We have been taught in our catechism that the seven sacraments are the principal channels of God’s grace to us His children in His Mystical Body, the Church. Among these seven sacraments, there are three that have a privilege and peculiarity in themselves. They are, indeed, very special because they give life, or restore life, to those who are spiritually dead (CCC 1420–1421). They are dead because of serious sin, whether original sin or actual mortal sin. As we read in the Psalms: “in sin my mother conceived me” (51:7). Each of us, then, without exception, is born with the death sentence of original sin committed by our first parents, Adam and Eve. This sin is handed down by generations—from our first parents to the end of time—in the blood, which we receive in our mother’s womb from the moment of our conception. Thus, we are born to life spiritually dead. As such, we have need, an absolute need, of that sacrament that Christ has instituted to wash us of original sin; to restore us to friendship to Himself; to give us the life of the very Trinity into our souls, that is, the life of sanctifying grace; to give us the “power to become children of God” (John 1:12); to make us members, thus of His Family, which on earth is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. All this is accomplished by this one sacrament— this excellent channel of God’s grace.
Now, as each of us can testify, there is more to the story. The Sacrament of Baptism, as wonderful and necessary as it is, does not do away with all the effects of original sin: the curse of illness, aging, and death; the necessity to work “from the sweat of our brow” (see Gen. 3:17–19) to earn our livelihood; pain at childbirth; among others. These remain. They do not go away with the cleansing waters of Baptism. In addition, perhaps among the worst effects of original sin, something else remains in us. Baptism does not take away from us the fomes peccati—the curse of concupiscence. This means that as green plants tend toward the sun or any type of light, we human beings tend toward sin and every type of evil. (This can be verified even in babies and little, otherwise innocent, children.) We face a real challenge, a real conundrum. But God is all–wise, all–knowing. He would not lead us to life just to drop us like a lead balloon. He has provided us with the means to reach eternal life, despite all our defects.
Among the means provided by the all–merciful God, in His Church and in the economy of salvation that He has set up for us, again, are the three sacraments which are called the sacraments of the dead: Baptism, Unction or Anointing, and Penance or Confession. Through Baptism we are cleansed of original sin and brought to life, the life of the Trinity, grace. In Holy Unction, or Anointing, those who are seriously ill or dying (especially unconscious, as those who are aware would have to confess their sins) may be anointed and receive both spiritual pardon and, sometimes, healing of their ailments—thus it brings us back doubly from death to life. Through the Sacrament of Penance, or Confession, a person may confess his or her sins, whether venial or mortal, to a priest and after expressing sorrow and a desire to amend the way of life, receive absolution and forgiveness, thus coming back to life. This is why these three sacraments are known as the sacraments of the dead. Our God is so kind and considerate of us and our nature, with all its foibles, that He has not left a stone unturned to make sure we are afforded every means of salvation! It is this last sacrament that we wish to deal with here.
It seems that many persons have problems or difficulties when it comes to Confession. I, on the other hand, consider it one of my favorite sacraments (after Holy Communion). Along with Communion it can be received as frequently as necessary and possible—even daily. Spiritually speaking, Confession is like taking a hot shower. How good it is to be washed clean of sweat, dirt, and grime! How good it feels for our tired and aching bodies, our muscles and joints, to be cleansed under the rejuvenating flow of the hot water! For the soul of one who wants to continue, or return, to the fullness of friendship with God, Confession is just such a cleansing!
Now, I realize that as much as I like this Sacrament of Confession and enjoy its fruits, for the majority of Catholics, the prospect of confessing our sins—our deepest and darkest secrets and actions that make us feel embarrassed or ashamed, our most hidden thoughts—to the priest is oftentimes a paralyzing thing. This also often keeps converts, at least for a time, or perhaps always, from fully entering into the full communion of the Church. Even many so–called cradle–born Catholics find some level of difficulty in this. How sad! (Now we will not go into some of the reasons for this, including poor catechesis or the rare, but scary, encounter with a priest who, instead of reconciling sinners, chases them away. In the old days, not every priest was allowed to hear Confessions. In my own training at the Vatican, we were both trained and tested before we could hear Confessions. Alas, this is not done in too many places today. A good confessor, while being strict, is also merciful, kind, and affable to those who humble themselves in the tribunal of the confessional. But this is not a seminary class.) Again, many of us have run into a priest who was mean and unkind to us in the confessional. Not only is this not the ideal situation but also that particular confessor needs a lot of prayers. Only God knows what is in his heart and his past that may have prompted such behavior. Needless to say, I do not condone it at all. Luckily, for the most part, most confessors are kind and loving—and hopefully strict enough to get us right back on the right path. But they admonish us always with charity and kindness. As a result, we must try to rid ourselves of any fears we may have about Confession. We must realize it is a good thing to be had, to be made.
In keeping away from Confession, a person foregoes a necessary means of salvation and healing. Ven. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen would decry the millions of dollars spent by people on psychologists when a good, thorough Confession would have been more efficacious. And free!
Confession, in fact, is necessary for each and every one of us. While the Church does teach that one can make an act of perfect contrition and be forgiven, especially in emergencies, it is only realistic to realize that this is almost impossible. Why? To make an act of perfect contrition requires that our motives be totally pure. It means that we are only concerned with the fact that by sinning we have offended God. That is to be our only motive. Alas, we are made of complicated elements, so to speak. Our Lord well knew this in giving us this wonderful sacrament.
We seldom have pure motives. What does this mean? It means we are concerned with: shame of our sin; fear of being found out by others; we fear that God will punish us in this life; we fear being cast into the eternal fires of Hell; and other motives. All these make our contrition imperfect, what traditional theology calls “attrition”—it is contrition mixed in with some or all of the above. As such, the Sacrament of Penance makes perfect that which in us is imperfect. This, then, grants us forgiveness as long as we have the intentions of being truly sorry for our sins; to make reparation or penance according to what the priest tells us but also additional forms of private penance which we can do ourselves; and a true and sincere desire and purpose of amendment, i.e., we will strive with the help of God to avoid this or these sins in the future. Needless to say, if we have no intention of avoiding a particular sin or occasion of sin, then we can obtain no pardon—even if the confessor, in his human ignorance, does not know the true intentions of the one confessing.
Another question that often comes up is that of mortal sin versus venial sin. Venial sin does not kill the life of grace in our souls. A multiplicity of them, especially unrepented and unconfessed, however, does weaken the soul, enabling it to more readily fall into deadly, or mortal, sin. Thus, while we have no strict obligation to confess venial sins, it is much more salutary for us to do so—and often. (If one wants to obtain a plenary indulgence for any act, Confession is required within eight days of said act, thus not confessing frequently also deprives us of the possibility of obtaining plenary indulgences.) St. Thomas Aquinas mentions that confessing venial sins lessens our time in Purgatory. That seems to be more than enough reason to receive the Sacrament.
What can we say about mortal sin? It destroys the life of God, the life of sanctifying grace, within our souls! It is tantamount to us telling God to get out of our souls and slamming the door in His face! One cannot merit or obtain any grace or indulgence while in mortal sin. One must not receive any sacrament. Any sacrament thus received is nullified. In the case of Confirmation and Holy Matrimony, the sacrament remains in limbo, so to speak, until Confession takes place. (Once we have confessed, the sacrament may come alive and grow within us as intended.) But it is also a mortal sin of sacrilege to receive any sacrament in the state of mortal sin. It multiplies itself with interest. That means that we ought to confess any and all mortal sins as soon as possible. In the meantime, if no priest is available, then we should say as perfect an act of contrition as possible. But since we have attrition (i.e., imperfect contrition) 99 percent of the time, we should not relax until we have fully confessed our sins. Thus, Confession is not just a pretty thing or object that we can or cannot have. It is not like another unnecessary knickknack on our mantelpiece or an ornament on our Christmas tree. According to the economy of salvation set up by God Himself, it is most necessary, indeed.
This article is adapted from a chapter in The Sacrament of Confession by Very Reverend Canon Héctor R.G. Pérez, S.T.D., C.S.L.J. which is available from Sophia Institute Press.
Art for this post: Cover and featured image used with permission.