard to the penitents’ lives. “This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the ‘sacramental seal,’ because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains ‘sealed’ by the sacrament” (CCC 1467).
Contrary to media portrayals, a priest does not frustrate the justice system in not revealing the identity of a criminal. For the knowledge a priest may acquire in this context is not intended to help the criminal justice system but rather to reconcile a sinner with God. While he may counsel the person to come forward and admit his crime, the priest’s primary concern is the restoration of the right relationship between the sinner and God: He brings the mercy of God to the sinner and the repentant sinner home to God.
Two questions must be addressed: What is to be confessed? And how often one should avail oneself of the sacrament, bearing in mind that canon law states the obligation to confess serious sins at least once a year (Canon 989)?
What Is Confessed Both mortal and venial sins should be confessed. “All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession… [Council of Trent (1551); DS 1680 (ND 1626)]” (CCC 1456). The deliberate omission of any mortal sin results in the commission of another mortal sin, sacrilege. Furthermore, if one receives Holy Communion knowingly in the state of mortal sin he commits a sacrilege (cf. CCC 1457).
While the confession of venial sins is not absolutely necessary, it is strongly recommended. The regular examination and verbal acknowledgment of even the least faults help the Christian to advance spiritually. These least faults are admitted to be indeed faults, needing correction and standing in the way of the perfection Christ demands in the Gospels.
Frequency of Confession While the answer to the second question will vary for each individual, receiving the sacrament at least monthly, though certainly not obligatory, would strike many people as a reasonable standard of frequency. There are several reasons.
First, practically speaking, one can remember better what one has done and be more aware of small faults that continue to be obstacles to union with God and less inclined to take them for granted, assuming they are simply part of one’s “character.”
Second, psychologically, confession is good because it helps the person to be honest with himself. By articulating his faults, he comes to know where he has failed and thus where he needs to make progress in the spiritual life. In confessing sins, he frees himself of his past and enables a future reconciliation with God and his neighbor.
Third, it is not only beneficial to articulate one’s faults but also valuable to hear the words of forgiveness. While it is true that, in the privacy of one’s room and one’s heart, a fervent act of contrition will bring about forgiveness from the Lord, nevertheless, as sentient beings, we depend on our senses for knowledge. Periodically it is good to hear someone say, “Your sins are forgiven, go in peace.” Hearing these words of absolution provides a reassuring certitude.
Fourth, spiritually, confession is good because the penitent receives from the sacrament both sanctifying grace as well as sacramental grace. Sanctifying grace makes him holy and restores him to God’s friendship. The sacramental grace of Penance not only forgives sins but also helps one to keep from committing those same sins in the future. It is, in a sense, preventative medicine.
Fifth, every sacrament is an encounter with the Lord. Reception of the sacrament of Penance provides an opportunity to spend time with the Lord in an intimate and personal way.
Among the reasons for going to confession and going often, probably the most salient is the realization that by our sins we have offended God, whom we should love above all else. In his encyclical letter on the Mystical Body, Mystici Corporis Christi (1943), Pope Pius XII said that by frequent confession “genuine self-knowledge is increased, Christian humility grows, bad habits are corrected, spiritual neglect and tepidity are resisted, the conscience is purified, the will strengthened, a salutary self-control is attained, and grace is increased in virtue of the Sacrament itself” (88).
Some of the faithful have been deterred from receiving the sacrament for one or more reasons: it has not been available; priests have discouraged them when they do go; the lack of anonymity due to the absence of the traditional screen.
The Church insists that priests make the sacrament available and not refuse any reasonable request for it. Moreover, in hearing confessions, priests must remember their roles as “other Christs,” bringing the repentant sinner home to the Lord and the merciful Lord to the sinner. The question of anonymity has been raised with regard to the new Rite of Penance. While the practice of face-to-face confession has become common in many places, the Church, for years, has believed in the right of the individual penitent to remain anonymous. “Confessionals with a fixed grille between penitent and confessor are always located in an open area so that the faithful who wish to make use of them may do so freely” (Canon 964.2). In order to clarify this, Pope Paul VI stated at a general audience on April 3, 1974, only four months after the new Rite of Penance was promulgated: “The confessional, as a protective screen between the minister and the penitent, to guarantee the absolute secrecy of the conversation imposed on them and reserved for them, must, it is clear, remain.”
Finally, there is the question of when the practice of confession should begin. Even though it is absolutely necessary only that mortal sins be confessed, the Church insists that children be admitted to the sacrament from the time they reach the age of reason (generally understood to be about seven years).
The Church has also insisted that children receive the sacrament of Penance before receiving their first Holy Communion. This has been true in the past and remains in effect. Both the Code of Canon Law (Canon 914) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1457) specify this. Additionally, the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, which is responsible for catechetics, has stated: “[T]he Holy See judges it fitting that the practice now in force in the Church of putting Confession ahead of first Communion should be retained” (General Catechetical Directory, Addendum §5).
See [in the print edition]: Absolution; Contrition; Penance and Reconciliation, Sacrament of; Penance in Christian Life.
Suggested Readings: CCC 1451-1454. N. Halligan, O.P., The Sacraments and Their Celebration. C. O’Neill, O.P., Meeting Christ in the Sacraments. G. Kelly, ed., The Sacrament of Penance in Our Time.
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