Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Sacrament of Confession

The Sacrament is known by many names: the sacrament of Penance, of Reconciliation, of conversion and forgiveness. According to the Catechism, it is also called the sacrament of Confession “since the disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is an essential element of this sacrament” (CCC, 1424). Confession is the only ordinary way by which our mortal sins are forgiven. We are therefore bound to confess our mortal sins at least once a year, and definitely before receiving Holy Communion.

While confession is the only ordinary way by which our mortal sins are forgiven, we know that venial sin can be forgiven in other ways. An act of perfect contrition and love of God, works done and sufferings borne in a spirit of penance, the proper use of sacramentals such as holy water, the penitential rite of the Mass, and the reception of Holy Communion are all means by which our venial, everyday sins and failings are forgiven. Yet such sins are also valid matter for the sacrament of Penance. Indeed, for most of us most of the time, it is the confession of venial sins that forms the content of our confession. “Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church” (CCC, 1458).

In the spiritual classic, Frequent Confession by Benedict Baur, first published in German in 1922, it is stated that “the ‘profit’ of the confession of venial sins comes above all else from the fact that when we go to Confession we receive a sacrament. The forgiveness of sin takes place by the power of the sacrament, that is, by the power of Christ himself.” While the other means of forgiveness for venial sin necessarily flow from Christ, and are connected to the sacraments in some way, it is only in the Sacrament of Penance (and Holy Communion) that we come into direct contact with Christ. The sacrament, therefore, unites us more firmly to Christ, “strengthens the supernatural life of the soul, increases sanctifying grace, and, along with this, gives actual grace, which stimulates our will to acts of love of God and of contrition for our sins.” The frequent confession of sins therefore leads us along the path of perfection, according to our vocation to be holy, and to love as Christ has loved us.

From a purely human point of view, the Church perceives that the confession of one’s sinfulness “frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible” (CCC, 1455). Through the process of examining our conscience and confessing our sins, we come to know ourselves much more clearly. Our particular weaknesses are more clearly discerned, and we open them up to God’s healing grace. According to Pope Pius XII, through 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” (Encyclical Mystici Corporis, 88). We are therefore encouraged to confess our sins regularly, a practice “which was introduced into the Church by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit”, so as “to ensure more rapid progress day by day in the path of virtue” (ibid.).

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