Despite the abundant outpouring of grace taking place in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it will be of little or no profit to us unless we come with the proper disposition of mind and heart. As was pointed out in the last issue of Light and Life, God can only do for us what we allow Him to accomplish. The fruit that can come from Confession will not automatically appear simply by confessing on a frequent basis. For a person confessing frequently, but carelessly, mechanically, Confession will at best be an experience of spiritually running in place. There will be little progress in leaving sins and imperfections behind. It is quite possible that after years of such frequent but thoughtless Confession a person can be still struggling with the same sins as before. Avoiding such spiritual stagnancy is the concern of this final issue in our series on Confession.
Like any of the Sacraments, Confession has its foundation that cannot be altered. The result of removing that foundation would be the collapse, or in technical terms the "invalidity," of the Sacrament. Although presumably anyone making frequent use of Confession will not be failing to do all that is required for a valid Sacrament, it is helpful to understand the nature of the Sacrament we are dealing with by looking carefully at what makes it work. Fruitful use of Confession will depend upon faithfully fulfilling, to the best of our ability, what we are required to do.
St. Thomas searches for the foundation of Confession in the virtue that underlies it - the virtue of penance, or repentance. Confession is actually this virtue of penance elevated by our Blessed Lord to the status of a Sacrament, through which He imparts divine forgiveness and strength. He takes the human act repentance, which involves sorrow for sin and the desire to make amends, and specifies that it be done before his priestly ministers. Done in this context the virtue of penance becomes charged with divine power. Through the sorrow of the penitent and the words of absolution spoken by the priest, God pours His grace into the soul in a way utterly beyond private expressions of sorrow (this aside from exceptional circumstances when God chooses to act outside sacramental ritual). For this reason Confession for centuries has been known as the Sacrament of Penance.
To understand more deeply what is happening in this human act of penance raised to the level of a Sacrament, St. Thomas brings out three "integral parts," as he calls them: contrition, confession, and satisfaction (III,90,2). Contrition is sorrow for sins with the desire to make amends. Confession is the telling of oneís sins to the minister of the Sacrament, the priest. And satisfaction is performing the penance assigned by the priest. Without these the Sacrament does not take place. St. Thomas calls them "integral parts" because when any one of them is missing the Sacrament is not whole, not "integral," and therefore not valid. No one part in isolation from the others is sufficient for the celebration of the Sacrament. One cannot have contrition alone, for example, and expect the Sacrament to take place. Nor can someone have contrition and confession without following through on the penance. All three elements must be present.
This interdependence of contrition, confession, and satisfaction for the valid reception of Penance is all based in the human experience of repentance and seeking forgiveness. As one cannot be truly sorry for some serious offense against another person unless one approaches that person to apologize, so too for a grave offense against God there can be no true sorrow without approaching God to ask forgiveness. That this might be done in as fully human a way as possible, Our Lord has us verbalize this apology to his representative, the priest.
Likewise, this sorrow and its expression in words cannot be complete without making some kind of atonement for the offense. This is clearly something a person offended is looking for when there has been damage done. As St. Thomas observes, "...amendment for an offense committed against anyone is not made by merely ceasing to offend, but it is necessary to make some kind of compensation..." (III,85,1). No one who has apologized for breaking a window is going to be recognized as truly sorrowful until he offers to pay for a new one. With regard to offenses against God, this means doing the penance assigned by a confessor. He speaks for God. When we hear the absolution being given by the priest, we need to hear these words as if they were coming from Christ. So too when the confessor assigns our penance, this should be received by us as the very words of Christ, telling us what He would like us to do by way of some compensation for our sin.
With this basic review in mind, there will be two of these three integral parts of Confession to which we will devote special attention. The good fruit of the Sacrament will be born especially in authentic contrition, expressed in a firm desire to change oneís life, and a confession of sins that will disclose oneís faults with the greatest simplicity and honesty.
The depth of sorrow, or contrition, we have for our sins is very much a matter of how fully we intend to change our sinful behavior. This is commonly known as our "purpose of amendment." Certainly, a sincere desire to put an end to our sins is necessary if we want to be forgiven. Without that purpose of amendment our contrition is really no contrition at all. Presumably, there is at least a vague or implicit purpose of amendment, when one makes the effort of going to confession.
But people who want to truly grow in holiness need to be careful that this purpose of amendment stays only vaguely in the background. For a fruitful Confession this implicit intention must become more and more concrete and specific, what is technically known as an explicit purpose of amendment. The more we can direct our attempts to reform our lives regarding particular sins and vices, and formulate concrete steps to overcome them, the more the grace of the Sacrament will assist us and bring about growth.
The saying of our Lord in the Gospels, though given in a very different context, applies to the person bringing a firm purpose of amendment to Confession: "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back" (Luke 6:38). Godís help will come to us the more generously we bring a purpose of amendment to the confessional. But what is also true is that failing to come with a firm purpose of amendment will find us never making progress, and can even be an abuse of the Sacrament. St. Francis de Sales warns of this when he says:
Spiritual writers will advise us to avoid long, routine lists of sins, where it will simply not be possible to form an adequate purpose of amendment for the sins confessed. Thus, the way we approach venial sin in the confessional will not be the same as mortal sin. All mortal sins must be brought to confession, and acknowledged in kind and number. Not so with venial sins. In fact, as the Council of Trent has instructed us, there is no requirement for confessing venial sin: "Venial sin may rightly and with profit be told in Confession; but they can also be withheld without any fault and expiated by various other means" (Session XIV, chapt. 5). Thus, spiritual writers urge us to be selective in the venial sins we confess. Certain ones need to be made the focus of our efforts. Trying to wage a battle with every form of venial sin that arises in our lives is setting ourselves up for failure. As Fr. Benedict Bauer advises in his wonderfully helpful book, Frequent Confession: "...our guiding principle here should be: a little, but well done; a little earnestly and with purpose and perseverance. Divide and conquer!" (p. 58). Knowing, then, that we can present whatever lighter sins we choose in the confessional allows us the chance to devote special attention to particularly troublesome sins that plague us. For many people in the habit of frequent confession this may be difficult. They have become convinced that unless they bring forth every venial sin they have committed since their last confession they will somehow be making a bad confession. Making a good Confession, for such a person, is identified with telling all oneís venial sins, and making sure none are left out. However, as St. Francis de Sales explains above, what is most essential for a good, fruitful confession is our purpose of amendment. It is very probable that a person recounting a long list of venial sins is in fact making a rather poor Confession, because of the impossibility of having a good resolve to strive against all these failings.
Here we enter into the dynamics of any sacrament. It involves above all else the action of God upon a person, imparting His grace. This grace, in itself is infinite in power and capable of doing completely and entirely what it is intended to do. For the person confessing, it has the capacity to free them permanently from all sin. But this grace is not operating in the manner of some magical spell in a fairy tale, where the mere performance of a ritual is going to achieve its effect. Grace avails us nothing without our cooperation.
This is why, as St. Francis de Sales says, "many who confess their venial sins out of custom and concern for order but without thought of amendment remain burdened with them for their whole life." The cooperation of such people with Godís wonderful aid is minimal. They may be impressive in accusing themselves of sin, but woefully short in what is at the crux of the problem - the will to sin no more. To have freedom from sin, such people must come to realize that instead of an exhaustive enumeration of venial sins, what opens up the real power of Confession is the intention to reform and carrying that intention perseveringly into action.
What is appropriate, then, for those needing only to confess venial sins will be to acknowledge a few such offenses that stand out since the last Confession. For those few sins, carefully thought out, realistic plans must then be made for striving against them.
There are two aspects of post-confessional reform of venial sins that Fr. Bauer recommends we keep foremost in our minds. It must be positive and practical. "We do not overcome small faults and weaknesses by being continually busied about them and fighting against them, but rather by keeping our gaze directed on what is positively good and holy and consciously striving after that" (Frequent Confession 58). Each of those small persistent offenses is rooted in a bad habit of some kind, a vice. Unfortunately, one isolated act of saying "no" to a vice is not sufficient to make an end of it. Putting a positive habit in place of vice is the only way to cause it to cease. The key to rooting out nagging faults, whether they are in fact big or small, is not the negative act of saying, "No, I will not do this any more," but rather a positive act of striving for the virtues that counter such faults.
Furthermore, it does not help to make our resolutions of the indefinite sort: "I will never be distracted at prayer again." "I am going to control my temper for this moment forward." "Iím putting a stop to the proud thoughts once and for all." This is impractical and unrealistic. Such resolutions are impossible to keep here in this earthly condition of human trial and weakness. Rather Fr. Baurer advises, we should make practical resolutions like:
Another final point St. Frances de Sales makes about Confession is important to consider. It regards the need to acknowledge oneís failings in a way that allows the priest to be as helpful as possible. He is the physician God appoints for the ailments of the soul. If the confessor is to do his work of healing, he needs to understand what the ailment truly is. What should be avoided, St. Francis observes, are two things:
1) Vague accusations that could, in fact, be made by the greatest saints. He cites such examples as, "I have not loved God as much as I should; I have not prayed with as much devotion as I should; I have not loved my neighbor as I should..." (Devout Life 2.19). These are universally true of man, and give a confessor nothing to work with. They are signs the penitent needs to give more thought as to why, for example, he has not loved his neighbor as he should:
2) Stating oneís venial sins in a factual way, but going no further. What is helpful to a confessor is knowing deeper motivations and pertinent circumstances. "For example, donít be satisfied with saying that you told a lie without harming anyone by it. State whether it was done out of vainglory, to praise or excuse yourself, or told as a foolish joke or through obstinacy. . . ." But there are other considerations as well: "Tell if you have continued a long time in your sin, since the length of time ordinarily greatly increases sin. There is a difference between some passing act of vanity that has slipped into the soul for a quarter-hour and one our heart has indulged in for one, two, or three days. Hence we must state the fact, the motive, and the duration of our sins...." (Ibid.).
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