I remember my first confession. I was a convert to the Catholic Church. Having been baptized prior to my conversion, and due to odd circumstances which prevented my confirmation/chrismation from occurring for a few years, I was granted a rare privilege of going to confession before my reception into the Catholic Church. Most pre-baptized converts will confess right before their reception, so the administration of the Mystery of Repentance/Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation to someone not officially a Catholic is not unheard of, provided that they are, indeed, becoming Catholic.
Anyways, I think the hardest part of my confession was waiting in line for it. I remember staring at this examination of conscience pamphlet produced by the Fathers of Mercy, looking at all of the sins. As I read each one, I grew more nervous and fearful. But the hardest part was the wait! Sitting in line waiting to tell the priest my sins. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, I finally get to walk into the confessional.
It wasn’t a proper confessional, so to speak, but rather a room that they were using to hear confessions. Regardless, I speak to the priest and inform him that this is my first confession and that I would like to become Catholic. I had never seen a man so excited in my life. I pulled out the pamphlet and asked him if it was alright if I used it to help me. So I go through each one and as I tell him each sin, he gives a bit of advice. But I eventually finish my confession, 15 minutes later. However, what I remembered the most was the feeling of having this heavy weight lifted from my shoulders and how clean my heart felt afterward. I walked out of that confessional feeling like a new man. Because I was.
CONFESSION IS A SECOND BAPTISM
Baptism is the sacrament where we are brought into the Church by the literal and spiritual washing away of our sins. But as sinners, we stain our souls with our misdeeds and sometimes we even commit sins that cut us off from the grace of God completely! In this way, we excommunicate ourselves (literally: cut ourselves off from communion) and the only way to be brought back into communion is to be forgiven of the sins that separated us, to begin with. To do that, we need to first be truly sorry for our sins, resolve to sin no more, and resolve to repair whatever damage we have caused by our sins. It is then and only then we can be forgiven. Because anything less than that isn’t true repentance.
But when we sincerely repent, and we go to confession, we are forgiven of our sins, and those sins are wiped off of our souls, and it is just like we had been baptized all over again.
SO, HOW IS CONFESSION MADE POSSIBLE?
By, Jesus’s death on the cross of course! And it is also through His resurrection. When Christ died for our sins, He died for all who sincerely repent of their sins so that they may live in the newness of life. It is only because Christ paid the price for our sins, that is, death, we can live. Without the cross, the tomb, and the resurrection, there would be no forgiveness of sins. All sins that were forgiven by God in the past, in the present, and in the future, were made possible by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. We are only saved by His grace, not by any work that we do.
Yet, even with sincere repentance, we are still unworthy of forgiveness. It is only through the supreme mercy of God that He pardons our transgressions, our offenses against Him, numerous as they are. After all, if someone offended us the same amount that we offend God, we would find it hard to forgive someone. People have been executed for much less, after all. However, my point isn’t to show how unworthy we are, but rather show how great God’s mercy and goodness is since He forgives us for all of our transgressions when we truly repent.
CONFESSION ENABLES OUR SPIRITUAL LIFE
I was living in mortal sin for a little while in my life. How can one be spiritual with God while in a state of sin? You can’t. Our spiritual life is based on us trying to grow closer to God through prayer and repentance. If we are doing things that we know separate us from God, we are doing the exact opposite. Even worse, if we do those things, and are knowingly in a state of mortal sin, yet still go to communion, it is even worse!
The receiving the Eucharist both physically and spiritually unites ourselves to Christ. Yet, if we eat and drink the Eucharist in a state of sin, rather than eating and drinking salvation, we are eating and drinking judgment and damnation upon ourselves. In fact, St. Paul writes this:
26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
Yes, the sacrilege of receiving unworthily can even induce physical ailments and even death!
Why is it a sacrilege? Every sacrament comes from the sacrifice of the Cross. Baptism and Confession are the most obvious, but every sacrament is tied to the cross and is made possible only because of the cross. The Eucharist is more than bread and wine transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ. The Eucharist is actually the entire service of thanksgiving, i.e. the Divine Liturgy is rightly and properly the Eucharist. And in this Eucharist, we are brought back to the death of Christ on the Cross for our sins. By receiving unworthily, we are making a mockery of His death. We are, in essence, saying that Christ died in vain since I can be united to Him without being forgiven of the sins I have committed/am committing. I am now taking my salvation for granted and even worse, not discerning the body and blood (i.e. the sacrifice, not just the real presence). This is why receiving unworthily is considered such a mockery. It is one thing to have committed venial sins, as those do not take us out of communion with God. It is another thing to physically unite ourselves to God when we are spiritually out of communion. That is why receiving worthily is actually a big deal.
And this is why confession is so important. When we commit a mortal sin, all we have to do is sincerely repent, confess our sins, and receive absolution. This prevents us from eating and drinking unworthily.
CONFESSION IS NOT A CRUTCH
When I was a Protestant, I had the mindset that since I was already “saved,” I could commit sins without any consequences. When I became Catholic, I learned that we had a bad rap for doing the exact same thing. The only difference was that we confess our sins to a priest for forgiveness rather than just assume forgiveness. If we go to confession insincerely, I assure you that we are not only not forgiven for what we have confessed, but we also commit a great sin of sacrilege. At this point, we are no longer seeking God’s mercy, but rather going through a ritual that lets us go to communion. There is also another sin, called presuming on God’s mercy, in which we say something along the lines of “I can eat this meat today,” or “I can watch this porn,” or even “I can hit that person,” because “I can just go to confession later and be forgiven of it.” Essentially, you are committing a sin with the intention of making an insincere confession. When you repent of that sin, on top of the other sin you committed, then you can have a sincere confession.
God has given us this wonderful sacrament of mercy and peace, but it is up to us to not abuse it.
HOW OFTEN SHOULD I GO?
The most famous answer is “as often as you need to.” However, I will say that there are two camps of people. Those who go to confession way too much (rare, but still exist) and those who do not go enough (the vast majority of people). The people who go too much are the ones with tendencies to scrupulosity, who go to confession every 3 days or so. Really, what is recommended to most people is that if you are not committing mortal sins, you should go to confession at least on a monthly basis. Some people recommend going weekly. It is truly something you should work out with your spiritual father. Going weekly will benefit some people without a doubt, but there are others who, by going weekly, turn it into a ritual that actually causes them to sin more. As crazy as that sounds, going too much could lead someone into a presumption of God’s mercy.
Here is a scenario. Confessions are held before liturgy each Sunday. You have a sin you commit on a frequent basis. You go to confession, are absolved, and then go to communion. You get home from church and go on to sin for the remainder of the week because you know that you will be able to confess your sins and approach communion. In fact, some people only use the confessional because mortal sins cut us off from communion. Not surprisingly, if people in mortal sins were allowed to go to communion, the lines for confession would be much smaller. It is our human nature: we do not like admitting that we are wrong.
However, the mindset of going to confession just to be able to receive communion is a dangerous one. The reality is that when we are in mortal sin, we are liable to the fires of hell. Again, I reiterate, if we are not forgiven of our mortal sin, we will go to hell. While wishing to receive Jesus is not wrong, don’t go to confession for just that purpose, but out of heartfelt sorrow for offending God.
But, at the end of the day, it is better to avoid sin than to ask forgiveness. How do we do this? By prayer and fasting of course!