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The Sacrament of Penance (now commonly called “Reconciliation”) is the ordinary means by which the Christian soul is restored to an objective State of Grace/Habitual Grace/Sanctifying Grace. The soul must be in the State of Sanctifying Grace at the moment of death for it to be welcomed by God into Heaven (if necessary, via Purgatory for the remission of temporal punishment due to sin that has not been met prior to death.) If one dies outside of the State of Sanctifying Grace, also known as dying in a State of Mortal Sin, the possibility of Eternal Life in Heaven is lost: in other words, that person goes to Hell for eternity.
If we have any sense at all, we should earnestly strive to make a Good Sacramental Confession a frequent and integral part of our Christian life. The Church clearly states that the faithful are obligated to confess all known mortal sins at least once per year:
Can. 989 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.
Let me pose a question at this point: if dying outside of the State of Sanctifying Grace means eternal life in Hell, and that all it takes is one Mortal Sin to remove Sanctifying Grace from the Soul, are you content with waiting a whole year between Sacramental Confessions? Rolling the dice, so to speak, on whether or not you are going to die (even suddenly) prior to that year passing?
As a priest, I must confess that my experience tells me that many Catholics appear to be perfectly content with the Russian Roulette approach to Salvation:
“Hey, I went to confession already this year, so I’m good (click…) yeah, I’ve sinned several times since then (click…click…), but I’m OK (click…), because I fulfilled the external observation of the Law (BANG!)” Oops…that was a bullet to the head…sorry, but you’re lost forever in Hell. Better luck next time…except there is no next time, EVER.
Those who think in such terms are content to confess once a year at some penance service, either during Advent or Lent, and then forget about Confession for the other 365 days – even if they committed a mortal sin (or, many, many, mortal sins) within a few weeks of their last confession! If one makes a minimum effort at something, then one should not be surprised with poor results. If one makes a minimum effort at the Spiritual Life, then one will end poor in Spiritual Life, and the consequences of that can be eternally catastrophic. Luke 12:16-21 comes to mind:
16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
So, who wants to hear God call one a fool on the day that their soul is required of them? Anyone? Let me say this with some candor: One will, most likely, not grow rich in what matters to God if one is content with making a bare minimum effort at repentance for having offended Him.
Habitually living in a State of Mortal Sin is a good way to die in a State of of Mortal Sin. If one is unconcerned with the state of their soul until the next penance service rolls around, then they are going to find it difficult to remain in a State of Sanctifying Grace.
Perfect contrition — which can restore the soul from the effects of grave sin and obtain pardon from God — always requires the firm intention to confess ones mortal sin/s as soon as possible, per the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC):
1450 “Penance requires . . . the sinner to endure all things willingly, be contrite of heart, confess with the lips, and practice complete humility and fruitful satisfaction.”
1451 Among the penitent’s acts contrition occupies first place. Contrition is “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again.”
1452 When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called “perfect” (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible (emphasis added.)
As soon as possible doesn’t mean when the next Penance Show rides into town, also it’s good to remember:
1457 “…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 a grave reason for receiving Communion and there is no possibility of going to confession (emphasis added).57 Children must go to the sacrament of Penance before receiving Holy Communion for the first time.
Footnote 57 refers to the Council of Trent and Canon 916:
The Council of Trent, Thirteenth Session, Chapter 7: Now ecclesiastical usage declares that this examination is necessary, that no one conscious of mortal sin, however contrite he may seem to himself, should approach the Holy Eucharist without a previous sacramental confession. This, the holy Synod has decreed, is always to be observed by all Christians, even by those priests on whom by their office it may be incumbent to celebrate, provided the recourses of a confessor be not lacking to them. But if in an urgent necessity a priest should celebrate without previous confession, let him confess as soon as possible. (emphasis added)
Canon 916: A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.
The Council of Trent and Canon 916 (only a Priest celebrates the Mass) both refer to the possibility of a Priest having ‘urgent necessity’ or ‘grave reason’ to celebrate Mass and therefore receive Holy Communion (the Priest must consume both the Body and the Blood at a Mass he celebrates for the Sacrifice of the Mass to be consummated and therefore be licit and made complete) in a state of mortal sin. The urgent necessity being his obligation to Celebrate the Holy Sacrifice for the faithful (holding the office of Pastor, Funeral, Wedding etc…) Please notice, the laity do not have this necessity…they are obligated to confess all mortal sins prior to receiving Holy Communion. The poor sinful priest can find himself without the means of Confession and under urgent necessity to offer the Holy Sacrifice. The Church does not desire that he should further damn his soul by committing the Sin of Sacrilege, so she graciously allows for him to make a Perfect Act of Contrition prior to his offering the Holy Sacrifice and reception of the Sacred Species. The lay faithful are under no obligation to receive Holy Communion at Mass, therefore they do not have an ‘urgent necessity’ or ‘grave reason’ for going to Holy Communion without prior Sacramental Confession if they are in a state of Mortal Sin. If they do so, they commit the Mortal Sin of Sacrilege and further their eternal punishment.
CCC 2042, speaks of the first three Precepts of the Church, obligatory Laws set forth by the Church, which are enjoined on all Catholics (It is my theological and experiential opinion that these bare minimum standards of Catholicism, at best need to be updated to fully explain the seriousness of Following the Law of God and His Church, and at worst in their present condition, lead many Catholics into a false sense of security):
2042 The first precept (“You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor”) requires the faithful to sanctify the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord as well as the principal liturgical feasts honoring the mysteries of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints; in the first place, by participating in the Eucharistic celebration, in which the Christian community is gathered, and by resting from those works and activities which could impede such a sanctification of these days.
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.
The third precept (“You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season”) guarantees as a minimum the reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood in connection with the Paschal feasts, the origin and center of the Christian liturgy.
Notice that the Second Precept anticipates the Third Precept? One cannot justify fulfilling the Third Precept as a ‘grave reason’ or ‘urgent necessity’ if one has willingly failed to fulfill the Second Precept. My personal theological reflection is that as soon as one begins to ‘objectify bare minimum standards’ one soon begins to teach and legislate toward the bare minimum, and that in turn leads many souls (can anyone say acedia, can anyone say SLOTH…) to aim for the lowest goal, which usually ends up with many souls missing the mark all together. Are not all of God’s Children to seek to Love God above all things? Isn’t that the Highest Standard?
The average Catholic’s casual approach to eternal life and the holy discipline of the sacraments is a damnable manifestation of the Heresy of Modernism. Unfortunately, this approach to the sacramental life — which is practiced by many Catholics today, including Priests and Religious — is a good way to end up in Hell.
I do not understand how one can be cavalier in their approach to eternal life and expect to end well. Every Catholic should have the desire to make the best possible Confession of their sins on a regular basis. The Sacrament of Confession doesn’t only absolve one of serious sin, thereby restoring Sanctifying Grace to the soul; it also strengthens one in the Spiritual Life by drawing them closer to God, which further separates them from a desire for sin. The more regularly one confesses, the more one is properly disposed to the fear of the Lord, the love of God, and the love of one’s neighbor as the self.
In the next part of our examination of the Sacrament of Penance, I will focus on how to make a good Confession and touch on the devotional use of the Holy Sacrament (regular confession of besetting venial sins and imperfections.)
Father RP is the Pastor of two small town Catholic Parishes in the hinterland. He has served in parish ministry since ordination, and also as a priest confessor/spiritual director for a Carmelite Monastery for seven years. Prior to answering the call to the priesthood of Jesus Christ he did all kinds of things, including turning away from atheism and agnosticism. He has a few degrees from places called universities, but they don’t mean much.