By Br. Alexis Bugnolo
I could have entitled this article, How to make a good confession, but that title is so commonly used as to mean almost nothing. So in this article I want to talk about making a valid confession, on account of what that adjective means.
Valid comes from the Latin adjective, validus, which means having the strength to prevail to accomplish what was intended to be done. The word remains in some forms of speech, such as, He was a valid candidate for special forces training.
Valid therefore implies effectiveness and strength as well as real, in the sense of valuable and worth it.
A Valid Confession
In manuals of moral theology and of sacramental theology, the term, valid confession, is used to signify the reception of the Sacrament of Penance which is efficacious to obtain the forgiveness of sins. And this is generally held to occur under certain circumstances which are easily obtained: (1) confession of the sins, according to kind and number, (2) sorrow for having offended God, (3) fear of eternal damnation, (4) resolution to sin no more and do the penance prescribed.
But Saint Alphonsus de Liguori counsels confessors that they should not so lightly judge a penitent well disposed, they should put him to the test.
And if the priest knew well the sources and causes of every vice, then he would be well prepared to put penitents to the test.
But not all priests are so familiar with all sins, because, sad to say, there is much about sins which only is known by the one committing them, even if the one committing them knows least of all the reasons not to commit them!
For that reason it is more important today, that you, the one confessing properly prepare yourself, because it will be most likely that the priest won’t know how to help you. It may even be that he does not want to help you prepare.
Sad to say, but true, the modern practice of the Sacrament of Penance is badly distorted from its Catholic foundations. Why it is not even called “Penance” any more. It is called, reconciliation, as term which implies that you have some comparable dignity to God to entreat with Him. Also the Sacrament is presented as a self-help dump-your-guilt-and-get-on-with-life ritual, which is as appealing to the normal human being as seeing a shrink: a vain form of self exhibitionism. If that is what you are seeking, do not read this Article. What I write here is for those who want to get to Heaven. Those who want to dump their guilt and get on with life in this world are in the chains of the devil and it is much better than they never receive the Sacrament in that spirit than abuse it with such a vicious mindset.
A Confession is more serious than a visit to the Hospital
But everyone should take the occasion of going to Confession as something much more serious than going to the Hospital or seeing your doctor. And you should approach the Sacrament with as much necessity and urgency as if you had a very painful toothache which drove you to see a Dentist. This is because not only of what it can do for your soul and body — save it from eternal damnation — but how powerful it can be for your eternal destiny. For some Saints one single confession set them on the path to holiness and transformed their life for ever. And this is the goal of this Sacrament, which in its own way, can be more efficacious personally to you than any other Sacrament after Baptism and Chrism (Confirmation).
Thus, all of us should go to Confession as soon as possible and with the right preparation. If we consider that if we do not get it right, our confession will merit us another mortal sin and another worse punishment in this world and in Hell, then we should prepare carefully. We should be more careful the more the priest who is hearing confessions is less experienced or foolish as to give everyone absolution. A thing which Saint Alphonsus dei Liguori says is a gross abuse, but a thing for which Modernists bishops will severely punish any priest to attempts to deny anyone the Sacrament even when badly or not properly disposed.
The Causes of a valid Confession are the starting point
The causes of a valid confession are the starting point for a good examination of conscience, without which a good confession cannot be made. I say it is the starting point, because knowledge is not sufficient for a valid confession. You also have to be seriously and honestly repentant.
The examination of conscience in modern times consists in giving the penitent a list of the 10 commandments written at the level of perhaps a 6th grader and asking yourself if you did anything on the list. This is atrocious malpractice.
Examining one’s conscience should rather look at the entire cause of the act, the decision to do the act and the reasons or motives which led to the act.
I mean by, the act, the sinful act. Many fixate on how many times they did it, but not on the gravity of consent in doing it. Was it premeditated or spontaneous, was it done with light or intense passion or emotion. Did the act harm others, was the act done in a circumstance wherein it disedified others. Usually one act is much more grave than it appears on account of whom it harms, when it was done, and the levity or gravity it was one with.
Did you make it aware or unaware. Did you act under the influence outside you, or of emotions within, on the basis of faulty knowledge, mistaken judgements. It is not often, especially in modern times, that sins are made without thinking, due to the habit many have of practicing never to think of the morality of things, never to make judgements upon whether an act is evil or good. This is a grave vice, and is a sign that you are failing in faith or have lost the grace of God entirely. To live as an atheist, is to be an unbeliever. But to recognize evil as evil and good as good, is to recognize that God alone is Good and worthy of all love and obedience.
THE REASONS OR MOTIVES
If you with levity committed a mortal sin, that makes it very serious, because it shows that your entire conscience is darkened by a disdain or lack of valuation placed on things eternal, such as your own salvation, and on things divine, such as God’s Majesty and your duty to him. A mortal sin done with levity indicates, therefore, that the sinner is probably gravely failing in his duties as a Catholic.
If you committed mortal sin with great and intense passion, that makes it very serious in another way, because it indicates that your will is utterly depraved and lacks the charity for God, neighbor and yourself, to restrain violent movements. This is a strong indication that you were in mortal sin before committing the act, by reason of other sins or the same sin previously done but never repented of.
If you fell into the same sin, it indicates that you have not yet discovered the causes of your sinning in previous occasions, and most likely never resolved firmly to repent of them. Remember, it is not possible to resolve not to do something, if you as of yet do not understand why you did it. An examination of conscience has to be very graphically honest. Many fail here because they put the blame on some thing or some person or some occasion, when in truth a man sins only because his judgement is corrupted by attachments to creatures, in such wise, as he is open to the possibility of committing acts of idolatrous sacrifice — in this case of his own eternal salvation — to worship at their altars.
CONFESSION OF SINS
So a good examination of conscience must include the following:
- Identify the kind and number of sins
- Identify the evil loves or attachments on account of which you decided to sin
- Identify the truths which you ignore or are ignorant of, which would have given your conscience light to say what you were about to do was evil
It is more important that you confess the kind of sin than the number, because you can always tell the confessor that the exact number of times is unknown or vaguely known. But you cannot conceal the kind of sin, though this does not mean you have to be graphic in your description.
SORROW FOR SIN
But more important than this first step, is the second: being truly sorry for your sin. This can only be achieved by a humble comparison of what you did and what you merit for it. And in this step, do not even consider the Mercy of God, because your sin merits no mercy. And if you do not become truly sorry, you will never get the Mercy promised in the Sacrament.
- Contemplate the eternal damnation which you merited for each mortal sin, or which you risk by each venial sin
- Grieve in your heart and soul until you produce strong and stinging remorse for your sins, whether you cry or not. This can only be had by recognizing that sin offends a God of Infinite Majesty, and as high is His Majesty so, so profound is the punishment for rebellion against Him.
It is not nothing that the term for the proper kind of sorrow is called, contrition, from the Latin verb to crush to dust. You should strive in your Examination of conscience to crush your pride, topple your interior idols, and wring out your soul in tremendous sorrow for having done such evil, so easily, so carelessly, so quickly, so glibly. For this one needs to recognize profoundly that in truth we can do nothing meritorious, that the only thing which is really of our own making, in the moral order, is sin. That we are indeed in comparison to the Holy Angels a pile of crap, without God’s grace to transform us into holy sons of God. That of ourselves we can not repent or practice virtue without the help and grace of God.
Contrition, thus, implies the prayer of petition, humbly made, as by a beggar on death’s door, before the throne of an Infinite God of Justice who will take no excuse. Unlike the false images of mercy bandied about, you cannot obtain mercy unless you first exact justice upon yourself, in a just judgement of what you have done, and what you are worthy of.
FEAR OF DAMNATION
For this reason, contrition cannot exist or rise up in the soul without FEAR of eternal damnation. Fear of ETERNAL damnation and fear of eternal DAMNATION. All three are necessary. It has to be the sentiment and emotion of fear, the mere intellectual recognition will never produce contrition. It has to regard damnation, not just a slap on the wrist. And that means you have to already fear Hell. If you do not fear Hell, then you are probably in the state of mortal sin already, and this should be an alarm bell to your soul. And it has to regard the eternity of Hell, because the gravity of offending an infinite God is not perceived unless one recognizes the eternity of punishment for it as proportionate and just. And this means you should meditate on Hell before every Confession.
FIRM PROPOSAL TO CHANGE ONE’S LIFE
The final cause of a valid confession is that when you approach to confess you have already resolved never to sin again. If you do not have that intention DO NOT go to confession, because you will commit a mortal sin of deceit. This kind of mortal sin of deceit is very common, because so many confess to be relieved of the sense of guilt, not of the vice which produced the sin or the sin itself.
This proposal must include never to commit the sin again, to make reparation for the sin, to repair the injustice suffered by others on account of your sin or your bad example. Failing in any of these, and you probably are not really sorry for your sin, you just want to use the Sacrament to pretend you are not guilty for your sins any more.
And do not fool yourself. If you do not know why you sinned, if you do not recognize the errors which you embraced which allowed yourself to excuse yourself so as to commit the sin, if you do not know the moral law well enough to know the sins which led you to your sin, then you cannot possibly have a firm proposal.
This is the PRINCIPAL reason why one should find a holy priest to be one’s confessor, and a learned priest. The combination is very rare, but better a holy priest who is ignorant than a learned priest who is not holy. Because the latter will give you excuses, while the former will give you harder penances. It is when you are in the confessional with the priest, that you should ask for advice how to firmly propose not to sin again, and beg him to convince you of that, otherwise do not accept Absolution, but rather tell him you are not prepared.
When we approach the Sacrament of Penance properly we obtain a miracle of grace, the forgiveness of our sins and the restoration of our souls to eternal life. If we ask Christ, in our hearts, at the time of absolution for the virtues to never sin again, especially those contrary to our sins, we can obtain these virtues back too, in proportion to our sorrow for sin and our sorrow for having offended Him who is infinite Love Itself.
The Sacrament of Penance properly received, therefore, is the greatest enemy of Satan.
Use it frequently, use it well.
A CORRECT ACT OF CONTRITION
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee,
And I detest all my sins, not only because by them
I have merited everlasting damnation in Hell,
But most of all because I have offended Thee,
Who are infinitely Good and worthy of all my love.
Therefore, trusting in Thy Grace, I firmly resolve to sin no more,
to avoid the near occasion of these sins
and to do penance for them. Amen.
CREDITS: The Featured Image is a photo taken by Br. Bugnolo of a wooden confessional at the Basilica of the Most Holy Savior, St John Lateran, here at Rome. The inscription reads: For those confessing in Italian.
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