As we saw in part one of this series of articles on Confession, in this Sacrament Our Blessed Lord has provided us with a remedy for our spiritual ills that is particularly adapted to the needs of our bodily existence. For the spirit of man He comes to us with His grace; for the body of man He comes with the voice and the physical presence of His human instrument, the priest. As with all the Sacraments, Reconciliation addresses man on both physical and spiritual levels. Jesus wants nothing to be overlooked in His care for us as human creatures. In the article below we will examine another aspect of this desire of Our Lord to provide us with a Sacrament for sin most wonderfully suited to human nature, Confession as an invaluable aid in the pursuit of holiness.
There is a whole range of moral failings that can be found in the condition of man. Sin, as we know, can come in forms that are deadly to the spirit, called mortal. And here we find the fundamental need for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. For these sins Confession is especially designed. It is above all a "rescue" Sacrament. The ancient metaphor used was of "a plank after the shipwreck." When the devastation of sin is the worst, there is the life-saving confessional to carry us back to peace and safety in God.
But human straying from God, as we also know, takes much less dire forms. There are the light or venial sins that do not go so far as to cause spiritual death to man, in which the rejection of God has not been complete. And even then, among such lighter sins, some are done with a good deal more awareness and deliberation than others. Some are what have been commonly called "sins of frailty," arising from momentary slips in judgment that one is usually able to avoid. There are annoying habits, attachments to innocent pleasures, and a whole variety of human imperfections with varying degrees of sinfulness. As we shall see below, there are other remedies for these lesser spiritual ills than the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But none are as effective as the use of the confessional. It is the spiritual tool especially designed by our Blessed Lord, through His continual guidance of the Church over the centuries, to deal with sin in all its forms.
Nor should there be any narrowing of the full extent of the aid being given in the Sacrament. It is coming from Christ Himself, the One teaching us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. The call to holiness that is implicit in the following of Christ requires the Christian to leave behind, as much as possible, even the slightest of sins. And with this high standard in mind, the teaching of the Church, expressing the very intentions of the Savior, has recommended the confessional for dealing with not only mortal, but venial sin as well. To suggest anything less is somehow to diminish the broad reach, the wonderfully wide cast of divine mercy available in this Sacrament.
That mercy, as we have said, is directed above all else to those most in need. His heart goes out especially to those separated from Him through mortal sin. It is the sheep who has wandered farthest from the fold that He is most anxious to bring back. This is where the emphasis of the Sacrament must be. The true greatness of what takes place in the confessional is a resurrection from the spiritual grave.
One does not see this greatness in the use of the confessional by the devout person who has already rooted out serious sin from their lives. They come to confession for further purification and progress from lesser goodness to greater. Here there is the beauty of Godís mercy leading souls on to greater and greater perfection. This is the major concern of our present topic and an important aspect of confession not to be overlooked. But this, it must be admitted, is not where the true marvel of Confession lies.
It is in surmounting the abyss between death and life that we have the power of the Sacrament on full display. For such is the hidden reality that will always be taking place when the person in mortal sin enters the confessional, and then leaves forgiven. We see no external change. The person himself feels no radical difference apart from, which is not at all insignificant, great consolation and rejoicing in Godís mercy. But if the hidden reality were capable of being manifested in a physical way, we would be witnessing the spectacle of a man's corpse being delivered into the confessional, and that man walking out alive.
We marvel at the story of Jesus calling out Lazarus from the tomb. Yet at our most essential level, that of the spirit, this same dramatic reality is taking place in ordinary celebrations of this Sacrament. The visual impact of a dead man coming from a tomb is missing, but the true nature of what is taking place is no less profound and marvelous. In fact, it is even more so. The dead man coming back to life involves the restoration of the body to physical and temporal life. But the soul coming back from mortal sin has eternal consequences. There is a never-ending life in store for such a man. There is the "forever" aspect of this restoration that makes the human gain so much more exalted. The return from spiritual death is, in light of eternal salvation, a tremendous drama far greater than a resurrection to bodily life could ever be. Where the stakes are higher, so too are the heights of joy.
Such profound things are happening beneath the level of the senses! We can only get hints from those who know such marvels first hand, namely Our Lord and His heavenly court. For, as the Gospel tells us, there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine who are in no need of repentance (Lk. 15:7). Given the nature of mortal sin as revealed in Sacred Doctrine, this saying comes across not at all as rhetorical exaggeration. Rather, it strikes one as a real description of what those who live in the realm of the spirit experience. It is a reaction of the most jubilant kind. They behold, without the slightest hindrance, the spirit of a man making that most astounding of all transformations, from a condition of eternal death to one of eternal life.
This is where we find Confession, then, at its most spectacular and its most desperately needed aspect. But after being rescued from spiritual death, the journey of man is far from ended. He must continue on to union with Him Who is Holiness Itself. He must become holy as God is holy. And our Blessed Lord, through His Church, has not been remiss in providing man with plentiful helps along the way.
St. Thomas gives an overview of these abundant means of forgiveness for lighter sins. What makes them so abundant arises from, in part, the nature of venial sin. It is a hampering of the virtue of charity. "By venial sin manís affections are clogged, so that they are slow in tending towards God" (III,87,1). But there is still charity present in the soul. It has not been cast out, as is the case with mortal sin. Provided there is at least implicit sorrow for the sin, any reactivation of the love for God that had grown lukewarm is all that it takes to remove venial sin (III,87,2).
The possibilities for this reactivation are many. Any intent to turn from sin expressed in praying the Our Father, for example, or the Confiteor (I confess) will free the soul from lighter sins. Any turning to God and the things of God, such as blessing oneself with holy water or asking the intercession of one of the saints for a particular need, will also cast out these lesser offenses (III,87,3).
Then there are the Sacraments. With any of these there is an infusion of grace. Instead of a movement of charity from within the soul, a bestowal of charity comes externally from God. Thus receiving the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of Anointing, or any of the other Sacraments will always remit venial sins for which there is at least implicit remorse (III,87,3). Essentially, in guiding the Church in its whole array of rituals and devotions, Our Lord has provided myriad opportunities for the forgiveness of non-mortal sin.
But forgiveness is one thing. Another is the infusion of grace specifically designed to assist a person in fighting against sin. With the trouble in breaking certain habits of sin, the soul would get nowhere in its spiritual journey were it not for divine help over and above divine forgiveness.
This special grace is the unique contribution of the Sacrament of Reconciliation where it is abundantly present. As with all the Sacraments, there is imparted with Confession a "sacramental grace", which is, as St. Thomas says, "a certain Divine assistance for attaining the end of the Sacrament" (III, 62,2). This "sacramental grace" is a supernatural gift over and above the divine presence ordinarily bestowed in a Sacrament, and strengthens a person in accord with the human condition being addressed. For Holy Anointing, it is a grace to strengthen a person to bear suffering. For Matrimony, it is a grace to live up to the demands of married life. For Reconciliation, it is the grace to conquer sin, from the greatest offenses down to the least.
In order to fully appreciate this sacramental grace, and how wonderful a gift it is, it is important to provide a few more details about how this grace is given to the soul.
Theologians reflecting on the nature of sacramental grace emphasize the precise, we might say, "surgical" way in which it is applied. To differentiate it from the "ordinary" grace given in the Sacrament, they have described it as a special claim that God allows us to have over Him for obtaining Divine assistance. As the Dominican theologian, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, explains, "it adds over and above ordinary grace a certain right to actual graces [graces given as the need arises] to be received at the appropriate time and corresponding to the special end of the sacraments . . ." (Grace 148-149).
This means that, unlike any other manner of freeing the soul from venial sin, Confession gives us help with the specific spiritual problems we bring. We leave with a wonderful and extraordinary commitment by God to bring us aid in moments of special need. Hence, we can say that Confession is a form obtaining forgiveness where every reception of the Sacrament is going to have as its goal the conquering of those particular sins we are making a determined effort to overcome. God brings about the Sacrament with those sins in mind. He applies His divine power, and will continue to apply it, with graces suited to the problems at hand.
We can surmise that this is happening to one degree or other with certain non-sacramental forms of prayer and penance. But in the divine plan for man's sanctification the Sacraments will always play an unparalleled role. There are no opportunities for grace greater than these. In the array of possibilities for overcoming venial sin, the effectiveness of Confession in imparting supernatural help to a sincere penitent will be, for all practical purposes, unequaled. Special circumstances can always arise when God will act just as powerfully without the presence of Sacraments as with them. But apart from exceptional moments, the sacramental grace of Confession will have an effectiveness in going to the roots of sin like no other form of devotion.
It must always be kept in mind, however, that God keeps in utmost regard our human freedom. And this will have its consequences for the effectiveness of grace being imparted in the Sacrament. The degree to which God can help a penitent, will be the degree to which that person allows God to help him by cooperation with grace. Someone who is only mildly sorry for his sins, with only the vaguest intention of devoting himself to overcoming some sin, will hinder Godís immense desire to strengthen him. Our Blessed Lord binds Himself strictly to doing only what the penitent allows Him to do. Little profit will result from weak strivings. From devoted efforts, greater graces will be given. God sees the openness of the will to His grace and gives accordingly.
The Popes of the past fifty years have been making a concerted effort to encourage the practice of frequent Confession - this during a period when some of the clergy have down played its importance for all but major sins. Nor do they hesitate to teach that such contemporary discouragement by clergy is going contrary to the action of the Holy Spirit. For Pope Pius XII, this development of frequent Confession "did not happen without the assistance of the Holy Spirit" (Mystici Corporis). "The Church...," Pope John Paul II explains, "through the centuries, interpreting the will of Christ, has always exhorted the faithful to frequent reception of this Sacrament, even for the forgiveness of only venial sins" (Gen. Aud. 16 March 1984).
What is the reason for this persistent appeal? One word: sanctification. The shepherds of the Church would be remiss in not having as their primary concern the growth of their flock in holiness. Nor, given what we have said above, is it hard to see why these two concerns of sanctification and frequent Confession should be related. When there is eagerness for acquiring holiness, one will seek the most effective means of doing so. No one who is aware of the effectiveness of Confession in overcoming sin, and is concerned with advancing in the spiritual life, is going to pass up the frequent use of the confessional. Conversely, it is quite reasonable to conclude that an ambivalence toward, or the discouragement of, the practice of frequent Confession, is symptomatic of a decline in concern for the life of true, deep holiness.
Such a decline cannot be considered as anything but losing touch with the essence of the Christian calling. From the Christianís first initiation into the faith, holiness is understood to be the goal to which he works. It is demanded in virtue of his becoming a member of Christís Mystical Body and being filled with the All-holy Spirit of God. Establishing any less a goal is settling for superficial and second-rate standards not at all in conformity with the Gospels. As Pope John Paul, in his apostolic letter for the beginning of the new millennium, writes:
It makes sense, then, that if there is to be any serious renewal in our time of the pursuit of holiness, it will be accompanied by a corresponding renewal in the use of the confessional on a monthly, bi-monthly, or even weekly basis. The two, holiness and frequent Confession, go hand in hand.
Back to Light & Life Page | Way Back to Rosary Center Home Page