Confession: Return frequently with a well-formed conscience

Last week, I introduced the series of columns I will be writing on the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation during Lent. This week, I wish to discuss the frequency of receiving the sacrament and the role which conscience plays in preparing for confession.

I can note a stark difference in the practice of going to confession between the time when I was a parishioner, seminarian and newly ordained priest - "back in the day" as the phrase goes - and the years beginning with the 1970s up to the recent past. In former years, the practice of frequent confession was an integral part of Catholic life. Yes, a small number of people went once a year or only when they had committed mortal sin. Others mistakenly believed that they had to go to confession before each time they received Holy Communion, even though there was no moral sin present. The vast majority, however, went on a regular basis. In that time, going monthly was the mark of a practicing Catholic. But no matter the frequency with which one went to Confession, no one doubted that we ought to go. That aspect of Catholic life was marked by certainty and clarity about what to do and what not to do, and also how to find out if one was unsure.

But this mindset shifted as Catholics adopted a spirit of questioning and evaluating. Everything, including Penance and all its aspects, seems to be under inspection. This approach need not necessarily be bad. In fact, it can be a blessing if we carefully reflect on the sacrament and, as a result, rediscover its value, meaning and place in our spiritual lives. So, let us reexamine this issue of "frequency." The frequency with which one celebrates the Sacrament of Penance is truly important, yet it can be misunderstood. Going to Confession frequently does engender a sense of security and rhythm, but it could become mechanical and rote if we fail to perceive the real meaning of sin, the true nature of the Sacrament of Penance and the grace offered to us. I hear some among us saying, "I don't know what to say" or "I find it boring to say the same things over and over again."

Let us not continue the mistakes made in the past when so many Catholics stopped going to confession because they either did not understand the true nature of this sacrament or gave in to attacks on "frequency." How often, then, should we receive the Sacrament of Penance? First of all, "after having reached the age of discretion, each member of the faithful is obliged to confess faithfully his or her grave sins (mortal sins) at least once a year" (Canon 989). Moreover, 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 (Catechism of the Catholic Church (referring to Canon 916), no. 1457). In this situation, the person is to make an act of perfect contrition, which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible (cf. Canon 916). So, whenever we are conscious of having committed a mortal sin, we are obliged to confess a) before receiving communion or b) at least once a year.

We are also strongly encouraged to confess our venial sins. "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" (Catechism, no. 1458).

I propose that we receive this sacrament of God's Divine Mercy monthly or, at least, four or five times a year. Some among us, recalling the Ember Days in the former liturgical calendar, have adopted the practice of going to Confession in December (Advent), March (Lent), June and September. Whatever our individual "frequency," it could reflect a regular and intentional practice of receive this Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.

Let us look together at Confession and conscience, with the goal not of criticizing but of bringing about clarity. For "Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking" (cf. Catechism, no. 1777).

Our conscience, rather than being a passive voice that we hear occasionally in our heads, should actively encourage us to choose right over wrong. Of course, each decision is not easy, nor does it fall neatly into one category or another. In some cases, our conscience has not been properly formed to aid us as we work through these difficult decisions. We may have a narrow or confined conscience, one, for example, that tells us to avoid mortal sins, but also says the venial sins are somehow acceptable. We may also fail to see sin in certain areas of our life - like in the political or social justice realms. If we are unprepared, or have not worked to develop our conscience, we remain culpable for the evils we commit (cf. Catechism, 1791).

How can we work to develop and form our conscience? Let us look at a few examples. First, to say that conscience is doing whatever I feel like doing or what I think is right is unacceptable - this shows no active thought process in evaluating our actions. To say that conscience is doing what the Church tells me is right does offer a guide, but it could still indicate a purely passive posture. To say that conscience is an exercise of mature and adult responsible judgment regarding rightness - this is the personal and active involvement that we should seek.

How do we form this mature Christian conscience? I offer three steps that, when exercised together, will lead to that goal. First, know and understand what the Catholic Church teaches as good and right. This teaching flows from Sacred Scripture and Tradition, and is the basis for our decision-making framework. Some rules always apply in decision making: "One may never do evil so that good may result from it; the Golden Rule: 'whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them;' charity always proceeds by way of respect for one's neighbor and his conscience" (Catechism, no. 1789). In the here and now we are regularly confronted with situations that are often complex, so the decisions we make do not come easily. Third, we must pray for and follow the internal help of the Holy Spirit. During prayer, the Spirit helps us to discern and to judge, "In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God's will" (Romans 8: 26-27). This should not be interpreted as a loss of objective principles. Rather, we must arrive at them personally. This also means that all of us - priests, teachers, parents, friends - have a responsibility to offer guidance and work towards this end: forming correct consciences.

Ultimately, when these three steps are taken together, then we can say "I am following my conscience." The formation of conscience is not easy task. It is, in fact, a lifelong task. The Catechism offers this sound counsel: "In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord's Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church. (Catechism, no. 1785).

Let us continue on this journey from a passive attitude to an active engagement, even though this growing into mature Christians can be difficult and painful. Nonetheless, with God's graces, we can make a personal decision to frequent the Sacrament of Penance with a well-formed and mature conscience. The reward is worth it all!

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009