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 growing up?
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 are.
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 of self-love.
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 God.
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 of Peace.
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 mercy.
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 remains.”
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.