Confession to a Priest
It may be asked, why confess one’s sins to a priest? Maybe he is not as holy as the penitent. That indeed could be. But though he is not holier in his person, he is holier in his powers, because Christ gave this power to His Church—only the Church claims it, and only the Church exercises it. The mayor of a town may not be as good as some of the citizens, but he has the power which the citizens do not; so it is with the priest.
Furthermore, it is not the priest who absolves: he is only the instrument of Christ. Can man of and by himself forgive sins? No! Can man united to God forgive sins? Yes! That is the way Christ the Son of God forgave sins through His human nature. That is the way He forgave the sins of Magdalen; that was the way He forgave the sins of the paralytic, that was the way He forgave the sins of the thief on the right. That power He gave to His Church.
Because the priest acts in Christ’s name, he is bound by the seal of confession. Not even under the penalty of death may he reveal sins that are confided to him in confession. As a person, he has not heard any sins. They are not a part of his knowledge. It was Christ Who heard the sin and He alone has knowledge of it. Suppose a murderer came into a rectory and confessed to a priest. On leaving the priest, the murderer shook hands with him. After the murderer left, the police entered, found blood on the priest’s hands and accused him of the murder. The priest could not say: “It was the man who just went out. I did not do it.” He may not make any defense of himself, nor may a priest outside the confessional ever speak to that person about his sins. For example, he may not say to a penitent whom he meets on the street, “Oh, did you ever pay back the hundred dollars you stole?” If someone stole money from a drawer in my desk, and then came and confessed the stealing of money; I could order the money returned, but I would not be permitted to lock the drawer, because that was information which I gained in God’s sacrament.
Another reason for confessing sins to a priest is that no one sin is individual. We are members of the Mystical Body of Christ. If one member is unhealthy, the whole body is unhealthy. If we have an earache, the whole body suffers. Now, every personal sin has a social effect: all the other cells of the body of the Church are affected because of the defect in this one cell. Every sinner is blameworthy, not only in regard to himself, but also in regard to the Church, and first and foremost to God. If he is ever to recover, it can only be by the intervention of the Church, and by an intervention of God.
No medicine will act on a member of the body, unless the body cooperates in some way with the medicine. Because every sin is against God and the Church, it follows that a representative of God and His Mystical Body must restore the sinner again to fellowship. The priest, acting as the representative of the Church, welcomes back the penitent to the community of believers. When Our Blessed Lord found the lost sheep, He immediately integrated them again into His flock:
“Jesus was to die for the sake of the nation; and not only for that nation s sake, but so as to bring together into one all God’s children, scattered far and wide.” (John 11:52)
The priest re-establishes the sinner in grace; he restores the sinner to his rights as a son of the Eternal Father; he reconciles him not only to God, but also to God’s society of the Church.
The social nature of Penance is seen further in the fact that the penitent recognizes the right of the Mystical Body to judge him, since it is through the Mystical Body he is in relation with God. Forgiveness of sin, then, is not just a matter between God and our individual souls. It is the Church which has been injured by transgressions. Therefore, our sins are not just our concern, they are the concern of the whole Church—the Church Militant on earth and the Church Triumphant in heaven.
The Examination of Conscience
Before the penitent goes into the confessional box, there is the examination of conscience. This used to be a daily practice of Christians, and still is among many. It was not even unknown to the pagans. The Stoics, for example, recommended it. The examination of conscience centers not only on the wrong we have done, but also on the motivations. Our Blessed Lord, examining the conscience of the Pharisees, called them “whited sepulchres, clean on the outside, but on the inside full of dead men’s bones.” He pierced beneath the pretensions and hypocrisies of their prayers, their almsgivings, and their philanthropies, saying they did these things to be seen by men and to have a human reward—and that is the only reward they will ever receive. So in the examination of conscience, all the thoughts, words, and deeds of the soul are brought to the surface, examined, and considered in conformity with the law of God.
One of the differences between psychoanalytic examination and examination of conscience is that in the former one stands in one’s own light; in the examination of conscience, one stands in the light of God. That is why Scripture says, “Search my soul, O my God.” The divine light looks into the mind, takes the mind off itself and its own false judgments, and makes things appear as they really are; at the end, one does not say, “Oh, what a fool I’ve been,” but rather, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
A day comes when the abused conscience will turn with fury and harass its victim, tormenting his waking life and making his dreams a poison and his darkness a nightmare. When night gives inner vision scope, the guilty conscience lies awake fearful of being known in its ugliness. There is nothing that so much arouses an unhealthy fear as a hidden guilt. As the cock crowed when Peter denied Our Lord, so our nature rises in revolt against us when we have denied the Lord of conscience. Sins have a way of finding us out. Just as a refusal to study in childhood begets an ignorance in mature life, so too, sins which we rationalize away are thrust down into unconsciousness, but somehow they make themselves felt in our health, our mental attitudes and our general outlook on life.
Alongside every human being there are three pools, each of which gives a different reflection. We look into one pool and we are pleased with ourselves, because in that pool we see ourselves as we think we are. In the second pool, we see ourselves as our neighbor sees us, or as our press clippings reveal us. In the third pool, we see ourselves as God sees us, and as we really are. It is into this third pool that examination of conscience takes us, bringing to the surface the hidden faults of the day, discovering the weeds that are choking the growth of God’s grace, our sins of omission and commission, the good deeds left undone, the failure to aid a needy neighbor, the refusal to offer a word of consolation to one burdened with sorrow, and malicious remarks, lies, acts of dishonesty, and the seven sins which are the enemy of peace: self-love, inordinate love of money, illicit sex, hate, over-indulgence, jealousy, and laziness.
Examination of conscience also embraces what is called our predominant passion. Every person has one sin which he commits more than another. Examination of conscience roots out all our self-deception, for every person has a little corner in his heart he never wants anyone to venture into, even with a candle. We say we are following our consciences, when actually what we mean is that we are making our consciences, and then following what we made. It is this kind of deceit that is unveiled in the examination and, by curing us of self-deception, it cures us of depression. Depression comes not from having faults, but from refusing to face them. What else is self-pity but a total unconcern with the interests of others?
It must not be thought that in the examination of conscience one concentrates on his own wounds; rather he concentrates on the mercy of God. A sick person thinks less of his own sickness than the physician who will heal him. The examination of conscience develops no complex, because it is done in the light of God’s justice. The self is not the standard, nor is it the source of hope. All human frailty and human weakness are seen in the light of God’s infinite goodness. Sorrow is aroused, not because a code has been violated, but because love has been wounded. As an empty pantry drives the housewife to the bakery, so the empty soul is driven to the bread of life. Examination of conscience, instead of inducing morbidity, becomes an occasion of joy.
There are two ways of knowing how good God is: one is never to lose Him through the preservation of innocence; the other is to find Him again after He has been lost. There is no self-loathing, there is only a God-loving character about the examination of conscience. We put ourselves in God’s hand as we would put a broken watch in the hand of a watch maker, certain that he will not ruin it, but will make it function well.
The closer we get to God, the more we see our defects. A painting reveals few defects under candlelight, but the sunlight may reveal it as a daub. It is true that we do find ourselves quite unlovable in the examination of conscience, but it is this that makes us want to love God because He is the only One Who loves the unlovable.
When one has finished the examination of conscience, there may be a load to drag into the confessional, which is sometimes called the “box.” If it is a “box,” it is not Pandora’s for at the bottom of it is hope. Then we realize that we are bringing it to Christ Himself. It is wonderful to know that there is one place where we can taste the freedom of heaven, where a man can be spared the hypocrisy of maintaining a pose. There comes the joy of knowing that neither the penitent nor the priest ever recalls the sin confessed. A shutter drops. Something is put into a well, and a cover is laid on it forever.
In the early Church, sins which were committed publicly were confessed publicly. This survives in the “Roman Pontifical,” in a ceremony called “The Expulsion of Public Penitents on Ash Wednesday”; another ceremony is called, “The Reconciliation of Penitents on Maundy Thursday”; and still another special rite is used for the absolution of those who have been publicly excommunicated. Though public sins in the early Church were confessed publicly, secret sins were confessed secretly and under the seal.
Sorrow for Sin: Contrition
The other sacraments demand that the subject has proper dispositions, but they do not constitute the matter of the sacrament. In Penance, sorrow is not only a condition, it is the matter itself; for without the sorrow for sin, forgiveness is not granted.
The priest gives absolution from sins in the sacrament provided there is sufficient sorrow of mind, or contrition, which is a hatred of the sin committed with the resolution not to sin again. The word contrition is taken from the Latin word which means to grind or pulverize; in an applied sense, it means being bruised in heart. Contrition is a sorrow of mind, not an emotional outburst or psychological remorse.
The prodigal son had gone through many emotional stages of remorse, particularly when he was feeding the swine, or realizing how much better the servants in his father’s house were. But the real sorrow did not come until it penetrated his soul with the resolution: “I will arise and go to my father.”
Sometimes it is said that all a Catholic has to do is go to Confession and admit his sins, and he will come out white as snow and then continue committing the same sins. This is a libel upon the sacrament for, where there is no purpose of amendment, there is no sorrow. The sins of such a penitent are not forgiven. The sorrow for sin necessarily includes a resolution not to sin again; this is not merely a wish which has no relationship to practice. Part of the act of contrition contains this amendment: “And I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to confess my sins, to do penance, and amend my life. Amen.” It means that here and now we take the resolution not to sin; we resolve to take all the means necessary for avoiding sin in the future, such as prayer and staying away from the occasions of sin. The absolution will not be efficacious if there is not in the sorrow this essential element, a purpose of amendment.
This does not imply an absolute certitude that no one will ever sin again, for that would be presumption. There are two ways to verify a firm purpose: one is to make up for the sin as soon as possible; for example, if one is guilty of sarcastic remarks against a neighbor, to seek the neighbor’s pardon or, if one has stolen, to return what has been stolen. The second is to avoid the occasions of sin, such as bad reading, evil companions, drinking parties, or any act that previously led us into sin.
There are two kinds of contrition: perfect and imperfect. Both are implied in the Act of Contrition which the penitent says in the confessional:
“And I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell,” [imperfect sorrow]; “but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who art all good and deserving of all my love” [perfect sorrow].
Two kinds of fear serve as the basis of distinction between the two kinds of contrition or sorrow: one is a servile fear, the other is a filial fear. A servile fear is a fear of punishment, which we justly deserve from a master whom we disobeyed. Filial fear is the fear that a devoted son might have for a loving father; namely, the fear of injuring him. Applying this to contrition, servile fear draws us toward God because of the dread of a punishment for sin, namely, hell. Filial fear is a dread of being separated from God, or of offending Him Whom we love.
Imagine twins who had disobeyed a mother in exactly the same way. One of the twins runs to the mother and says: “Oh, Mommy, I am sorry I disobeyed. Now I can’t go to the picnic, can I?” The other one throws her arms around the mother’s neck and weeps: “I’ll never hurt you again.” The first has imperfect contrition, the second perfect contrition.
Which kind of contrition, perfect or imperfect, is sufficient in sacramental Confession? Imperfect contrition is sufficient, though it is our belief that most penitents are sorry not because of the punishment their sins deserve from God, but rather because they heartily are sorry for having recrucified Christ in their hearts.
Suppose, however, that a person is in a state of mortal sin and is unable to go to confession; for example, a soldier who is ordered into battle. Would imperfect contrition then suffice for the forgiveness of sins? No, but perfect contrition would, if he had the resolution to receive sacramental confession at the earliest opportunity.
That makes a word about perfect contrition more imperative. The usual attitude of penitents is to make a personal equation between their own sins and the Crucifixion. Each one says in his heart as he receives the sacrament: “If I had been less proud, the crown of thorns would have been less piercing. If I had been less avaricious and greedy, His hands would have been dug less by the steel. If I had been less sensual, His flesh would not be hanging from Him like purple rags. If I had not wandered away like a lost sheep, in the perversity of my egotism, His feet would have been less driven with nails. I am sorry, not just because I broke a law: I am sorry because I wounded Him Who died out of love for me.”
Our Lord had to die on the Cross before the abysmal dimensions of sin could be appreciated. We do not see the horror of sin in the crimes paraded in the press, nor in the great crises of history, nor in the wholesale violence of persecutors. We see what evil is only when we see Goodness nailed to the Cross. If any of us says in our heart, “I am not as bad as those who crucified Him,” we are forgetting that they did not crucify Our Lord; sin did. They were our representatives, our ambassadors, that day at the court of Satan. We empowered them with the right to crucify.
One look at the crucifix, therefore, is a double revelation! A revelation of the horror of sin and the love of God. The worst thing that sin can do is not to kill children or bomb cities in nuclear warfare; the worst thing that sin can do is to crucify divine love. And the most beautiful thing that Love can do, at the moment of crucifixion, is to extend to us forgiveness in the priestly prayer to His heavenly Father: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
In perfect contrition, we become tremendously impressed with the infinite endurance of Our Lord to suffer the worst that evil can inflict, and then pardon his enemies. He certainly did not teach us to be indifferent to sin, because He took its full consequences upon Himself. He paid for it, but on the other hand, there was mercy with that justice. He offered forgiveness in the hope that we would repent out of gratitude for His payment of the debt which our sins created.
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