The Principal Catholic Practices, Chapter 3 – Going to Confession

The Principal Catholic Practices, by Father George Thomas SchmidtPreparation. Contrition. Accusation. Scrupulous Conscience

“I am going to confession.” With what varied emotions these words are uttered! To some the thought of going to confession is very consoling, for it brings with it the definite conviction that they will be purified in the holy sacrament and that God’s sweet peace will descend upon their hearts. But not a few look forward to confession as a great trial attended by nerve-wrecking worries and fears.

It is for the purpose of making confession easy and consoling to all who read the following pages, that they are written.

In the first place, a good confession, one that eases the conscience, postulates a suitable preparation. It is not a vain and ineffectual practice to go to confession. But it is that great and momentous undertaking whereby the creature, with suppliant knee and contrite heart, begs the Creator for forgiveness of the sins that condemn him to eternal hell. It is that sublime act of divine love wherein the almighty God stoops down to His erring subject, raises him from his knees, and clasps him to His bosom in fatherly forgiveness. Truly, then, this sacrament is worthy of most conscientious preparation.

Because we are dealing directly with God – for after all the priest is only God’s vicar – it is becoming that we seek the aid of the Holy Spirit so that we may properly place our cause before the Most High.

We now review our past life since our last worthy confession. Some people prefer to follow the commandments of God and the precepts of the Church in examining their conscience. And this is perhaps the easiest method. Others, especially those who frequently receive the sacrament of Penance, find it more convenient to review their daily activities at work, in the home, and in company. In examining the conscience, the sins that are known to be mortal sins – i.e., transgressions of the law of God committed with full knowledge, free will, and in an important matter – should be remembered with numbers and any circumstances that render the sins more grievous. Thus, for instance, a sin of impurity committed with a relative adds to the crime the guilt of incest.

It is not at all necessary that we consume hours in examining our conscience. For the person who approaches the sacrament monthly, fifteen minutes will prove to be ample time for a conscientious examination.

When you have thoroughly searched your soul for the sins that render it displeasing to God, you should not at once rush into the confessional; but you should first make a good act of contrition; i.e., an act of deep sorrow for your sins, with the firm purpose of amending your life and atoning for wrongs done. In the writer’s experience as a confessor he has observed that great numbers go to the confessional without having previously made an act of contrition. They seemed to think that contrition expressed by them after the recital of sins is ample and sufficient for the requirements of the sacrament. And indeed it would be if we could be certain that what we were saying was really an act of contrition, an act of sincere sorrow such as is demanded for the worthy reception of the sacrament. But, have you not often found that after the priest had given you a penance, your thoughts were clinging to the words of his counsel, or were busied with parts of your accusation? How could you hope to make a good act of contrition under these circumstances? Besides, the time between the actual confession of guilt and the absolution by the priest is so short that only those who frequently make an act of contrition will be able to do so in the brief time allotted them. Therefore it is urgently advised that we strive to excite a real sorrow for our sins before we approach the confessional.

Theologians distinguish between perfect and imperfect contrition. As far as the pain of sorrow in our hearts is concerned, it may be equally great in either case. But the motive, that which makes us feel sorry, is what renders the quality of contrition perfect or imperfect.

Ordinarily we would not feel sorry for our sins, for our fallen nature is inclined to sin, and actually believes it is acquiring a good by sinning. But an act of contrition is not guided by any natural motive, but by a supernatural one. If that motive is the fear of God’s punishment, the fear of hell, purgatory, or some temporal visitation of the Lord in life, we at once see that the motive is selfish. We are not so much concerned about God’s offended dignity as about the welfare of our body and soul. And because our motive is less noble, our contrition is imperfect. However, such contrition suffices for the sacrament of Penance.

But where is the genuine Catholic who is satisfied with imperfect contrition? It should be our aim to make our contrition perfect. It is made perfect by the motive. We are heartily sorry for our sins and firmly determined not to commit them again, not merely because we fear punishment, but because we realize that we have been wretchedly ungrateful to a merciful and loving Father. Our mind recounts the great manifestations of God’s love for man. We see again the hardships and privations of Bethlehem; our fancy recalls the terrible tragedy of Calvary. As we see the God-man hanging on the cross, reviled and insulted by His tormentors, suffering the most excruciating pain, we ask Him, “Why, O God, dost Thou endure so much? Couldst Thou not descend from the cross and confound Thy enemies?” And He answers us: “I cannot, for a greater power than steel and iron holds me fast – it is love.” In order to save me from everlasting pain in hell my Saviour took upon Himself the cruel torture of the passion, and that in spite of the fact that He clearly foresaw my sins and black ingratitude. Can we behold this magnanimous love of God for us and not be stirred to the very depths of our soul? Can we accept this unbounded love and not return our affection? In the light of love the hideousness and foulness of our sins stand out in all their hatefulness. We see the disgusting ingratitude of our hearts; we determine never again to offend our loving God; our being is truly filled with love – we have perfect contrition. How much the more purifying and consoling will our confession be if we earnestly strive to make an act of perfect contrition!

We then approach the holy tribunal of penance to acknowledge our sins. With the humble Bless me Father, for I have sinned,” we prostrate ourselves before our confessor and sincerely and completely tell the sins as we know them, being careful not to exaggerate nor minimize their guilt. The willful omission of one mortal sin renders our confession incomplete and therefore unworthy. The fear of betraying the inmost secrets of our heart should not influence the integrity of our accusation, for we know that the priest is bound by the seal of confession, and may not under any circumstances whatsoever betray the least of our sins.

Having confessed our sins, we humbly give our attention to the counsel of the priest, willingly accept whatever penance he imposes, and when he raises his hand preparing to speak the words of omnipotence absolving us from our crimes, we may renew our contrition.

But some one will say: “That is all very well, as far as it goes, but priests are not always so kind and fatherly. They are sometimes very irascible and find fault with everything, so that confession becomes a dreadful ordeal.”

It is true, some priests make confession hard for their penitents. This may be due to several reasons, chief among which is the fact that priests are human beings subject to fatigue and the weaknesses of human nature. If one or the other penitent finds confession to be a dreadful ordeal, you may be sure that it is no sinecure for the priest, who must sit and listen to hundreds. And if the priest seems stern and exacting, he may only be zealous for your soul’s welfare, for perhaps he realizes that indulgence and the utter failure to set you aright may be the means of repeated unworthy confessions and your ultimate damnation. One thing is certain, he will do you no bodily harm, for a screen separates penitent from confessor. If he seems to be unduly exercised over your failings, remember that his severity would be but mildly comparable to the sternness and anger of the just God had you died in the state of mortal sin.

But really there is a class of people for whom confession is a great trial, not merely because of the sternness of the priest, but also because they leave the confessional dissatisfied and without that peace of heart that should go with a good confession. I refer to those afflicted with a scrupulous conscience. The desire to avoid everything sinful and to confess all our failings with exactness is not termed scrupulousness. That is merely conscientiousness. But the constant wavering between right and wrong; the fear of sinning where others do not think of sin; the desire to repeat sins over and over again – these are the signs of scrupulousness. Those who are thus afflicted also would like to go from the confessional with peace in their hearts and their minds at rest. For their benefit the following is written.

First of all, you must know that scrupulousness is not a fault; rather it is a disease; and in many cases is curable. It may be due to disorders of the nervous system arising from the improper functioning of certain organs of the body. Realizing that it is a disease of the soul, it is your duty to try to cure the malady. Now the physician of the soul is the priest. To him you must go, and place yourself absolutely under his guidance. He will undertake to cure you under one condition; that is, that you promise to obey him in all things. If he says not more than fifteen minutes are to be consumed in examining your conscience, you must obey. If he tells you not to repeat your former confessions or sins of your past life, you must not attempt to do so. If you have disobeyed him, do not go to some strange priest to conceal your disobedience; but go to your regular confessor, admit your fault, and renew your promise of obedience.

But why this absolute obedience to the confessor, even when he tells us to do that which apparently seems to be a carelessness in making our confession? First, because the scrupulous person has not a reliable conscience, and you may be sure that the priest, who is eminently qualified to direct him, will not suggest anything that militates against true conscientiousness. Secondly, common sense tells us that we cannot expect a cure if we act contrary to the directions of our physician. The priests of the Church have had much experience with scrupulous penitents; they have studied the disease, and know the most reliable remedies.

But the scrupulous person himself can aid materially in bringing about a rapid cure. He should not shun company, but should seek out the society of good people and mingle freely with them. He should have plenty of exercise in the open air. Cold sponge-baths and electrical massages are also of great value in restoring a healthy condition to the body, which makes for a healthy mind.

Above all, do not despair. Rather accept your cross willingly from the hand of God in atonement for the sins of your past life. Pray daily that God may grant you the grace to bear your cross and eventually be relieved of it.

Following this advice most scrupulous penitents will live to see the day when for them, too, confession will be a great gift of God and the instrument of sweet consolation and peace of heart.