Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered, died, and rose for our salvation– to forgive our sins and to offer us everlasting life in Heaven. Moreover, He wanted His healing ministry of forgiveness for sin to continue through the Sacrament of Penance. On the night of the resurrection, Jesus appeared to the apostles and said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you…. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound” (John 20:21-23). Therefore, all of the faithful who are conscious of sin should avail themselves to the reconciling graces offered through the Sacrament of Penance.
Granted, the person who is conscious of mortal sin must receive sacramental absolution for forgiveness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to Him” (#1855). Therefore, sacramental absolution is necessary to forgive mortal sin, to restore the sanctifying grace in a person’s soul, and to reconcile the person fully with God and neighbor.
This teaching was clearly articulated in a previous age of confusion: The Council of Trent, responding to the objections of the Protestant leaders who denied the Sacrament of Penance and the need for confession, taught, “All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession, even if they are most secret and have been committed against the last two precepts of the Decalogue; for these sins sometimes wound the soul more grievously and are more dangerous than those which are committed openly” (Doctrine on the Sacrament of Penance).
This teaching has been most recently repeated by our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II in Ecclesia de Eucharistia: “I therefore desire to reaffirm that in the Church there remains in force, now and in the future, the rule by which the Council of Trent gave concrete expression to the Apostle Paul’s stern warning then it affirmed that, in order to receive the Eucharist in a worthy manner, ‘one must first confess one’s sins, when one is aware of mortal sin’ (#36). …If a Christian’s conscience is burdened by serious sin, then the path of penance through the sacrament of Reconciliation becomes necessary for full participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice (#37).”
The only exception to this norm, according to the Catechism, is when a person “has a grave reason for receiving Communion and there is no possibility of going to confession” (#1457). Emphasis here must be placed on the phrasing “grave reason” and “no possibility.”
While confession is necessary for the forgiveness of mortal sin, it is also a most important means of grace and a good spiritual practice for the forgiveness of venial sin. Pope John Paul II, in a general audience address given on September 15, 1999, reminded bishops of “the importance of the necessary pastoral care for instilling a greater appreciation of the sacrament [of Penance] in the People of God, so that the message of reconciliation, the path of conversion, and the very celebration of the sacrament can more deeply touch the hearts of the men and women of our day.” Our late Holy Father also stated, “It would, therefore, be foolish, as well as presumptuous, to wish arbitrarily to disregard the means of grace and salvation which the Lord has provided and, in the specific case, to claim to receive forgiveness while doing without the sacrament which was instituted by Christ precisely for forgiveness” (On Reconciliation and Penance, #31). Consequently, a faithful Catholic must never discount the spiritual exercise of confession, from beginning to end: to take the time to diligently examine one’s conscience, to have contrition (i.e. sorrow for sin), to make a firm amendment not to sin again, to confess one’s sins, and to receive absolution and the graces which heal the soul of sin, restore fully sanctifying grace, and fortify it against future temptation. Regular confession of venial sin helps the individual to form his conscience better, fight against temptation, be aware of the occasions of sin, and progress in the life of the Holy Spirit (cf. Catechism 1458).
Yes, strictly speaking, the Code of Canon Law asserts, “After having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year” (#989). However, the Code also asserts, “It is to be recommended to the Christian faithful that venial sins also be confessed” (#988.2). (This regulation is a slight variation of the old “Easter Duty” prescribed by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) which stated, “Every faithful of either sex who has reached the age of discretion should at least once a year faithfully confess all his sins in secret to his own priest. He should strive as far as possible to fulfill the penance imposed on him, and with reverence receive at least during Easter time the sacrament of the Eucharist.”) Only a legalist would suggest that a person only has to go to confession when in a state of mortal sin, thereby hinting regular confession is not necessary. Regular confession is the recipe for sainthood, and all of the saints of our Church knew it. As we continue our Easter celebration, we must not forget those graces of forgiveness and reconciliation the Risen Lord offers to each of us through the Sacrament of Penance.
By Father William P. Saunders