by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
When is a Catholic obligated to go to confession?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states: “According to the Church’s command, 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. Anyone who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion, even if he experiences deep contrition, without having first received sacramental absolution, unless he has grave reason for receiving Communion and there is no possibility of going to confession”(CCC no. 1457).
What is a mortal sin? “A grave infraction of the law of God that destroys the divine life in the soul of the sinner (sanctifying grace), constituting a turn away from God. For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must be present: grave matter, full knowledge of the evil of the act, and full consent of the will” (CCC glossary).
How frequently does the church recommend that a Catholic receive the sacrament of reconciliation/penance? “Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the church. Indeed regular confession of our venial sins helps us to form our consciences, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit. By receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father’s mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as he is merciful” (CCC no. 1458).
I have heard people rationalize that they do not go to confession because they do not have anything, or anything that important, to confess. Praise God if we do not have any mortal sins to confess! Yet, this does not mean that we should not be using the sacrament of reconciliation on a regular basis.
If Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, St. John Vianney, St. Therese of Lisieux , etc., derived great strength from regular confession, why would we not avail ourselves of the grace of the sacrament? Can it be that they had something to confess and we do not? Or is it more likely that they were more attuned to the presence of sin in their lives than we are?
The problem is not that we do not have anything to confess; the problem is that we are unaware of our sin. This is truly a dangerous state. It is comparable physically to suffering from an illness that is undiagnosed. A minor ailment left untreated can develop into a serious health problem.
I have often thought that it would be good for a person who does not believe that they have any “significant” sins to ask their spouse, their children, their parents, their co-workers, their employees, their boss, if they could help them examine their conscience and identify some sins. In the liturgical readings for the past several Sundays, we have been reading Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus gives us a rather challenging examination of conscience.
Some protest: “I haven’t killed anybody; I haven’t committed adultery; I get along well with my family and friends! Why do I need to go to confession?” The response of Jesus to such a question: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Mt. 5: 21-22). “You have heard it was said, you shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5: 27-28). “You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. . . . For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5: 43-44; 46-48).
Can we read these words of Jesus and still think that we have no sins to confess and do not need the grace of the sacrament?
This past Sunday, Jesus challenged his disciples that they could not serve both God and money. Our Lord exhorted them: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Have we given God lordship over our hearts or do we value some things or some pleasures or some relationships more than God?
As a bishop, when I examine my conscience, I have to ask myself: Have I placed the good of my flock — those entrusted into my pastoral care — over my own wants and desires? Am I willing to lose my life in the service of my people?
Similarly, married couples, in examining their consciences, cannot be content with being able to say that they have not been physically unfaithful to their spouse. They have to ask the deeper questions: Have I placed the good of my spouse above my own wants and desires? Is my relationship with my spouse the No. 1 priority in my life or have I allowed other things or people to assume greater importance?
When examining our consciences, we should first begin by recalling God’s blessings. We should allow ourselves to become as fully aware as possible of God’s abundant gifts. Only after having pondered God’s blessings, should we then ask ourselves: What have I done with all that the Lord has entrusted to me? Have I given him thanks by using his blessings — life, health, time, talents, job opportunities, relationships — in ways that truly honor God? In making our examination of conscience, we should ask the Lord for the grace to recognize sin wherever it is present in our lives so that we can surrender our sin to him in the sacrament and receive his healing mercy.
I have heard people say that they do not go to confession because they do not want to bore the priest! First of all, we should not worry about the reaction of the priest, but we should be concerned whether we are approaching God with complete honesty, sincerity and contrition. As a confessor, I can assure you that I am always edified and inspired by those who have prepared for the sacrament by making a good examination of conscience and who make a heartfelt confession of their sins.