Pope Francis has rightly been emphasizing discernment in the moral and spiritual life. In the spiritual life, there has to be a progression from simply following a format to understanding the format and being an active collaborator in it. A move from external norms to full integration.
One of the areas where I don’t think we give the faithful good principles of discernment is in the realm of when and how to make use of Confession. Oftentimes we fall into giving them simplistic formats like, “go once a month” or “only go when you have something serious.” These are often interpreted as absolute rules and have the potential to kill the spirit.
So, today, I wanted to give some principles for discerning when and how to use Confession.
To begin this discussion I want to name three different types of Confessions.
The first type I will call the The Confession of Conversion. This is the confession of the prodigal son; the person who has deliberately, and without reserve, given themselves to some life of vice or grave sin, often for prolonged periods of time. They come to see the error of their ways and seek reconciliation with the Church and with God, which is done in a formal way in Confession. This type of confession is the simplest and truest form of the sacrament, what it was originally intended for.
The second type of confession we might call The Confession of Reestablishing Broken Communion or The Confession of Habitual Grave Sin. This is the confession of a person who has committed a grave sin out of weakness or because they are overcoming a habit of sin. This person is sincerely sorry for committing this sin almost immediately, has every intention of confessing as soon as they can, and intends to keep turning away from sin. This is not the confession of a person whose soul and conscience is dead. They have contrition and a sense of sin, which means they are striving. In one sense, they are more spiritually alive than someone who doesn’t have to work very hard to stay out of sin. They are not going to hell if they die before they can make it to confession. The reason they go to confession is to reestablish communion and complete the work of contrition. They seek out confession because it is a necessary element of true contrition. Their restoration of communion is a developing one; they must go to Confession in order to receive Communion, but they are never completely out of communion.
The third form of confession is the Pious Practice of Confessing Minor Sins. This is the confession of venial sins, which we are not obliged to confess publicly in number and name. This makes formally confessing our minor transgressions a meritorious practice that we should adopt for our spiritual life, but it doesn’t fall into the category of necessity. It is not what confession to a priest is primarily concerned about.
So, with these three general categoriesin mind, let’s elaborate on their significance for how we should use confession.
If the primary use of Confession is the reception of those who have been astray, then confession times should be placed in such a way as to be convenient for them. Ideal times might be before and after Sunday Mass, Ash Wednesday, Christmas Day, Easter, before weddings, funerals, and baptisms. No one who is truly in need of the sacrament is going to come at 4 pm on Saturday.
While this mostly applies to priests and their discernment of when to offer the sacrament, it does have implications for us in our discernment of when to go to confession. If the people who frequent confession regularly fill up the line or fight for the best times, then they will discourage those who truly need to go to Confession. On the contrary, if you are a regular recipient of the sacrament it is better to go at a less frequented time, to go to the back of the line, or simply leave the line altogether if there are a great number of penitents.
Even in the case of confessing grave sin there should be no anxiety. If you are sorry for your sins and you want to reestablish communion then you have nothing to be anxious about. It is true, you should not delay in going to confession, but neither should your search for Confession be desperate. You may have to reverently wait for the reception of Holy Communion, but there is nothing wrong with that. Simply find a time to go to Confession at a time established, unless some other arrangement needs to be made because of schedules. In certain situations the priest may give you permission to receive Holy Communion because of the habitual nature of the vice. This is neither a permission to sin or permission to stop using Confession, but it is dependent on consistent work to turn away from sin and the intention to continue using the sacrament of Reconciliation.
When it comes to the Confession of minor sins there is no hard and fast rule; but here are some things to keep in mind. First of all, set for yourself a regular pattern. Once a month can be a good rule of thumb, but some might discern that even this is too often. Once you have decided on a frequency, stick to it; it should not be non-negotiable. As I said, if the line is long go on another day. Second, remember that when the Church talks about going to confession for the sake of receiving a special grace it is talking primarily about the reestablishment of communion. You never have to go to Confessionif you haven’t committed a grave sin. The Church requires you to go to Confession once a year only if you have grave sin. This applies to the reception of indulgences, first Friday devotions, consecration to Mary, etc. . . The grace is available if you are in communion. You should go to confession as part of the spiritual renewal, but it should never be treated mechanically.
Another element of discerning when and how often to go to Confession is the situation and stage of life in which you find yourself. Young children should go to Confession with a frequency that helps them familiarize themselves with Confession and overcome any anxiety they have, but not to the point that it feels burdensome. Because children don’t need to go to confession, our main goal is to help them develop their conscience and grow in their comfort with the sacrament. Because of the stresses and changes of adolescence and young adulthood, the use of confession during this time should increase. They might need to make use of this sacrament twice a month or even once a week. Even more, sin abounds when stress abounds, so you might amplify your use of the sacrament during a time of transition and discernment. For example; when someone is leaving home, changing jobs, out of work, during a divorce, in the midst of courtship, during exams, while discerning religious life, etc. . . During times of calm and stability the use of confession should ideally be regular and constant without anxiety.
If you tend toward scrupulosity it is often best that you receive this sacrament with even less frequency; yet still consistently. You might give yourself space to go every 4 or 6 months.
Now, another very important thing to keep in mind is that the deadliest of sins are the small sins. We often speak of particular sins and classify them into venial and mortal sins; but we can also speak of a class of vice that is not really a particular sin. These are the currents and dispositions of our souls which manifest their presence through the surface waves they make; i.e. . . . the particular sins. These vices elude being named and cornered because of their generality. They are those vices that no one is guilty of but everyone knows are there. For example, no one is particularly guilty of discrimination, and yet discrimination exists. No one is maliciously destroying the environment, yet the environment is being destroyed. Everyone respects and loves priests and religious; but no one is guilty of the lack of priests and religious vocations. Everyone wants the poor to be fed, but the poor are still hungry.
These types of sins are generally referred to as the 7 deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride), and it is striking to note that, when referencing hell, our Lord only speaks about these types of sins. These are the silent killers of the soul that slowly cause it to die in a spirit of indifference and tepidity.
Regular confession does, to a degree, help us to grow in awareness of these undercurrents in our soul (and therefore the practice should be encouraged), but the sacrament of Reconciliation was not designed for that purpose. It is not designed for spiritual direction, it was designed to be a place where the converted could be formally received (not well-suited for necessary ongoing growth). It’s not really the place for us to have a chat.
The best way to approach these sub-currents is through works of penance and self-denial—not chasing after illusive sins but instead chasing after virtue. That is why the real work starts after you have confessed your sins and started doing penance, that is, started creating virtue. Receiving absolution is not a place of rest for the soul but a call to respond to the tremendous generosity of God.
This is why the time of stability in the moral life can be the most deadly. Tepidity and apathy seeps in and sows weeds among the wheat. We cannot spend our lives looking for weeds; we need to keep producing spiritual fruit without anxiety. It is not a time to rest on our laurels.
Therefore, when we talk about the sacrament of Reconciliation we are actually talking about a number of actions that don’t necessarily happen at the same time or in the same order. Some of these elements are: the examination of conscience, contrition, firm purpose of amendment, the act of confessing, the giving of absolution, and the seeking out of renewal through acts of penance. All of this is for the purpose of restoring communion and building up the community. However, there is one part that is superficially related but of great spiritual benefit for the penitent: standing in line for Confession.
I have often wondered if there is a better format we could create for penitents waiting for Confession. Maybe we could have people take a number or something. Sitting in that line is so embarrassing at times and of course we’ve all felt that frustration when the priest seems to take too long with a particular Confession. That line is probably one of the greatest discouragements for those seeking to begin again.
While I still think there might be other ways we could approach waiting for Confession, I also think that it has many spiritual benefits. It can be a great act of humility and vulnerability. By standing in this line, the Christian calls himself a sinner, which creates space for other sinners to be received. At times, though, Christians in the confession line see themselves as individuals. My confession, my time, my position in the line. I wish there was a way that line might become a community. Imagine that line becoming a circle where all those waiting prayed over those about to go to Confession, or prayed for those who were in Confession. Where they forgot about how many penitents were in front of them, or how long it would take; but simply devoted themselves to prayer for themselves and those being renewed. That their heart celebrated for the triumph of grace when each penitent left the confessional and not a spirit of “Finally!” Where there was a spirit of detachment from whether or not you were going to be able to get to confession today; where you see the other souls around you with an awareness of their needs. Where you might let someone else go ahead who appears to have a greater need.
This is the real spirit of the Confession line; this is how we should discern and use Confession.