Question: In a class on penance and reconciliation, I asked the instructor whether or not it was necessary to go to confession if one were not in mortal sin. He said it was not. If one had only venial sins, then it was only necessary to say an Act of Contrition and one’s sins were forgiven. I thought that even if there was no mortal sin involved, confession gave a special grace to the soul.
— Leo A. Renne, Jackson, Mich.
Answer: The Code of Canon Law states: “After having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation to confess serious sins at least once a year” (Canon 989). It has always been the case that confession is only required when someone has committed mortal or serious sin. The strict obligation to go to confession once a year applies only in this case.
However, the Church highly commends the regular use of the Sacrament of Penance for lesser sins. The official Introduction to the Rite of Penance states: “The frequent and careful celebration of this sacrament is also very useful as a remedy for venial sins. This is not a mere ritual repetition or psychological exercise, but a serious striving to perfect the grace of baptism so that, as we bear in our body the death of Jesus Christ, his life may be seen in us ever more clearly. In confession of this kind, penitents who accuse themselves of venial faults should try to be more closely conformed to Christ and to follow the voice of the Spirit more attentively” (No. 7).
This kind of confession, traditionally called confession of devotion, has been constantly proposed by the Church to those who seek to follow Christ more fully. While it is certainly true that there are many forms of penance for those not in mortal sin (charitable works, reading the Scriptures and other spiritual works — fasting, pilgrimages, spiritual direction and the like), confession has always been accorded a privileged place among the modes of forgiveness for lesser sins.
Confession is meant to provide an occasion of profound soul-searching and the opportunity to come to more realistic self-knowledge. The grace of confession for venial sins is that it brings about a more virtuous Christian life.
Prayers for the dying
Question: As a member of a large extended family, I am considered the expert when it comes to matters of dying and death. I know that a person who is seriously ill or in danger of death should be anointed. But I am not sure if the priest should be called for more prayers when the person actually dies.
— Name withheld, Ogden, Utah
Answer: After a person has received the Anointing of the Sick and before the time of death, various rites are provided which can be administered by a priest, deacon or layperson (which can include a member of the family). These rites include viaticum (Communion for the dying), prayers for the commendation of the dying, and prayers for the dead.
Actual practice in the use or nonuse of these rites varies from place to place and from parish to parish. If the time of dying is drawn out, a priest, deacon or extraordinary minister of holy Communion may bring Communion to the dying person a number of times.
If a priest is not able to be present, then a family member (or a parishioner) may recite the prayers provided for the moment of death.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.