Wrapping up our series on the sacrament of confession, I’d like to deal with what I feel to be are the two most important parts. Frequently two questions are asked with this sacrament: What should we confess, and how often should we confess it? Due to poor catechesis (or worse) there are some who advocate that you should only confess serious (i.e. mortal) sins in the confessional, and regular confession of venial (in addition to mortal) sins is a sign of scrupulosity.
As with all things, there is a faint hint of truth. From a purely legalistic standpoint, the Catechism does indeed teach that we are required to confess mortal sins once a year, or if nothing else before the reception of holy communion. (CCC 1457) Yet the entire context of this statement is built towards encouraging confession of all sins.
As has been covered in previous columns, confession should be viewed primarily as the medicine of salvation. Sin, whether venial or mortal, is a sickness on the soul. Even if it doesn’t kill grace, it makes it a lot tougher for us to respond to grace. St. Jerome speaks in similar terms when he states “for if the sick person is too ashamed to show his wound to the doctor, the medicine cannot heal what it does not know.”
With this understanding in mind, paragraph 1458 of the Catechism states:
Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, 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.
According to the Catechism, we should look to go beyond the bare necessities when it comes to the sacrament. More often than not, venial sins lead to mortal sins. So when we confess our venial sins, that helps heighten our awareness of them, and helps us to recognize the tendencies that lead to them, and maybe even receive spiritual advice on how to deal with them. Most importantly, we apply the grace we receive from the sacrament towards ridding our souls of that behavior.
Some will view this as scrupulosity, and that is unfortunate. Scrupulosity is a belief that the believer is constantly committing mortal sins when they are not, and they also believe that they are incapable of having a relationship with a just God because of those sins. This is a serious spiritual malady, and those suffering from it need help.
Yet there is a big difference between what the Catechism advocates and the spiritual imperfection/illness that is scrupulosity. The properly formed Catholic realizes that not everything he is doing is a mortal sin. He can appreciate the different distinctions between the gravity of sins, yet still find them wrong and repugnant, and hence worthy to be confessed. The other big difference is that the properly formed Catholic, far from being terrified of a relationship with God, seeks a relationship with God, and realize that the first step of any relationship is honesty of your faults.
That being established, how often should we then go to confession? John Paul II went every week because of the truths outlined in the past several columns. I’m not suggesting everyone start going to confession weekly right from the get go. (Though if you feel compelled to, please go!) Go at least once a month. Talk with your confessor about desiring to go to confession with greater frequency. When you confess, do so with a desire that confessing your sins will get you to know yourself better, and with the grace of the sacrament, the opportunity to know and love our Lord better as we continue to do what He wishes for us to do. I guarantee if you approach it from this perspective God will bless you.