Divine Mercy Sunday, John 20:23
Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.
“See here the commission, stamped by the broad seal of heaven, by virtue of which the pastors of Christ’s Church absolve repenting sinners upon their confession.” (from the Douay-Rheims Bible Commentary)
It is clear that the Sunday of Divine Mercy is a day dedicated in a particular way to the sacrament of reconciliation. Indeed, in many parishes throughout the world, it is customary on this Sunday for the priests to be especially available to hear confessions throughout the day. How great a gift we have in this most precious sacrament, by which the blood of Christ is sacramentally poured out upon us and we are washed clean of our sins. Here the Divine Mercy is most evident – for the good God accepts the prodigal and clothes him as his own son once again! Oh blood and water which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus as a fount of mercy for us, I trust in you!
However, although we know the necessity and the value of the sacrament, all of us (I dare say) have room for great improvement in making a more worthy confession. We should all continually be asking ourselves, How might I make a good (or better) confession? How might a good confession today, lead me to an even better confession in the future?
The acts of the penitent, what is necessary for a valid confession
There are three essential acts which are necessary to the penitent: contrition for sin, confession of sin, satisfaction for sin. Without these three elements, the confession will not be valid. Let us consider each in detail.
Contrition for sin: This is the most necessary act of the penitent in approaching the sacrament. “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.’” (CCC 1451) We must have a true sorrow for our sins – not just for some sins, but for all sins. However, we ought not be discouraged if we find that we still retain some attachment to sin; we must simply desire to be free of that attachment, repent of that attachment, and ask the Lord for his mercy. Indeed, it will be enough if only we are sorry that we are not more sorry – if only we wish we were truly sorry; to desire a true sorrow is already an act of true (though imperfect) contrition.
Confession of sin: It is necessary to confess our sins to the priest. “Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance: ‘All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession.” (CCC 1456) Mortal sins must be confessed in kind and number – hence, in a particular case, it would not be enough simply to state, “I have murdered”; we must state, “I have committed abortion five times.” Likewise, “I have not prayed as I should” would not suffice when we should say, “I have skipped Mass on three Sundays.”
On the other hand, it is also worth noting that some (at least venial) sin must be confessed for a valid reception of the sacrament. If no sin is confessed, absolution cannot be given. Some actual sin must be confessed. Moreover, it is permissible (and even advisable) to confess previously absolved sins either generally (“I am sorry for all my sins against charity”) or even specifically (“I am sorry for having hated my mother”).
Satisfaction for sin: The principal means of satisfaction for sin is the accomplishment of the penance imposed upon us by the priest. This penance must be agreed to by the penitent – and, if the penance seems either too great or too small, the penitent is free to ask the confessor for a different penance (however, the priest is not necessarily obliged to comply with the request). If the penance is not accepted – if the penitent does not resolve to complete the penance – the sacrament will be invalid. If the penance is not completed, this must be confessed during the next confession (which should be sooner rather than later). In addition to the penance given, it is necessary to restore any harm which our sins have caused to others – this applies especially to sins like stealing (where the money or goods must be repaid according to the penitent’s ability) and calumny (where the person’s good reputation must be restored as far as is reasonably possible).
More complicated questions
Can I confess imperfections? Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange writes with great wisdom on this point: He speaks of “semi-deliberate venial sins, which are committed with less reflection [than deliberate venial sins] and into which there enters a certain amount of surprise and impulse, but to which the will adheres with a certain complacency. […] They show that the soul fights too feebly and is not determined to free itself from all obstacles.” He then considers sins which are not even truly deliberate: “Sins of frailty are those committed inadvertently because of human weakness; the will has only a small share in them. […] They are not a serious obstacle to perfection because they are quickly atoned for; yet it is well to submit them to the influence of the sacrament of penance because thereby purity of soul will become more compete.”
It is in this context that the Dominican father speaks of imperfections: “An imperfection is distinguished from these sins of frailty because it is only an act of lesser generosity in the service of God and of slighter esteem for the evangelical counsels. […] What is less good in itself must not be confused with what is essentially evil; […] the lesser good is not an evil.” Thus, it is clear, we cannot confess imperfections, since they are not actual sins, but are only less perfect acts of virtue.
However, the spiritual doctor continues, “But if it is theoretically easy to draw a distinction, practically and concretely it is hard to say where lesser generosity ends and where negligence and sloth begin. […] In addition, imperfection disposes to venial sin.” In other words, it will often be the case that, together with an imperfection, there will be at least an act of either negligence or sloth (which is at least as a sin of frailty, if not a semi-deliberate venial sin). Hence, when it comes to imperfections, we ought not to confess the imperfection itself, but instead those (often very slight) sins to which the imperfection disposes us. We might ask ourselves: Did I hesitate (even only interiorly) before saying my prayers, or during my prayers? Did I allow myself to take any least inordinate pleasure in the praises others gave me, receiving the praise to my own glory rather than to the glory of God? Have I always followed St. Paul’s exhortation to think on those things which are above or have I allowed myself to become anxious about the things of earth? Surely, every one of us can find some sin (at least a sin of frailty) which might be confessed specifically and distinctly.
Ought I to bring up matters of the spiritual life in confession? While it is true that we ought not to take up an inordinate amount of time when making our confession (especially if there is a line), it is also true that the Church provides us with confession as the ordinary means of spiritual direction. Certainly, the direction provided in the confessional will not be nearly as thorough as that which can be given in individual spiritual direction, but at least some level of direction ought to be included in the sacrament. To this end, it is permissible (and even advisable) for the penitent to briefly and directly bring at least some matter of the spiritual life to confession.
Even something as simple as: “Father, can you give me advice on a portion of the Scriptures to read for the Easter season?” or “Father, can you recommend a little bit of spiritual reading which might be helpful to me in my particular state and circumstances?” It will be especially important for the penitent to occasionally bring to his confessor the difficulties he experiences in his spiritual ascent – What is keeping me from regular infused contemplation? These obstacles must be discovered and overcome by the penitent and his confessor, as we must strive for perfection and resist all temptations to tepidity.
The diversity of dispositions and the diversity of graces
Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange writes: “If the sacraments by themselves, by the divine virtue they contain, have an essential efficacy, the measure of grace produced by them varies according to the dispositions of those who receive them; the more perfect they are, the more abundant is the grace, and the differences between a number of persons receiving the same sacrament are much greater than one ordinarily imagines.” The reason for this great diversity is often caused by the diversity of the contrition in the penitent. A greater contrition will lead to a greater disposition for the reception of the graces of the sacrament. In this regard, we must pray the good Lord to give us a true and profound contrition for our sins. We ought also to pray to the Blessed Virgin, to our guardian angel and patron saints, and also to those saints whose contrition is esteemed by the Church (among these, St. Mary Magdalene deserves special notice).
The Dominican theologian tells us, “We must not forget, however, that the effects of absolution are always in proportion to the excellence of the dispositions with which the sacrament is received. […] Among twenty people who go to confession, each receives a different measure of grace, for God discerns in each one's acts difference; which no one on earth suspects. There are many different degrees of humility, contrition, and love of God, which are more or less pure and more or less strong.”
In order that we might have a true and perfect contrition, it will be necessary to examine our consciences regularly – Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange states, “The examination of conscience requires more care in proportion as the penitent falls into more sins and has little knowledge of his interior state. However, those who each evening examine their principal failings, have no trouble at all in knowing themselves well, and they are thereby stirred to make serious efforts at amendment. In the case of spiritual persons who confess frequently and who are careful to avoid deliberate venial sins, the examination of conscience, as St. Alphonsus remarks, does not require much time. It is advisable for such a person to ask himself: What remains of this week to be written in God, in the book of life? In what have I acted for God, in what for myself, by yielding to my temperament, my egoism, my pride? When he thus considers the state of his soul from above and asks for light, he often obtains the grace of a penetrating gaze on his own life.”
When it comes to contrition for sin, it is good to recall that this contrition ought to be born primarily of love of God. St. Josemaría Escrivá warns us against the sorrow that is only an expression of perfectionism and self-love, rather than of the love of God: “You don’t conquer yourself, you aren’t mortified, because you are proud. You lead a life of penance? Remember: pride can exist with penance. Furthermore: Your sorrow, after your falls, after your failures in generosity, is it really sorrow or is it the frustration at seeing yourself so small and weak? How far you are from Jesus if you are not humble…even if new roses blossom every day from your discipline.” (The Way, 200)
And again, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange tells us: “The sadness of true contrition […] it is a holy sadness that makes the soul prompt and diligent, that uplifts the heart by prayer and hope […] because it springs from charity. The more a man grieves for his sins, the more certain it is that he loves God.” Ordinarily, the graces of our confession will be in proportion to the contrition we have for sin and the love we have for our good God. But how will he ever attain such holy love, if we do not ask it of the Savior in prayer?
Practical examples of good and bad confessions
Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange gives us an example of a bad confession: “I have had distractions in my prayers.” Rather, one ought to say: “I have been especially distracted during such and such an exercise of piety through negligence, because I began it badly, without recollection,” or “Because I did not sufficiently combat distractions springing from a petty rancor or from too sensible an affection or from study.”
The Dominican tells us: “Confession should be made with a great spirit of faith” for the priest stands in the person of Christ as judge, “but he is also a spiritual father and a physician. […] Consequently it is not enough to make a vague accusation that would tell the confessor nothing.” In other words, confession is not simply about pouring forth a laundry-list of sins – rather, we must avoid all temptation to routine and confess both our sins and what it is that leads us to sin. Here, it will be good to especially focus on those sins to which the Holy Spirit directs our contrition during our preparation for the sacrament.
Again, it is not a good habit simply to say: “I have sinned in speech.” Rather, we ought to confess something of the particulars of the sin: “I have sinned by speaking uncharitably to my spouse when discussing matters relating to how much time I should spend with the children after work.” Or again: “I have sinned by speaking about a co-worker behind his back – attacking his reputation by telling other people how lazy he is.”
The confession of our sins ought to give the priest enough information so that he may be able to give a salutary counsel. At the same time, one need not ramble on and on about the details of a sin (and this is especially true when it comes to sins against the sixth commandment). Let the Holy Spirit guide us as to which sins ought to be confessed in greater detail – recalling that mortal sins must always be confessed in kind and number.
Find a good confessor
Finding a good priest to hear your confession is one of the most important factors in learning to make a good confession. Regarding what sorts of qualities to look for in a confessor, they are much the same as those to look for in a spiritual director – hence, we direct our readers to our earlier article: What to look for in a spiritual director.
A good confessor will provide us with the necessary guidance to take the general principles of the spiritual life and apply them to our particular circumstances. Especially when it comes to confession, it must always be remembered that the matter is extremely sensitive and personal – hence, a general discussion of how to make a good confession must always be applied with great prudence. There is no room for a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model.
But what if I cannot find a good confessor? In that case, prayer will be even more necessary. If you persevere in prayer, and do your best to make a good confession, it is certain that Christ himself will direct you! In any case, there are many good books (especially from the saints) which can direct us in the spiritual life – in particular we recommend the writings of St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Josemaría Escrivá, and St. Francis de Sales. Certainly, it would be good for us all to read Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s discussion of confession.
How to make a good confession
On the part of the penitent, contrition is the act which most especially secures a good confession. But contrition is born of holy love. And holy love is given to those who beg for it in prayer. And we are only able to pray with confidence if we meditate upon the love which our Savior has shown us in the mysteries of his life. Hence, what is most necessary for a good confession is a life of prayer and meditation. If we desire to make a good confession, we must foster the interior life. Above all else, we must beg the good Lord to give us the grace to make a good confession.
In this regard, the personal witness of Blessed Angela of Foligno (which Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange sites at length) will be our guide:
“With my sins I received the body of Jesus Christ. That is why my conscience did not cease to chide me day or night. I prayed to St. Francis to make me find the confessor I needed, someone who would be able to understand and to whom I could talk. … In the morning I found a friar who was preaching in the church of St. Felician. After the sermon I resolved to make my confession to him. I confessed my sins in full, I received absolution. I did not feel love, only bitterness, shame, and sorrow.
“I persevered in the penance imposed on me; devoid of consolation, overwhelmed with sorrow, I tried to satisfy justice.
“Then I looked for the first time at divine mercy; I made the acquaintance of that mercy which had withdrawn me from hell, which had given me the grace that I have related. I received its first illumination: my grief and tears redoubled. I gave myself up to severe penance. …
“Thus enlightened, I perceived only defects in myself; I saw with entire certitude that I had deserved hell. . . . I received no consolation other than that of being able to weep. An illumination made me see the measure of my sins. Thereupon I understood that, in offending the Creator, I had offended all creatures. . . . Through the Blessed Virgin and all the saints I invoked the mercy of God and, knowing that I was dead, on my knees I begged for life. . . . Suddenly I believed that I felt the pity of all creatures and of all the saints. And then I received a gift: a great fire of love and the power to pray as I had never prayed. . . . I received a profound knowledge of the manner in which Christ died for my sins. I felt my own sins very cruelly, and I perceived that I was the author of the crucifixion. But as yet I had no idea of the immensity of the benefit of the cross. . . .
“Then the Lord in His pity appeared to me several times, in sleep or in vigil, crucified: ‘Look,’ He said to me, ‘Look at My wounds.’ He counted the blows of the scourging and said to me: ‘It is for thee, for thee, for thee.’ . . . I begged the Blessed Virgin and St. John to obtain the sufferings of Jesus Christ for me, at least those which were given to them. They obtained this favor for me, and one day St. John so loaded me with them that I count that day among the most terrible of my life. . . . God wrote the Pater Noster in my heart with such an accentuation of His goodness and of my unworthiness that I lack words to speak of it.”
All citations of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange are taken from The Three Ages of the Interior Life, chapter 30 “Sacramental Confession,” pp. 397-405 of the TAN edition.