Bishop Austin Vaughn Highly Recommends:
by Bishop Austin B. Vaughn
What is the importance in our spiritual lives of confessing venial sins? We are talking about a confession where none of the matter is obligatory — either venial sins never before confessed or forgiven, or sins previously confessed and forgiven.
Such "devotional" confessions were strongly encouraged in the first 70 years of this century. Now they are sometimes discouraged, more often not encouraged because they are regarded (by some) as unnecessary, or focusing on trifles, or encouraging scrupulosity, or encouraging immaturity, or wasting a priest's time, or merely routine and hence impersonal.
In recent years, some encouragement has been given in devotional confession if it becomes a genuine spiritual experience, or if it provides some spiritual guidance. I believe in the value of spiritual guidance in the Sacrament of Penance because many people receive little or none of it elsewhere. I believe in the value of a priest's being friendly and helpful in Penance, because for many people it is their only personal contact with a priest. I believe that priests and penitents have an obligation to do what they can to make the sacrament in which they are worshipping God together more fruitful.
But I also would like to defend the value of "routine" devotional confessions, which often do not involve an identifiable spiritual experience. There are many times when the Sacrament of Penance will not be emotionally uplifting either because the penitent finds it hard to confess at all, or hard to confess some particular venial sins — or because the penitent is tired or distracted — or because the priest leaves much to be desired in his response, through his own fault or through nobody's fault — or because the penitent wants to get in and out in a hurry — or because there are long lines waiting, so the process cannot be slow and easy. There are times when both priest and penitent may be glad to get it over with.
Every use of the Sacrament of Penance is an implicit acknowledgment and reaffirmation of basic Catholic attitudes. Let me list just ten, although there are many more:
1) Every time I go to confession, I acknowledge that I am a sinner. I am not just a part of sinful humanity but I have sins of my own that were my own fault.
2) Every time I go to confession, I affirm implicitly that God's mercy is always available to me and that no sin is unforgivable.
3) Every time, I implicitly affirm that God's mercy comes through Christ. The most poorly instructed penitent knows that it is Jesus, not just the priest, who forgives his sins.
4) Every time, I implicitly affirm that God's mercy reaches me through the Church — that she is a mother who loves me in this sacrament, even when I cannot love myself, and that God Himself wants me to come to Him by sharing in the Church's life.
5) Every time I go to confession, I reaffirm that a priest is God's ministerin a unique way.
6) Every time I go, I implicitly reaffirm that I can do things with God's grace that I will never succeed in doing on my own. Otherwise a purpose of amendment would sometimes be meaningless.
7) Every time, I implicitly affirm that God wants me to face my sinssquarely, and say I am honestly sorry for them specifically. This means rejecting a part of my past life, so that the days ahead can be better than those behind.
8) Every time, I implicitly reaffirm that God expects me to do better, with and through His grace.
9) Every time, I implicitly reaffirm that He wants me to make up for my sins and those of others.
10) Every time a penitent goes to confession, he is implicitly drawn to reception of the Eucharist.
In a sense, devotional confession is our need for redemption come alive.
The Growth of Grace and Faith
We live in a time when things done out of habit are regarded as having less value than those done from careful, conscious choice. Sometimes when we do things routinely, we can forget why we started doing them in the first place. But many of our habitual actions contain judgments that are deeply a part of us, and that indicate how deeply faith in Jesus has permeated our lives. Frequent recourse to the Sacrament of Penance preserves our sensitivity to our own sins, and to our need for God's help. It also assures us as we struggle with temptations that God's mercy and grace are near.
Finally and most fundamentally we believe that reception of the sacrament brings a growth in grace, an increase of divine life in our souls. St. Thomas Aquinas explains this in theological terms: The infusion of God's grace elicits a new and more profound act of charity on the part of the penitent. The grace we receive in the Sacrament of Reconciliation may not necessarily bring forth from us a more intense emotional response to God, but it will deepen our commitment to the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity Who dwell within us.