The Art of Confessing – PART ONE
by Fr Chery O.P.
THESE WORDS are not addressed to the “big sinners” who come before Christ to relieve themselves of a great burden. They are not even addressed to Catholics who are making their annual Easter confession. But these lessons may be helpful for those people who have the “habit” of weekly, bimonthly or monthly confession.
“Habit” is a colorless word if it signifies only a praiseworthy regularity; it is a cold word if it signifies routine. And sadly, everyone knows that a praiseworthy regularity easily degenerates into something routine.
The majority of penitents lament the miserable banality of their confessions, the small amount of fruit derived, and sometimes even their little interest in the exhortation that the confessor addresses to them when they come to find him. Some have disgust for it, confess only by custom, and finally end up spacing their recourse to the sacrament of penance in a way that is prejudicial to their spiritual progress.
This disgust, and its consequences, do these not come from those who do not know how to confess? There is a manner, an “art,” that could make this regular exercise into a serious means of sanctification.
In writing these lines, we have particularly thought of the numerous young people who seek to live a true Christianity in a generous effort of sincerity. Not yet habituated, they suffer from a horror of routines, and they reject formalities. They are right. But they need to know that formalism is introduced through the fault of the ‘users,’ and I dare say, that it depends on them to keep intact, or lose, their religious vitality, for want of a personal effort.
The rites are conveyors of life, but only to the living.
The use of confession, if it is well understood, can be a serious support for the development of the spiritual life.
But first, since we are going to speak of confession, and nothing but confession [accusation of sins], it is necessary to carefully note that this is not the whole sacrament of penance, that it is not even the principal element. This principal element consists of a regret, an accusation, an absolution, a reparation. The sacrament is constituted essentially by an absolution effacing the fault of a heart that repents. If a penitent, on his deathbed for example, cannot [verbally] express his accusation, the sacrament can [still] take place [even] from this [unspoken] accusation; it cannot take place without regret. God, for His part, can effect the sacrament (in the absence of any priest qualified to give it): (but) He cannot save a soul in spite of itself, or remit a sin that someone obstinately refuses to regret.
Such people for whom the essential seems to be their accusation will do well to remember it. The priest exhorts them to contrition, to the means to be considered so as not to fall back into their fault, but once their accusation has been made they seem not to follow him, distracted as they are by the concern to enunciate such and such other sin that did not initially come to their lips. If it were a matter of a serious fault, it would be normal not to withdraw before expressing it; but most often it is a matter of venial faults. One mainly worries about being complete; but it is necessary above all to be contrite.
Consequently, in the few moments usually spent preparing for confession, it will be good not to give everything to the examination of conscience, but even more to implore the grace of God, in order to obtain a sincere regret for one’s faults, and to express in advance one’s contrition and the intention not to fall again.
To whom am I going to address myself when I go to confession?
First response: to a priest. I am deliberately using this general term to emphasize that the primordial importance in the use of the sacrament of penance must be granted not to the qualities of the man who hears confessions, but to his quality as minister of Christ. Because we lack faith, we excessively attach ourselves to the human value of the confessor, a real, objective value, or a value that attributes to him our sympathy and our confidence.
Whether this is to be taken into consideration is undeniable, but from a point of view which is, so to speak, on the margins of the sacrament.
This comes into play for the counsel that will follow the accusation and precede absolution. But the sacrament is not constituted by this counsel; it can even do without it. The important thing is to deal with the Christ who holds forgiveness, with the living Christ acting in his Church. Every priest who has received from the Church the powers to absolve you validly, acts in persona Christi, in the name of Christ. He opens for your soul the spring of pardon – which is the Blood of the Redeemer Christ – and He washes it in this Blood.
Erroneous for lack of faith is therefore the attitude of such penitents who delay liberating themselves from a serious sin or who indefinitely delay a confession which would release them from a growing malaise (by purifying the infection that spreads little by little) because “their confessor” is not there. If they had an understanding of what the sacrament is – sovereignly valuable in its purifying work, independent of the quality of the confessor who is before all else the “minister of Christ,” that is to say, the ear of Christ to hear the admissions, the wisdom of Christ to judge, and the mouth of Christ to pronounce the remission – they would attach themselves less to the human appearances and not delay at all.
It is appropriate here to mention why I must admit my faults to a priest instead of contenting myself with an admission directly expressed to God in the intimacy of my heart. This is because I am a member of the Church.
My fault has offended God and diminished myself: it is a lack of the love that I owe to my Creator and to the virtuous love that I must show for the child of God that I am. And it also harmed the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. “Every soul that raises itself, raises the world.” Likewise, every Christian who sins upsets the perfection of the Christian community. The most obscure of sins causes a wound to the tree of which I am a branch. Whether I detach myself from the tree completely by mortal sin, or whether I separate myself only a little, the entire tree suffers. I rise from the Church in my vitality, for God has entrusted his graces to the Church for me. I should, therefore, also rise to escape my fault.
In the early centuries this responsibility before the Church was more obvious, since accusation was public and professed before the entire community. Presently, the discipline has softened, but it is always before the Church that I accuse myself – through the person of the priest who hears me, and the Church from which I receive reconciliation through the ministry of the priest who absolves me.
I thus confess to the priest because he is a priest. This does not prevent me from choosing him as humanly capable of understanding and advising me. We are not speaking here, since it is not our aim, of that which is called (a little improperly perhaps) “direction.” Even while remaining strictly on the plane of confession, it is surely better for the progress of the soul if it usually addresses itself to the same confessor. After some time (provided we have followed the advice we shall give later concerning the manner of accusing ourselves), he (the same confessor) knows whom he is dealing with. He knows your tendencies and your habitual weaknesses. Even if you have little to say, he knows what points should be insisted upon in his exhortations. Little by little you have revealed the difficulties with which you are struggling: your particular situation. He does not risk, as would a stranger who does not understand you, perplexing you by an untimely remark. At a difficult moment in your life, he can stop you from making a dangerous fall. And at any time, he is able to suggest to you appropriate decisions to get out of your torpor if you let yourself fall asleep.
How should you choose him?
Above all, he needs good sense and right judgment. Also, holy if this is possible – this is clear – but a balanced and insightful priest will always be preferable to another of a more fervent life with less sound judgment.
Do not forget that you seek a counselor, and that as is the wisdom of the counselor, so is the value of his advice. But as he is also one who leads, you ought to desire that he be demanding. A good-natured confessor who merely lulls you with soothing words or sends you away with absolution and a general exhortation, would risk leaving you to languish in your sin or your serious imperfections.
This is why it is necessary, if need be, to encourage the confessor to this beneficial requirement and to humbly accept his invitations to effort. You will recall that the first condition for him to be useful to you is that you trust him. You can have the best confessor in the city; but if you cannot open yourself up to him frankly, he can do nothing for you. You should thus choose him so that you do not feel paralyzed in his presence and that you readily consider him as a father, perceptive, capable of realizing your situation and to interest himself in it, open to the realities of life, sure in his diagnoses, and of firm goodness in his counsel.
If you do not find him (one such ideal priest), do not be much distressed. Go to a priest1: he has the grace of state. The Holy Ghost will use him anyway for your best good, provided you are listening.
If you do find the ideal priest, do not easily switch from him. While remaining fully free from another choice, do not let yourself be “undone” by a few impressions, all the more by some crushing of self-esteem or by some of his demands. Persevere until you have positive proof that you are making no progress in his school, despite a loyal and constant effort on your part.