The Spiritual and Psychological Value of Frequent Confession
by Father John A. Hardon, S.J.
Judging by the drastic drop
in confessions in countries like the United States, the false opinion
is gaining ground that Confession is not to be received, or made, frequently.
No doubt, one reason for this sad state of affairs is the prevalence
of some wild theories about mortal sin. For example, the Fundamental
Option theory claims that no mortal sin is committed unless a person
totally rejects God. Who but the devil hates God? One adultery or one
abortion is said not to be a mortal sin. On these grounds, there are parishes in
which almost no one goes to Confession.
Our focus in this conference,
however, is more specific. We wish to emphasize the value of frequent
Confession, where no conscious mortal sins are being confessed. We are
speaking of the frequent, and therefore early, confessions of children
as soon as they reach the age of reason—and let’s make sure before
they receive their First Holy Communion. We are speaking of the frequent
confessions of youth, of married people, of those in declining years.
We are, with emphasis, speaking of the frequent Confessions of priests
and religious, whose progress in sanctity is so closely bound up with
their often receiving the Sacrament of Penance.
Before going on, let me assure
you that I am quite familiar with the present state of affairs in more
than one diocese. People tell me it is becoming increasingly difficult
to find a priest to hear your confession. You may have to make an appointment
by telephone at the priest’s convenience. You may have to meet a priest
in person in the parlor and identify yourself before you go to Confession.
You may have to listen to an unwelcome homily on not abusing the Sacrament
by having nothing except venial sins to confess, or be told to come
back some other time, when you have something worthwhile to say.
Before going any further, I must tell you: choose your confessors carefully and wisely, and pray for those priests who seem unwilling to exercise this precious sacramental ministry as the Savior who ordained them wants it to be exercised, with prudence and kindness and the practice of Christ-like mercy.
The Church's Teaching
There is no doubt that the
practice of frequent Confession in the absence of mortal sin is a relatively
recent development in the Catholic Church. Such development under divine
guidance is part of the genius of Catholic Christianity.
Consequently, those who frown
on frequent Confession and go back to dusty volumes about the practice
of Penance in the early Church are behind the times. They fail to realize
that the Church is not a static organization, but the living and therefore
developing Mystical Body of Christ. So what is wrong with the Church
The nine pontiffs of the present
century have defended frequent Confession against, you guessed it, critics
among the clergy. Let me quote the words of Pope Pius XII. The quotation
is long, but I do not hesitate saying it deserves to be memorized.
It is true that venial sins
may be expiated in many ways that are to be highly commended, but to
ensure more rapid progress day by day in the practice of virtue we want
the pious practice of frequent Confession which was introduced into
the Church by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to be earnestly advocated.
By it 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.
Let those, therefore, among the younger clergy who make light of or
lessen esteem for frequent Confession know what they are doing. What
they are doing is alien to the Spirit of Christ and disastrous for the
Mystical Body of Christ.
Then came the Second Vatican
Council with widespread liturgical changes that are common knowledge.
What may not be common knowledge, however, is that since the Council,
Pope Paul VI authorized one of the most eloquent pleas in papal history
for frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance. While recognizing
that the immediate purpose of the Sacrament is to remit grave sins,
the new ritual emphasizes its salutary function also when mortal sins
against God have not been committed. Once again, I quote in full.
Frequent and reverent recourse
to this Sacrament, even when only venial sin is in question, is of great
value. Frequent Confession is not mere ritual repetition, nor is it
merely a psychological exercise. Rather is it a constant effort to bring
to perfection the grace of our Baptism so that as we carry about in
our bodies the death of Jesus Christ who died, the life that Jesus Christ
lives may be more and more manifested in us. In such confessions penitents,
while indeed confessing venial sins, should be mainly concerned with
becoming more deeply conformed to Christ, and more submissive to the
voice of the Spirit.
Pope John Paul II, in one document and speech after another, repeats the same message. He dares to say that those who discourage going to Confession because it produces a repressive mentality “are lying.” He tells the faithful to receive this Sacrament as often as possible. Why? Because, “by this Sacrament, we are renewed in fervor, strengthened in our resolutions, and supported by divine encouragement.” How we need to hear these words in an age when discouragement, leading to despair, is almost the hallmark of the modern world.
Spiritual Value of Confession
Suppose we examine, and even number, the spiritual benefits of frequent Confession as identified by the modern popes.
Self-Knowledge is Increased.
How blind we are to our own failings and weaknesses. We are hawk-eyed
in seeing the faults of others, but stone blind when it comes to our
own. There is nothing in the world that we more need to grow in humility
than to recognize how stupid and helpless we are in the face of temptation.
How desperately we need God’s grace to see ourselves as we really
Bad Habits are Corrected.
Another word for bad habits is “vices.” These bad habits are acquired
by the repetition of bad actions. We may have the habit of unkind words,
or of selfish behavior, which may have taken years to acquire. On the
natural level, it would take years to change these bad habits into the
opposite virtues. But with the grace of the Sacrament of Confession,
we can overcome these vices in record time, beyond all human expectation.
Conscience is Purified.
We do not commonly speak of purifying the conscience. But we should.
What is a pure conscience? A pure conscience is one that sees clearly,
we may say instinctively, what should be done in a given situation and
how to do it. The opposite of a pure conscience is a dull or insensitive
conscience. People will do all kinds of evil, commit every kind of sin,
without even realizing that they are doing wrong. The Sacrament of Penance
purifies our mind to recognize God’s will in every circumstance of
our lives, instantly and almost without reflection. How? By the action
of the Holy Spirit, whose gift of counsel enlightens the mind to know
exactly what the Lord wants us to do and how to do it the moment we
are faced with a moral decision.
The Will is Strengthened.
We could spend not just a whole conference on this subject, but a semester
course on the value of what I call “the Sacrament of courage.” Certainly,
we all have a free will. But our natural inclination is to do our own
will, to choose what we want and reject what we do not want. The very
expression “pro-choice” has become a synonym for the culture of
death in our society. Christ told us to love others as He has loved
us, even to dying out of love for another person. The world is now telling
us in the laws of most nations to murder innocent unborn children out
Do we ever need to have our
wills strengthened to resist our love of self and submit these wills
to the will of God! I do not hesitate to say it is the single most desperate
need as we come to the close of the twentieth century. The self has
been literally deified. In one Western university after another, the
philosophy of Immanuel Kant is the staple diet of the academic curriculum.
At the root of Kantian morality is the principle of the autonomy of
the will. My will is the basic and final norm of my conduct.
Did we ask whether we need
the sacramental grace of Confession to strengthen our wills to submit
to the will of God? In our age of self-idolatry, this grace is indispensable,
dare I say, for the survival of Christianity.
Salutary Self-Control is
Attained. A standard English dictionary contains, by actual count,
three hundred eighty terms beginning with the word “self.” Among
these are such terms as self-absorption, self-admiration, self-advancement,
self-applause, self-approbation, self-assertion, self-assurance, to
mention only the words with an “a” after the prefix “self.”
To its credit, the dictionary
defines self-control as “restraint exercised over one’s own impulses,
emotions, or desires.” But everything depends on what we mean by “restraint.”
All that we have so far said about the spontaneous tendency we have
to satisfy our own desires brings out the importance of the Christian
meaning of self-control.
Our faith tells us that we have a fallen human nature. Part of that nature is the loss of the gift of integrity that our first parents possessed before they had sinned. From the moment of our conception in our mother’s womb, we already have the spontaneous tendency to desire what is pleasant and to run away from what is painful.
On these premises, self-control
means the mastery of our impulses to conform to the mind and will of
the Creator. Not everything we want is pleasing to Him, and not everything
we dislike is contrary to His will. Self-control means mastering our
thoughts and desires to correspond to the infinite mind and will of
That is why the Church, founded
by the Incarnate God, is telling us to have frequent access to what
Christ has instituted in the Sacrament of Confession. We need the light
which this Sacrament assures us and the strength we so desperately need
to surrender our “selves” to the almighty Self from whom we came
and for whom we were made.
We Become More Sinless.
By the frequent and reverent reception of the Sacrament of Penance,
we make more perfect the justification we first received in Baptism.
What does this mean? It means we become more and more sinless. Christ
thereby exercises His saving redemption on our souls by cleansing us
more and more and thus preparing us better and better for that kingdom
of glory where nothing undefiled can enter and where only the sinless
have a claim to enjoy the vision of the all-holy God. And who in his
right mind would claim he or she is already sinless?
We Become More Conformed
to Jesus Christ. We become more like Jesus Christ in the power to
practice the virtues that characterized His visible life on earth. What
virtues are they? We become more humble and better able to conquer our
foolish and stubborn pride. And the very humiliation of telling our
sins to another sinner is God’s way of telling us, “If you confess,
I will make you more humble.” We become more patient in bearing with
pain and enduring the people that God puts into our lives. Sometimes
I think pain should have a masculine and feminine gender. Most of our
suffering, most of the difficulties and problems and tribulations, that
we have to endure on earth, if your lives are like mine, come from other
people. And of course, we pay them the favor of being corresponding
graces of tribulation in their lives. Through this Sacrament we become
more conformed to Jesus by becoming more prayerful in greater awareness
of God’s majesty and, therefore, our need to pay attention to God,
and in greater awareness of our weakness and constant need for assistance
from the Lord. This is one place where Jesus did not have to
pray to overcome His sinful tendencies. Above all we become more
loving in giving and giving and giving ourselves according to the divine
will even as Jesus kept giving Himself to the will of His Father even
to the last drop of His blood.
We Become More Submissive
to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, dwelling in the depths of our
hearts, is always speaking to us, but we are not always listening to
Him. We are so busy with so many things, so preoccupied with ourselves,
our interests and concerns, that He is often not only the unseen but,
I am afraid, the unappreciated Guest in our souls. As John the Baptist
said of the Savior to his contemporaries, “There is one in our midst
whom we know not.” And if we are going to be submissive to this Spirit
of God, the first condition is that we are aware that there is a Spirit,
that He has a voice and that He is talking. You do not listen to silence.
And this is divine speech.
The Spirit of God wants nothing
more than for us to pay attention to Him. Pay Him the courtesy, if you
will, of recognizing that He is within us. The Spirit of God wants us
to thank Him for all the good things He has given us. He wants us to
keep asking Him. That is why He keeps creating problems. Those are divine
signals. Did you know that? They are divine shouts, “Listen to Me.
Thanks. Thanks for at least looking at Me. And except for the pain or
sorrow or trial or temptation, knowing you,” He tells us, “you would
not even bother thinking of Me. Thanks! Now that you are awake, listen!”
So we rub our eyes and say, “Yes, Lord.”
But mainly the Holy Spirit wants us to be submissive to His will whether this be obedience to His commands when He tells us, “Do this,” or “Do not do that,” or when He gently invites us to do something more than we have to under penalty of sin, when He just whispers, “Would you mind doing this?” or “Would you mind avoiding that? Not because you have to, but because I would like you to show that you love Me.” All of this, and far more than human speech can describe, is available to us, so the Church of God tells us, by our frequent and reverent reception of the Sacrament of Christ’s Peace.
Psychological Value of Confession
Frequent Confession has not only deep spiritual value as we have just seen. It is also immensely beneficial psychologically. In other words, the frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance contributes to the well-being of our mind. In one declarative sentence, it is a divinely instituted means of giving us peace of soul.
Remember what happened on Easter
Sunday night. As described by Saint Luke, “The doors were closed in
the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. Jesus came
and stood among them. He said to them, ‘Peace be with you,’ and
showed them His hands and His side. The disciples were filled with joy
when they saw the Lord, and He said to them again, ‘Peace be with
you. As the Father sent me, so am I sending you.’ After saying this,
He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. For those
whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you
retain, they are retained’” (Jn 20:19-23). As the Catholic Church
teaches, by these words of the risen Savior, He instituted the Sacrament
of Confession. For twenty centuries, it has been called the Sacrament
The principal source of conflict
in the human spirit is the sense of guilt. Psychologists tell us, it
is the mysterious feeling of guilt which lies at the root of most people’s
disquiet of mind and disturbance of will. On both levels, the Sacrament
of Confession is the Lord’s great gift to His followers.
Peace of mind is the experience
of knowing the truth. We all know that we are sinners. We also know
that, as sinners, we have offended God and become estranged from His
love in the measure of our sins. How we need the assurance, based on
faith, that this offended God is still pleased with us. When Christ
tells us that there is greater joy in Heaven over one sinner doing penance
than over ninety-nine who are just, He is speaking of us who have deserved
His rejection. The more often we receive His Sacrament of Mercy, the
more deeply we are at peace.
Peace of heart is the experience
of doing the will of God. There is no peace in doing what we want. I
know whereof I speak when I say that, doing one’s own will is hell
on earth. God wants us to enjoy peace of heart. That is why He instituted
the Sacrament of Confession. The more frequently we confess our failings,
no matter how minor they may seem to be, the more deeply peaceful we
shall be. Why? Because if there is one thing that God wants us to admit,
and keep admitting, it is that we are sinners who trust in His loving
There is some value in explaining
what the Catholic Church understands by guilt. Guilt is the loss of
God’s grace. The more deeply we have sinned, the more guilt we incur.
That is what mortal sin means. It is the supernatural death of the soul
by the loss of sanctifying grace.
But all sin incurs guilt. Every
sin we commit deprives us of more or less of the grace of God. The subjective
experience that is called guilt is only the tip of an iceberg. Beneath
the feeling of guilt is the objective fact that we have been deprived,
however minimally, of God’s friendship. I like the statement of Saint
Thomas Aquinas who says, “The act of sin may pass, and yet the guilt
The more frequently we receive
the Sacrament of Christ’s Mercy, the more grace is restored to our
soul. We can experience the effect by growing in that peace of soul
for which there is no substitute this side of Heaven, realizing and
not only knowing that, in spite of our sins, God loves us with that
special love He reserves for repentant sinners.
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica. Used with permission.