The ‘Easter duty’ is still applicable

Q: I am an elderly person, and I remember having to fulfill the Easter Duty. Does that still apply? My younger relatives look at me like, "What are you talking about?" (Springfield)

A: Yes, "the Easter duty" is still applicable, although with slight adjustments. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) had mandated, "Every faithful of either sex who has reached the age of discretion should at least once a year faithfully confess all his sins in secret to his own priest. He should strive as far as possible to fulfill the penance imposed on him, and with reverence receive at least during Easter time the sacrament of the Eucharist." For good reason, this mandate became simply known as "the Easter duty."

In 1983, the Code of Canon Law slightly adjusted the stipulations: "After having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year" (No. 989). Moreover, the code also asserted, "It is to be recommended to the Christian faithful that venial sins also be confessed" (No. 988.2).

For this reason, the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists five precepts that are obligatory for the faithful. "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 b`aptism's work of conversion and forgiveness" (No. 2042).

Therefore, one could say, "Yes, there is still the Easter duty," while recognizing that one's confession and reception of sacramental absolution for serious sins (i.e., mortal sins), and reception of holy Communion may occur any time during the year.

What is most important for all of us is to appreciate the spiritual intent behind the Easter duty. First, the precepts of the church are like the minimum standards for a good spiritual life. They seek to integrate the sacramental and moral teachings, and provide a basic paradigm to help a person grow in love of God and neighbor.

Second, the Easter duty seeks to prevent a person from slipping either into a scrupulosity, whereby he thinks he is a total wretch and unworthy to receive Our Lord in the holy Eucharist; or into laxity, whereby he thinks he has no sin, has hit the plateau of holiness, and thereby has no need for confession. For instance, during the 1600s, a very pessimistic, rigorous, scrupulous spirituality arose in the church called Jansenism, influenced by the teachings of Luther and Calvin; these Jansenists thought the human condition was wretched due to original sin, required harsh penances to mortify the flesh, and deemed themselves incapable of making a good confession and unworthy of receiving holy Communion.

On the other hand, in our more recent times, laxity is the problem. Too many people either do not know the difference between right and wrong, or reject outright the moral teachings of the church, relegating the Ten Commandments to the Ten Suggestions. Too many people have lost a consciousness of sin, particularly serious mortal sin. Also, too many people neither understand nor appreciate the efficacy of the sacrament of penance. Admittedly, part of the problem is that too many priests have neglected to preach about the importance of the sacrament. In sum, there is little wonder why so many people receive holy Communion yet a fraction avail themselves to the sacrament of penance.

Just like an annual physical exam with one's physician is a good, healthy practice, at least an annual (preferably monthly) examination of conscience is a good, healthy spiritual practice. Of course, this should not just be a cursory examination of conscience, but with the help of a guide (even an "app") a thorough and sincere examination, which then leads to a good confession and sacramental absolution. With the soul renewed in grace, one can then be strengthened through the Holy Eucharist.

Finally, this precept is the minimum standard. Even though a person may not be in a state of mortal sin, regular confession of venial sin helps the individual to form his conscience better, fight against temptation, be aware of the occasions of sin, and progress in the life of the Holy Spirit (cf. catechism, No. 1458). Retired Pope Benedict taught, "In our Christian life, we must always aspire to conversion and that when we receive the sacrament of penance frequently the desire for Gospel perfection is kept alive in believers. If this constant desire is absent, the celebration of the sacrament unfortunately risks becoming something formal that has no effect on the fabric of daily life. If, moreover, even when one is motivated by the desire to follow Jesus one does not go regularly to confession, one risks gradually slowing his or her spiritual pace to the point of increasingly weakening and ultimately perhaps even exhausting it" (March 17, 2008). Regular confession is the recipe for sainthood, and all of the saints of our church not only knew it but advocated it. Blessed Mother Teresa of Kolkata and Blessed Pope John Paul II both went to the sacrament of penance at least weekly, because they were so in love with the Lord they were mindful of the smallest violation of that love and did not want even the least venial sin to impair their relationship.

Therefore, as we approach the conclusion of our Easter celebration, the questions arises, "Have I made a good confession since Ash Wednesday?" If not, do so, and receive the abundant graces of Our Lord who suffered, died and rose for our salvation. As Blessed Pope John Paul II taught, "It would, therefore, be foolish, as well as presumptuous, ... to disregard the means of grace and salvation which the Lord has provided and, in the specific case, to claim to receive forgiveness while doing without the sacrament which was instituted by Christ precisely for forgiveness" ("On Reconciliation and Penance," No. 31).

Questions may be sent to Fr. Saunders, pastor of Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls, at straightanswers@ourladyofhope.net or Our Lady of Hope Church, 46639 Algonkian Pkwy., Potomac Falls, VA 20165

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013