Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

16 May 2013

"Unpacking the Precepts": Annual Confession

The second precept ("You shall confess your sins at least once a year") ensures preparation for the Eucharist by the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, which continues Baptism's work of conversion and forgiveness.  (CCC 2042)
The relevant canon (989) in the 1983 Code of Canon Law reads: "After having reached the age of discretion, each member of the faithful is obliged to confess faithfully his or her grave sins at least once a year" (Canon Law Society of America, 1988 trans.)  The Catechism's omission of "grave" sins is curious.

Age of discretion: As far as I am aware, most parish religious education programs introduce children to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in second grade, or about the age of seven.  By that time in our lives we have begun to understand the concept of disobeying rules, even if the rationale of those rules is yet unclear; we certainly know when we have angered or disappointed our parents, grandparents, babysitters, and teachers!  In those early years we begin to learn that we have options and therefore must make choices: to act or not to act, to act this way or that.  That's "discretion," from the Latin discernere, which means "to separate, distinguish between" (cf. discreet; see "discernment").

The faithful: The Christifideles are all the baptized who have not consciously and freely separated themselves from the Mystical Body of Christ.  That's one way of looking at it; more positively put, one "stays close," remains part of the Body through visible acts of faith such as attending Mass, as well as daily acts of prayer, sacrifice, and charity.  "The faithful" obviously aren't "the perfect": with that standard, our churches would be completely empty!  The fideles act fideliter, faithfully; that is, in accord with their regenerated, Christian nature.  Regularly engaging in the constructive discipline of making a good sacramental Confession is just how we roll.

Once a year is regular, I suppose, but really, is it enough?  I go about once a month.  Others go every week or two, others four or five times a year.  It may be hard to find a priest or to find the time, but "where there's a will, there's a way."  To those who say, "How can I commit any sins?  I don't go anywhere," I can attest that I don't have to move a muscle to entertain a bad thought.  People sure can find a way to sin, oftentimes never having to leave a room but just as oftentimes walking a mile for a Camel!

A good Confession is:
  1. Preceded by an honest and thorough examination of conscience against the Ten Commandments, Beatitudes, Precepts of the Church, etc;
  2. Motivated by at least "imperfect" contrition (fearing/despising the punishment our sins are due, in this life and/or the next, but better motivated by "perfect contrition" (dreading the thought of having offended a loving God whom we love);
  3. Conducted with earnestness and without excuses, omitting no mortal sins, specifying as well as possible the number of mortal sins; and
  4. Followed by prompt penance: recitation of prescribed prayers, amendment of behaviors, restoration of property or reputations.
Grave, mortal, really big: Whether one makes an annual, semi-annual, monthly, or daily Confession, one is obliged to confess only "mortal," i.e., serious sins.   If I were a "man-on-the-street" reporter, not only would I administer "exit polls" to people who have stopped going to Mass or have left the Catholic Church, I would also ask people if they could distinguish venial from mortal sin and give examples.
(When some people first heard the word "catechesis," they thought the person was saying, "cease and desist," so that's what just they did.)
Paragraph 1855 of the Catechism lays down the fundamental distinction:
"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.  Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it."   
What, pray tell, are the characteristics of mortal sin?

  1. The object of choice is grave matter: a literal violation of one of the Ten Commandments; gravity also takes note of the relationship between the offender and the offended.  The closer the relationship (e.g. parent-child vs. complete strangers), the greater the disadvantage of one party (e.g. taking advantage of a simpleminded person), the more serious the offense.
  2. The agent knows full well that the choice involves a serious violation of God's law.  Pretended ignorance is inexcusable.  You can fool some people, but "God is not mocked" (Gal 6:7).  That was a seminary staple: "It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission."  Easier to receive, more like it.  Unintentional ignorance may eliminate culpability (responsibility in God's sight), but one ought to seek to know the truth in case of doubt.
  3. The agent gives complete consent to the choice.  One cannot sin by accident (I love it when kids claim they "accidentally" kicked or pushed their siblings--but how else does one feel when one's actions have unforeseen or unintended consequences: think of the drunk driver guilty of vehicular manslaughter!), or in the absence of real options.  Stubbornness ("hardness of heart," biblically speaking)--choosing with gusto--exacerbates the voluntary nature of the choice.  In a great many cases, the person acts out of weakness more than malice: external force and internal pressures (e.g. uncontrollable emotions, especially in addictive or pathological situations) can diminish responsibility.  People gain great freedom, but also great responsibility, when they learn they don't have to act on the first thought that occurs to them!
If any of these conditions is lacking, the agent has not committed a mortal sin.  This is where mentioning relevant circumstances can be helpful in Confession (e.g. "I missed Mass on the holyday because I was sick.  I didn't even go to the hairdresser!").

Do the best you can to remember your sins.  If you remember something later, there is no need to rush back in.  You can mention it the next time.  This is another good reason for going more than once a year.

As I said above, one need not mention venial sins, but many penitents find a certain comfort in doing so--the assurance of God's forgiveness and strength against future temptations.  I need all the help I can get.

A priest yelled at 1962...You wouldn't let a case of food poisoning keep you from eating at every McDonalds, or every fast food restaurant, or eating at all!

Your first meal could only go so far in nourishing your body.  You had to eat again.  Conversion, like sin, is a lifetime endeavor.

I can confess directly to God.  Sure, we can!  This question brought to mind a news article from last January when Pope Benedict XVI visited a prison in Italy.  He fielded questions from the prisoners, including this very confessional concern:
Gianni, another inmate, asked the pope why he had to go to confession for pardon instead of just getting on his knees and asking God for forgiveness. “Naturally, if you get on your knees and, with real love for God, pray that God forgive you, he will,” the pope said. But sin doesn’t disturb only the relationship between an individual and God, he said, it harms the community of the church and wider society. The sacrament of reconciliation “is the great gift by which, through confession, I can free myself from this and can receive real forgiveness, including in the sense of a full readmission into the community of the living church,” he said. 
Human beings are societal by nature, yet it seems we can tend just as strongly, when we wish, toward individualism.  This is not necessarily a problem, provided we can keep our centrifugal and centripetal  tendencies in balance.  But we do nothing in a vacuum...except suck.  Personal sin is never "private," especially insofar as we must continue to be involved in our family and occupational efforts when we are "in sin."  How can the choices we make in seclusion not somehow seep into our dealings with others?

In the same vein, our movement toward repentance and change occurs in a larger context.  "It takes a village to raise a child," especially as the child stumbles on her journey to ambulation.  The Church is always, in her every public and personal prayer, longing for people's conversion.

Stop fighting.  Go to Confession.  At least once a year, but thrice is nice.

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