PART II: Frequenting the Sacrament
by Father Paul K. Raftery, O.P.
Part II of III
As we saw in Part I of this Series of Three (3) Articles on Confession,
in this Sacrament, Our Blessed Lord has provided us with a
Remedy for our Spiritual Ills,
that is Particularly Adapted to the Needs of our Bodily Existence. For the
Spirit of Man, He comes to us with His Grace;
for the Body of Man, He comes with the
Voice and the Physical Presence of His
Human 'Instrument', the Priest. As with all the Sacraments,
Reconciliation addresses Man on both Physical and
Spiritual Levels. Jesus wants nothing to be Overlooked in
His Care for us, as Human Creatures. In the Article below, we will examine another Aspect of this Desire of
Our Lord, to provide us with a Sacrament for Sin,
most wonderfully suited to Human Nature: Confession as an Invaluable Aid, in the Pursuit of
There is a Whole Range of Moral Failings that can be found in the Condition of Man.
Sin, as we know, can come in Forms that are Deadly to the
Spirit, called Mortal. And here we find the Fundamental Need for the
Sacrament of Reconciliation. For these Sins, Confession
is especially designed. It is, above all, a "Rescue" Sacrament.
The Ancient Metaphor used, was of "a Plank after the Shipwreck". When the Devastation
of Sin is the Worst, there is the
Life-Saving Confessional to carry us back to Peace
and Safety, in God.
But Human Straying from God, as we also know, takes much Less-Dire Forms.
There are the 'Light' or 'Venial' Sins, that do not go so far as to cause
Spiritual Death to Man, in which the Rejection
of God has not been Complete. And even then, among such Lighter
Sins, some are done with a good deal more Awareness and Deliberation than others. Some are what have been commonly called
"Sins of Frailty", arising from Momentary Slips in Judgment, that One is usually able to avoid. There are
Annoying Habits, Attachments to Innocent Pleasures, and a Whole
Variety of Human Imperfections with varying Degrees of Sinfulness.
As we shall see below, there are other Remedies for these Lesser Spiritual
Ills, than the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But none are as-effective-as the use of the
Confessional. It is the Spiritual Tool, especially designed by
our Blessed Lord, through His Continual Guidance of the
Church, over the Centuries, to deal with
Sin, in all its Forms.
Nor should there be any Narrowing of the Full Extent of the Aid being given in the
Sacrament. It is coming from Christ Himself, the
One Teaching us to be Perfect, as our Heavenly Father
is Perfect. The Call to Holiness, that is Implicit in the
following of Christ, requires the Christian to leave behind,
as much as possible, even the Slightest of Sins. And with this High Standard in Mind, the Teaching of the
Church, expressing the very Intentions of the Savior, has
recommended the Confessional for dealing with not only Mortal,
but Venial Sin as well. To suggest anything less is somehow to diminish the Broad Reach, the wonderfully
Wide Cast of Divine Mercy, available in this Sacrament.
That Mercy, as we have said, is directed above all else to those most in Need.
His Heart goes out especially to those Separated-from Him, through
Mortal Sin. It is the Sheep who has Wandered Farthest from the Fold, that He is most-anxious
to Bring Back. This is where the Emphasis of the Sacrament must be. The True Greatness of what takes place in the
Confessional, is a Resurrection from the
One does not see this 'Greatness', in the use of the Confessional by the Devout Person, who has
already rooted-out Serious Sin from their Lives. They come to Confession
for further Purification, and Progress from 'Lesser' Goodness
to 'Greater'. Here there is the Beauty of Godís Mercy, leading
Souls on to 'Greater' and 'Greater' Perfection. This is the
Major Concern of our Present Topic, and an Important Aspect of Confession, not to be overlooked. But
this, it must be admitted, is not where the 'True Marvel' of Confession lies.
It is in Surmounting the Abyss between Death and
Life, that we have the Power of the Sacrament on Full Display.
For such is the Hidden Reality that will always be taking place when the Person in Mortal Sin, enters the
Confessional, and then leaves Forgiven. We see no
External Change. The Person himself feels no Radical Difference, apart from, which is not at all insignificant, Great
Consolation and Rejoicing, in Godís Mercy. But
if the Hidden Reality were capable of being Manifested in a Physical Way, we would be Witnessing the Spectacle
of a Man's Corpse being delivered into the Confessional, and that Man
We Marvel at the Story of Jesus calling-out Lazarus from the Tomb. Yet at our most Essential Level, that
of the Spirit, this same Dramatic Reality is taking place in Ordinary Celebrations of this
Sacrament. The Visual Impact of a Dead Man, coming from a Tomb is missing, but
the True Nature of what is taking place, is no-less Profound and Marvelous.
In fact, it is even more so. The Dead Man, coming back-to-Life, involves the Restoration of the
Body to Physical and Temporal Life.
But the Soul, coming back-from Mortal Sin, has
Eternal Consequences. There is a Never-ending Life in store for such a Man. There is the "Forever" aspect of
this Restoration, that makes the Human Gain so much more Exalted. The return from
Spiritual Death is, in Light of Eternal Salvation, a Tremendous
Drama, far greater than a Resurrection to Bodily Life could ever be. Where the Stakes are Higher, so too are
the Heights of Joy.
Such Profound Things are happening beneath the Level of the Senses! We can only get Hints, from
those who know such Marvels, first-hand, namely Our Lord and His Heavenly
Court. For, as the Gospel tells us, there is more Joy in
Heaven over One (1) Repentant
Sinner, than over Ninety-nine (99), who are in no need of
Repentance (Luke 15:7). Given the Nature of Mortal Sin, as Revealed in
Sacred Doctrine, this 'Saying' comes-across, not at all as Rhetorical Exaggeration. Rather, it strikes One as a Real Description
of what those who live-in the 'Realm-of-the-Spirit', experience. It is a Reaction of the most Jubilant kind. They behold, without the Slightest Hindrance,
the Spirit of a Man making that most Astounding of all Transformations, from a Condition of
Eternal Death, to One of Eternal Life.
Confronting Venial Sin
This is where we find Confession, then, at its most-Spectacular and its most-Desperately Needed aspect. But
after being Rescued-from Spiritual Death, the Journey of Man is far-from Ended.
He must continue on to Union with Him, Who is
Holiness itself. He must become Holy, as God is
Holy. And our Blessed Lord, through
His Church, has not been Remiss, in providing Man with Plentiful Helps, along the Way.
Saint Thomas gives an Overview of these Abundant Means of Forgiveness for Lighter
Sins. What makes them so-Abundant, arises from, in-part, the Nature of Venial Sin.
It is a hampering-of the Virtue of Charity. "By Venial Sin, Man's Affections are
Clogged, so that they are Slow, in Tending towards God" (III,87,1).
But there is still Charity, present-in the Soul. It has not
been Cast-out, as is the case with Mortal Sin. Provided there is at least Implicit
Sorrow for the Sin, any 'Reactivation' of the
Love for God, that had grown Lukewarm, is all that it takes to
Remove Venial Sin (III,87,2).
The Possibilities for this 'Reactivation', are many. Any Intent to turn from Sin,
expressed in Praying the Our Father, for example, or the
Confiteor (I Confess), will Free the
Soul from Lighter Sins. Any turning to God and
the Things of God, such as Blessing oneself with
Holy Water, or asking the Intercession of One of the Saints
for a Particular Need, will also cast-out these Lesser Offenses
Then there are the Sacraments. With any of these, there is an Infusion
of Grace. Instead of a Movement-of Charity from within the
Soul, a Bestowal-of Charity comes 'Externally' from
God. Thus, Receiving the Holy Eucharist, the
Sacrament of Anointing, or any of the other Sacraments will always Remit
Venial Sins for which there is at-least Implicit Remorse
(III,87,3). Essentially, in Guiding the
Church in its Whole Array of Rituals and Devotions,
Our Lord has provided Myriad Opportunities for the
Forgiveness of non-Mortal Sin.
(Resides in the Essence of the Soul)
(A Unity (1) of Body and Soul)
Supernatural Grace/Infused Virtues and Gifts of the Holy Spirit
A Supernatural Gift is a particular Grant of Almighty God to Rational Beings (Men or Angels) unwarranted by
Man's Nature, Natural Powers or Needs; a Grant therefore outside the limits of God's General Providence and consistent support of
Human Life and Human Activity. It may be received in the Soul itself, in the Soul's Faculties, or even in the Soul's Operations.
Wherever found, it is something added to God's Primal Gift of Creation, something impossible for unaided Nature to Merit or Achieve.
But, Forgiveness is One (1) Thing.
Another is the Infusion-of Grace, specifically designed-to Assist a Person, in
Fighting-against Sin. With the Trouble in Breaking certain Habits
of Sin, the Soul would get nowhere in its
Spiritual Journey, were it not for Divine Help, over-and-above Divine
This Special Grace is the Unique Contribution of the Sacrament of
Reconciliation, where it is Abundantly Present. As with all the Sacraments, there is
Imparted-with Confession a "Sacramental Grace", which is, as
Saint Thomas says, "a certain Divine Assistance for attaining the End of the Sacrament"
(III, 62,2). This "Sacramental Grace"
is a Supernatural Gift, over-and-above the Divine Presence,
ordinarily Bestowed in a Sacrament, and Strengthens a Person in accord with the Human Condition being addressed.
For Holy Anointing, it is a Grace to Strengthen a Person to bear
Suffering. For Matrimony, it is a
Grace to live-up-to the Demands of Married Life. For
Reconciliation, it is the Grace to Conquer Sin,
from the Greatest Offenses, down to the Least.
In order to Fully Appreciate this Sacramental Grace, and how Wonderful a
Gift it is, it is important to provide a few more details, about how this Grace is given to
Theologians, Reflecting on the Nature of Sacramental Grace, emphasize the 'Precise', we might say,
"Surgical" Way, in which it is Applied. To differentiate it from the "Ordinary" Grace given in the
Sacrament, they have described it as a 'Special Claim', that God
allows us to have over Him, for obtaining Divine Assistance.
As the Dominican Theologian, Father Garrigou-Lagrange, explains, "it adds, over and above Ordinary Grace a certain Right to Actual
Graces [Graces given as the Need arises] to be received at the Appropriate Time, and corresponding to the Special End of the Sacraments . . ."
This means that, unlike any other manner of Freeing the Soul from Venial
Sin, Confession gives us Help with the Specific
Spiritual Problems we bring. We leave with a Wonderful and Extraordinary Commitment by
God to bring us Aid, in Moments of Special
Need. Hence, we can say that Confession is a 'Form', obtaining
Forgiveness, where every Reception of the Sacrament is going to have as its Goal, the
Conquering of those Particular Sins we are making a Determined Effort to Overcome.
God brings about the Sacrament with those Sins
in mind. He applies His Divine Power, and will continue to apply it, with
Graces suited-to the Problems at-hand.
We can Surmise, that this is happening to One degree or Other with certain non-Sacramental Forms of Prayer
and Penance. But, in the Divine Plan for Man's
Sanctification, the Sacraments will always play an Unparalleled Pole. There are no
opportunities for Grace, greater than these. In the Array of Possibilities for overcoming
Venial Sin, the Effectiveness of Confession in imparting
Supernatural Help to a Sincere Penitent will be, for all practical purposes, Unequaled.
Special Circumstances can always arise when God will Act just-as Powerfully without the Presence of
Sacraments, as with them. But apart from Exceptional Moments, the Sacramental
Grace of Confession will have an Effectiveness in going to the Roots-of
Sin, like no other Form of Devotion.
It must always be kept in Mind, however, that God keeps in utmost regard, our Human Freedom. And this will
have its Consequences for the Effectiveness of Grace being imparted in the
Sacrament. The degree to which God can Help a Penitent,
will be the degree to which that Person allows God to Help him by Cooperation with
Grace. Someone who is only Mildly Sorry for his
Sins, with only the Vaguest Intention of devoting himself to Overcoming some Sin, will hinder
God's Immense Desire to Strengthen him. Our Blessed Lord binds
Himself strictly, to doing only what the Penitent
allows Him to do. Little Profit will result from Weak Strivings. From Devoted Efforts, greater
Graces will be given. God sees the Openness of the
Will, to His Grace, and gives accordingly.
Pursuit of Sanctity
The Popes of the Past Fifty (50) Years have been making a Concerted Effort to encourage the Practice of
Frequent Confession - this during a Period when some of the Clergy have down played its importance for all
but Major Sins. Nor do they hesitate to Teach that such Contemporary Discouragement by Clergy, is going
Contrary-to the Action of the Holy Spirit. For Pope Pius XII, this Development of Frequent
Confession "did not happen without the Assistance of the Holy Spirit"
Corporis). "The Church ...", Pope John Paul II explains, "through the Centuries,
interpreting the Will of Christ, has always Exhorted the Faithful to Frequent Reception of this Sacrament, even for the Forgiveness of only Venial
Sins" (General Audience 16 March 1984).
What is the Reason for this Persistent Appeal? One (1) Word: Sanctification.
The Shepherds of the Church would be Remiss in not having as their Primary Concern, the Growth of their Flock in
Holiness. Nor, given what we have said above, is it hard to see why these Two
(2) Concerns of Sanctification and Frequent Confession,
should be Related. When there is Eagerness for acquiring Holiness, One will seek the most Effective means of
doing so. No one who is aware of the Effectiveness-of Confession in overcoming
Sin, and is concerned with advancing-in the Spiritual Life, is going to pass-up the Frequent
use of the Confessional. Conversely, it is quite reasonable to conclude that an Ambivalence toward, or the
Discouragement of, the Practice of Frequent Confession, is
Symptomatic of a Decline in concern for the Life of True, Deep
Such a Decline cannot be considered as anything but Losing Touch with the Essence of the Christian Calling. From the
Christian's First Initiation into the Faith, Holiness is understood
to be the Goal to which he Works. It is Demanded, in virtue of his becoming a Member of Christ's Mystical Body,
and being filled with the All-Holy Spirit of God. Establishing any Less a Goal, is settling for Superficial
and Second-rate Standards, not at all in-conformity-with the Gospels. As Pope John Paul, in his Apostolic Letter for the beginning of the new Millennium,
Millennio Ineunte, writes:
. . . Since Baptism is a True Entry into the Holiness of God, through Incorporation into Christ and the Indwelling of His
Spirit, it would be a Contradiction to settle for a Life of Mediocrity, marked by a Minimalist Ethic and a Shallow Religiosity. To ask Catechumens:
"Do you wish to receive Baptism?" means at the same time to ask them: "Do you wish to become Holy?" It means to set before them the Radical Nature of the
Sermon on the Mount: "Be Perfect as your Heavenly Father is Perfect" (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 31).
It makes sense, then, that if there is to be any Serious Renewal in our Time, of the Pursuit of Holiness,
it will be accompanied by a Corresponding Renewal in the use of the Confessional on a Monthly, bi-Monthly, or
even Weekly basis. The Two (2), Holiness and Frequent
Confession, go hand-in-hand.