One of the greatest obstacles to presenting the Sacrament of Confession is exposing perfectly good Catholics to a worldview they are completely unfamiliar with. When evangelizing on the Sacrament, we should always remember this fact: Many of the people we are reaching out to are good holy Catholics doing their best to live their life for Jesus Christ.
Part of living that life is by following Church law, specifically in regard to confession. One of the laws of the Church (the bare minimum which every Catholic, no matter their rite is bound to) is to go to the Sacrament of Confession once a year. Other laws concerning our doctrine tell us that when we commit a mortal sin, we are to go to confession as soon as possible, and should not participate in the other sacraments until we go. If we die in a state of mortal sin (those of a very grievous nature committed with full knowledge of the seriousness and consent), we will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Most good Catholics do these things, and they should be commended for this.
Yet if we are only going to confession in these circumstances, we are missing an incredible grace. Blessed John Paul II went to confession every week, and he encouraged everyone else to do likewise. He even stated that those who thought they didn’t need frequent confession were “lying to themselves.” While not being strictly necessary, the Catechism of the Catholic Church strongly recommends frequent confession. (CCC 1458) Pope Paul VI prophetically stated that those clerics/individuals (at the time the “younger ones”, yet are now many of the middle-aged to older priests of today) who downplayed the importance of frequent confession (or limited it to only mortal sin) were “alien” to the Spirit of Christ, and “disastrous” towards Christ’s body the Church.
Why would these highest authorities in the Church speak in such a way about the sacrament of confession? Part of it comes from the intention of the person going to confession, formed by bad teaching. For far too many today, they are taught to go to confession because they have screwed up really badly, and to only go in those circumstances. In essence, they are taught that the confessional is like a courtroom which we go to once we’ve been really naughty.
Like all incorrect assumptions, there is a hint of truth to this. In the end, God is our judge, and yes, we do convict ourselves of sin. Yet if we are looking at confession in such a legalistic manner, we are missing the point which Blessed John Paul made in his Apostolic Exhortation on the Sacrament, quoting St. Augustine:
But as it reflects on the function of this sacrament, the church’s consciousness discerns in it, over and above the character of judgment in the sense just mentioned, a healing of a medicinal character. And this is linked to the fact that the Gospel frequently presents Christ as healer, while his redemptive work is often called, from Christian antiquity, medicina salutis. “I wish to heal, not accuse,” St. Augustine said, referring to the exercise of the pastoral activity regarding penance, and it is thanks to the medicine of confession that the experience of sin does not degenerate into despair.
A better way to understand the sacrament of confession is that we do not head to the sacrament because we aren’t holy, we head to the sacrament to become holy. We go to the confessional because even if we aren’t engaging in murder or fornication/adultery, we still aren’t where we want to be as a result of our actions, and we want to change those actions. Seen in this regard, confession heals not just our sins, but the root causes of those sins, which is concupiscence.
As with all sacraments outside of baptism, their fruitfulness depends in large part on how we react to them. All medicine needs to be taken with certain conditions for it to function best. If you take a pill without a meal, the pill might work, but not as good as with a meal. Likewise, confession will heal you, but only as much as you use it properly, joining that confession with changing your life, acts of penance, expressions of love, etc.
When looked at in this light, how can one refuse the constant exhortation of Fr. John Zuhlsdorf: GO TO CONFESSION.