It is surprisingly easy to fulfil the task set in Confession, because amazingly little is absolutely demanded. God’s terms are the easiest possible. It is child’s play for a sincere person to secure the valid reception of the Sacrament of Penance.
The three indispensable acts of the penitent are confession, contrition (which includes purpose of amendment) and satisfaction. The essential requirements for the validity of these acts are amazingly light; the rigorist would probably say—scandalously light.
For the sake of clarify, let us consider the various kinds of confession which our Divine Saviour could have imposed. We may reduce them to four heads:
1. A general accusation of sin, such as “I have sinned”. This is called by the theologians Generic Confession.
2. An indication of the theological species of sin. “I have sinned mortally or venially.”
3. The accusation according to number and kind of ALL SINS, whether mortal or venial.
4. The accusation of ALL MORTAL SINS according to number and kind.
Generic confession – “I have sinned”- is obviously demanded from the nature of the case. Unless confession of some sort were prescribed, there would have been no point in instituting the Sacrament. Our Saviour was not obliged to institute the Sacrament, but once He did so, He was obliged to insist on generic confession.
As regards the other forms of confession. He was perfectly free to choose. This is a point of great importance. In making His choice He acted as a legislator. His choice represents positive law; and positive law, as we have seen, does not oblige with serious inconvenience [i.e. if there is a serious moral difficulty in accomplishing a precept of positive law, then one is not held to it as long as the difficulty lasts—ed:]
We should not allow ourselves to have any doubts whatever as to what our Saviour HAS CHOSEN TO OBLIGE us to confess. Ignorance on so vital a point is lamentable and must lead to confusion of thought and endless perplexities.
The Extent of the Law of Confession
Jesus has obliged us to confess MORTAL SINS according to their KIND and NUMBER. There is never an obligation to confess venial sins, unless we have no other matter; in which case, we must confess AT LEAST ONE VENIAL sin for which we are truly sorry.
A law to confess all sins, mortal or venial, would be extremely onerous and worrying, and it was to be expected that our kind Saviour would not impose it.
Confession of only the theological species of sin, “I have sinned mortally or Venially” would, by its vagueness, destroy to a great extent the efficacity of the sacrament. A vague confession would not induce adequate relief of mind, and would deprive the sacrament of much of its satisfying and therapeutic value. It is not surprising: therefore, that our Saviour did not choose that form of confession.
The actual obligation of confession is surprisingly easy and, should reassure those who are inclined to make examination of conscience a fierce, nerve wracking ransacking of the soul. We are obliged to confess only mortal sins. Now even a very ordinary Catholic would not need to look for mortal sin. The thought of the sin would have been torturing him ever since the time it was committed, and the difficulty would be to forget rather than to remember. As soon as he knelt down to prepare for Confession, his sin would be nagging at him, and would so to speak, give him a knock-out blow between the eyes. No need to find out the sin; it will find him out and, like an unwelcome guest or a bore, will introduce itself. A sincere person can, therefore, find necessary matter for confession in a split-second.
There is never any obligation to make a complete catalogue of venial sins, and it is seldom or never wise to try. If some venial sins are omitted, it does not matter: because, provided we are sorry for them (there’s the rub!) they are forgiven by the absolution. It is a mistaken policy to rake up forgotten venial sins at the next confession. There NEVER WAS ANY OBLIGATION to confess them, so there is no need to make so much fuss about them. They are forgiven already; no extant obligation to confess them remains, so there is absolutely no reason why we should not be done with them.
It is pathetic to find people harrying themselves to a state of stupor by excessive concern about the confession of venial sins. Penitents with a haunted look about them, will say anxiously: “But suppose I leave out some venial sins-” Well if you do, it is no great matter. Inform yourself about the Church’s teaching: and you will cease to be your own unlawfully-appointed inquisitor.
When theologians say that our sorrow must be UNIVERSAL, they mean that it must include ALL MORTAL SINS, not that it must include all venial sins. Similarly, when they speak of the necessity of safeguarding the INTEGRITY OF CONFESSION they mean, that, in ordinary circumstances, sire mug never omit to confess a mortal sin. In extraordinary circumstances when it is morally impossible to make an integral confession, the obligation to do so is for the time being suspended; because our kind Divine Legislator does not wish even this law to oblige with serious inconvenience which arises from unusual and accidental circumstances. Applications of this law are rare and best left to the confessor, so it is hardy necessary to treat of them at length here. The law is of practical application, however, in cases of scrupulosity.
Thus a scrupulous person, for whom examination of conscience is a nightmare, may be dispensed from the obligation of integral confession, and should have no hesitation in restricting himself to generic confession at the request of the confessor.
The obligation of Confession has been made a easy and worry-proof as is consistent with the purpose of the Sacrament. The same is true of the second act of the penitent—contrition.
It is presumed that you know the distinction between contrition and attrition. Contrition is sorrow for sin because we have offended God’s infinite goodness. Attrition is sorrow for sin for some less noble and more selfish supernatural motive, for example, that we have lost heaven and deserved hell.
In the Sacrament of Penance attrition is enough to obtain the pardon of the most heinous sins. The implications of this doctrine are a startling manifestation of Divine Mercy, meriting prolonged and grateful meditation. This teaching means that if we take the trouble to go to Confession, God is willing to forgive us our sins, even our mortal sins, just because we have turned to Him with a feeble incipient love, which is still largely selfish and occasioned principally by a prudent regard for the security of our own skin. Even though we are still much more concerned about ourselves than Him, He forgives us because we are back once more on the road that leads to Him. Only God would forgive on such terms. One wonders how He can, how such easy forgiveness is consistent with His dignity. Who said that we leave nothing to the Mercy of God?
Outside the Sacrament of Penance attrition is not enough to restore the mortal sinner to grace; inside the Sacrament it is enough: and this is a very powerful reason for confessing to a man if that man happens to be a priest. Forgiveness is very much more certain in the Sacrament of Penance that it could possibly be elsewhere; in fact, when we have done what Our Lord demands, forgiveness is morally certain. Penance may be called the Sacrament of easy forgiveness.
Another startling aspect of the sufficiency of attrition is, that all that is absolutely required for the validity of the Sacrament of Penance is attrition for mortal sins.
If we are not sorry for some venial sins, even if we are not sorry for any of our venial sins, the Sacrament of not invalidated provided we have attrition for mortal sins, even past and confessed mortal sins. Needless to say, such imperfect dispositions diminish the grace received from the Sacrament, but they do not nullify it.
Mere humans could never be so merciful. The implications and significance of this ready forgiveness should inspire the most absolute confidence in the Divine Mercy. Consider one parallel case and see how you would act.
A former friend has robbed you and made an attempt on your life. Afterwards he comes and expresses his regret for the attempted homicide and restores his ill-gotten goods; but adds that he is not in the least sorry for a succession of petty slights and pin-pricks spread out over the years. You might forgive him his major offences, but would you readmit him to your friendship? Yet that is what God does for us. Provided we are sorry for our major offences, He tolerates our minor ones and receives us back to His friendship. His kindness is amazing and should be most reassuring.
Whenever we go to Confession honestly determined to try to avoid all mortal sin, it is almost impossible not to have the required minimum of attrition if we have any faith at all, and are not quite asleep. Could He have made things easier?
A word about purpose of amendment, just to emphasise the easy requirements of the Sacrament. Suppose you went to Confession in a hurry. You made definite acts of contrition but you cannot recall having; made any explicit acts of purpose of amendment. Was the Sacrament validly received? It was. Genuine contrition implies hatred of sin, which, in turn, implies a determination to avoid it in future. This is not a wise procedure, but it is enough to secure validity. Failure to make clear-cut explicit acts of purpose of amendment is one of the major reasons why the Sacrament does not produce more fruit (as we shall see later), but for the moment we are discussing what is absolutely necessary, not what is advisable. If we see how easy it is to lay the necessary foundations, we shall, to our own great benefit, approach the Sacrament with confidence and tranquillity of mind.
With regard to satisfaction, the essential requirements of the Sacrament are that at the time the penance is given we are willing to accept it. If we changed our mind afterwards and refused to say the penance, we should, needless to say, commit a sin; but even then the Sacrament would not be undone. If the penance was a grave one imposed for mortal sin, refusal to perform it would constitute a new mortal sin. If the penance was a light one, refusal to perform it would amount to a venial sin.
If deliberate refusal to say a penance does not invalidate the Sacrament, it is perfectly clear that INDELIBERATE OMISSION of the penance through forgetfulness does not invalidate it. If the omission is due to a bad memory, there is no sin at all; but only a regrettable loss of grace and sacramental satisfaction. Say your penance reverently and earnestly, because it has a double value and works ex opere operata as well as ex opere aperantis (i.e. its efficacity is partly due to the sacramental operation of Christ and partly to the virtuous activity of the penitent); but do not say it anxiously, as though indifferent or distracted saying of it world ruin the Sacrament.
‘Our Divine Saviour has obviously done His best to make Confession as fear-proof as possible, so let us not frustrate His merciful designs by introducing unwarranted fears based on ignorance. It is possible to commit a good many sins in the actual act of Confession and yet not nullify the Sacrament. He demands the very minimum. It is not for a moment suggested that we should be content with the minimum. All the same, it is a great advantage to know the minimum requirements of Confession, because such knowledge enables us to appreciate how easy it is to lay the sure foundations; and when we have done that, we can go an tranquilly to raise a nobl superstructure, which we cannot do if we spend all our time worrying about the foundations.
Why is Confession so easy? “Because by His bruises we are healed. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him. The Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” The blows that were aimed at us fell aslant across His bruised and battered Body and He broke the force of the, blows. That is why we get off so lightly. “He took the handwriting that was against us and nailed it to the Cross in His own Body.” He made the supreme sacrifice and perfect satisfaction far all the sins of the world
Moreover, In the Agony in the Garden, He made a perfect confession and a perfect art of perfect contrition for all sins of the world. “Him Who knew no sin He hath made sin for us.” His confession was absolutely accurate: His contrition, His sadness, was of infinite intensity. Remember that, when you go to Confession. He has already told those very sins you are about to tell, He has sorrowed for them. Your task is to supplement His perfect confession one perfect contrition as best you can.
Naturally, you feel that your effort is hopelessly inadequate. Of course it is. He will supply. Think more of His confession and you won’t be so warried about your own. You never approach Confession alone. He is always by your side ready and anxious to help; and He will never fail you nor allow you to fail Him, if you do your honest best. Remember that Confession is a Sacrament of Mercy and approach it with childlike trust. He wants our trust and is pained when we do not trust Him. And, after Calvary, the Mass and the institution of this Sacrament of Mercy it is surprising?