PART III: The Fruitful Use of the Sacrament
by Father Paul K. Raftery, O.P.
Part III of III
Despite the Abundant Outpouring of Grace, taking place in the Sacrament of
Reconciliation, it will be of little or no Profit to us, unless we come with the Proper Disposition of
Mind and Heart. As was pointed out in the Last Issue of
Light and Life, God can only do for us what we
allow Him to accomplish. The Fruit that can come from
Confession will not Automatically Appear, simply by Confessing
on a Frequent basis. For a Person Confessing Frequently, but Carelessly,
Mechanically, Confession will at best be an experience of
Spiritually running-in-place. There will be little Progress in leaving
Sins and Imperfections behind. It is quite possible that after Years of such Frequent, but
Thoughtless Confession, a Person can be still
Struggling-with the same Sins as before. Avoiding such
Spiritual Stagnancy is the Concern of this Final Issue in our
Series on Confession.
Reviewing the Basics
Like any of the Sacraments, Confession has its Foundation,
that cannot be Altered. The result of Removing that Foundation would be the 'Collapse', or in Technical Terms the "Invalidity" of the
Sacrament. Although presumably, anyone making Frequent use of Confession will not be
Failing to do all that is required for a Valid Sacrament, it is helpful to understand the Nature of the
Sacrament we are dealing with, by looking carefully at what makes it Work.
Fruitful use of Confession will depend upon Faithfully Fulfilling, to the best of our ability,
what we are required to do.
Saint Thomas searches for the Foundation of Confession in the Virtue
that underlies it - the Virtue of Penance, or Repentance.
Confession is actually this Virtue of Penance, elevated by our
Blessed Lord to the Status of a Sacrament; through which
He imparts Divine Forgiveness and Strength.
He takes the Human Act, Repentance, which involves
Sorrow for Sin and the desire to make
Amends, and specifies that it be done before His Priestly Ministers. Done in this Context,
the Virtue of Penance becomes Charged with Divine Power.
Through the Sorrow of the Penitent, and the
Words of Absolution spoken by the Priest, God pours
His Grace into the Soul, in a way utterly beyond Private Expressions
of Sorrow (this aside from Exceptional Circumstances when God
Chooses to Act outside Sacramental Ritual). For this Reason, Confession,
for Centuries, has been known as the Sacrament of
To Understand more-Deeply what is happening in this Human Act of Penance, Raised-to the Level of a
Sacrament, Saint Thomas brings out Three (3)
"Integral Parts", as he calls them: Contrition,
Confession, and Satisfaction
Contrition is Sorrow for
Sins, with the desire to make Amends.
Confession is the Telling of One's Sins to the Minister of
the Sacrament, the Priest.
And Satisfaction is Performing the Penance assigned by the
Without these, the Sacrament does not take place. Saint Thomas calls them "
Integral Parts", because when any One (1) of them is Missing, the
Sacrament is not Whole, not "Integral", and therefore, not Valid. No
One (1) Part, in Isolation from the Others, is Sufficient for the Celebration of the
Sacrament. One cannot have Contrition alone, for example, and expect the
Sacrament to take place. Nor can someone have Contrition and
Confession, without following through on the Penance. All
Three (3) Elements must be Present.
Based in Human Nature
This Interdependence of Contrition, Confession, and
Satisfaction, for the Valid Reception of Penance, is all
based in the Human Experience of Repentance and seeking Forgiveness.
As One cannot be Truly Sorry for some Serious Offense against
another Person, unless One approaches that Person to Apologize, so too, for a Grave Offense against
God, there can be no True Sorrow without approaching
God to ask Forgiveness. That this might be done, in as fully
Human a Way as possible, Our Lord has us Verbalize this Apology to
His Representative, the Priest.
Likewise, this Sorrow and its Expression in Words, cannot be complete without making some kind of
Atonement for the Offense. This is Clearly, something a
Person Offended is looking for, when there has been Damage done. As
Saint Thomas observes, "... Amendment for an Offense Committed against anyone, is not made by merely Ceasing to Offend, but it is
necessary to make some kind of Compensation ..." (III,85,1). No one who
has Apologized for Breaking a Window, is going to be recognized as Truly
Sorrowful, until he offers to Pay for a New One. With regard to
Offenses against God, this means doing the Penance
assigned by a Confessor. He speaks for God. When we hear the Absolution
being given by the Priest, we need to hear these words, as if they were coming from Christ. So too, when the
Confessor assigns our Penance, this should be received by us as the very Words of
Christ, telling us what He would like us to do by-way-of some Compensation-for our
With this Basic Review in Mind, there will be Two (2) of these Three (3)
Integral Parts of Confession, to which we will devote Special Attention.
The Good Fruit of the Sacrament will be Born especially-in
Authentic Contrition, expressed-in a Firm Desire to change One's Life, and a
Confession of Sins that will disclose One's Faults
with the Greatest Simplicity and Honesty.
Purpose of Amendment
The Depth of Sorrow, or Contrition, we have for our
Sins, is very much a matter of how Fully we intend to Change our
Sinful Behavior. This is commonly known as our "Purpose of Amendment". Certainly, a Sincere Desire
to put an End to our Sins is necessary, if we want to be Forgiven.
Without that Purpose of Amendment, our Contrition is really no
Contrition at all. Presumably, there is at least a Vague or Implicit Purpose of
Amendment, when one makes the Effort of going to Confession.
But People who want to Truly Grow in Holiness, need to be careful that this
Purpose of Amendment stays only Vaguely in the Background. For a Fruitful
Confession, this Implicit Intention must become more-and-more Concrete and Specific, what is Technically known as an Explicit
Purpose of Amendment. The more we can Direct our Attempts to Reform our Lives, regarding Particular
Sins and Vices, and Formulate Concrete Steps to Overcome them,
the more the Grace of the Sacrament will Assist us, and
The saying of our Lord in the Gospels, though given in a very Different Context, applies to the Person
bringing a Firm Purpose of Amendment to Confession:
"Give, and it will be given to you. A Good Measure, pressed-down, shaken-together, running-over, will be put into your Lap; for
the Measure you give will be the Measure you get back" (Luke 6:38). God's
Help will come to us, the more Generously we bring a Purpose
of Amendment to the Confessional. But what is also True, is that
Failing to come with a Firm Purpose of Amendment, will find us never making Progress, and can even be
an Abuse of the Sacrament. Saint Francis de Sales, Warns of
this when he says:
Many who Confess their Venial Sins out of Custom and Concern for Order, but without Thought of Amendment, remain Burdened with
them for their Whole Life, and thus Lose many Spiritual Benefits and Advantages. If you Confess that you have spoken some Improper Word or Played Cards
too much, be Sorry and make a Firm Resolution to Amend. It is an Abuse to Confess any kind of Sin, whether Mortal or Venial, without a Will to be Rid of
it, since Confession was Instituted for no other Purpose (Introduction to the Devout
Life, Part2, Chapter19).
Spiritual Writers will advise us to avoid Long, Routine Lists of Sins, where it will simply not be possible
to Form an Adequate Purpose of Amendment for the Sins Confessed. Thus,
the Way we approach Venial Sin in the Confessional will not be
the same as Mortal Sin. All Mortal Sins must be brought
to Confession, and Acknowledged in Kind and Number. Not so with Venial
Sins. In fact, as the Council of Trent has Instructed us, there is no Requirement for Confessing
Venial Sin: "Venial Sin may Rightly, and with Profit, be told in Confession; but they can also be Withheld,
Without any Fault, and Expiated by various other Means" (Session XIV, Chapter 5).
Thus, Spiritual Writers urge us to be Selective in the Venial Sins we
Confess. Certain Ones need to be made the Focus of our Efforts. Trying to Wage a Battle with every Form of
Venial Sin that arises in our Lives, is setting ourselves up for Failure.
As Dom Benedict Baur, O.S.B, advises in his wonderfully helpful Book, "Frequent Confession": "... our Guiding Principle here should be: a Little, but
Well-done; a Little, Earnestly and with Purpose and Perseverance. Divide and Conquer!" (p. 58). Knowing, then, that we can
present whatever Lighter Sins we choose in the Confessional,
allows us the chance to devote Special Attention to Particularly Troublesome Sins that
Plague us. For many People in the Habit of Frequent Confession, this may be
Difficult. They have become Convinced, that unless they bring-forth every Venial
Sin, they have Committed since their Last Confession, they will somehow be making a
Bad Confession. Making a Good
Confession, for such a person, is identified with telling All One's Venial Sins, and making
sure none are left out. However, as Saint Francis de Sales explains above, what is most essential for a Good,
Fruitful Confession is our Purpose of Amendment. It is very probable
that a Person, recounting a Long List of Venial Sins, is in fact making a rather
Poor Confession, because of the Impossibility of having a Good
Resolve to Strive against all these Failings.
Here we enter into the Dynamics of any Sacrament. It involves above all else, the Action of
God upon a Person, imparting His Grace. This
Grace, in itself, is Infinite (∞) in Power, and
capable of doing Completely and Entirely, what it is intended to do. For the Person Confessing, it has the
Capacity to Free them Permanently, from all Sin. But this Grace
is not Operating in the Manner of some Magical Spell in a Fairy Tale, where the mere Performance of a Ritual, is going to Achieve its Effect.
Grace avails us nothing, without our Cooperation.
This is why, as Saint Francis de Sales says, "Many who Confess their Venial Sins out of Custom and Concern for Order, but
without Thought of Amendment, remain Burdened with them for their Whole Life. The Cooperation of such People, with God's
Wonderful Aid, is minimal. They may be Impressive in Accusing themselves of Sin, but Woefully-Short
in what is at the Crux of the Problem - the Will to
Sin no more. To have Freedom from Sin, such People must come to
realize that instead of an Exhaustive Enumeration of Venial Sins, what opens-up the Real Power of
Confession, is the Intention to Reform, and carrying that Intention, Perseveringly into Action.
What is appropriate, then, for those needing only to Confess Venial Sins will be
to Acknowledge a Few such Offenses, that stand-out since the last Confession.
For those Few Sins, carefully thought out, Realistic Plans must then be made for Striving-against them.
Reform of Life
There are Two (2) Aspects of post-Confessional Reform of Venial Sins
that Father Baur recommends we keep foremost in our Minds. It must be Positive and Practical.
"We do not overcome small Faults and Weaknesses by being Continually Busied about them and Fighting against them, but rather by
keeping our Gaze directed-on what is Positively Good and Holy, and Consciously Striving after that" (Frequent Confession 58). Each of those small,
Persistent Offenses is Rooted-in a Bad Habit of some kind, a
Vice. Unfortunately, One (1) Isolated Act of saying "
No" to a Vice, is not sufficient to make an End of it. Putting a
Positive Habit in-place-of Vice, is the only Way to Cause it to Cease. The Key
to Rooting-out Nagging Faults, whether they are in fact Big or Small, is not the Negative Act of saying,
"No, I will not do this any more", but rather a Positive Act of Striving-for the
Virtues that Counter such Faults.
Furthermore, it does not Help to make our Resolutions of the Indefinite sort:
"I will never be Distracted at Prayer again".
"I am going to Control my Temper for this moment forward".
"I'm putting a stop to the Proud Thoughts, once and for all".
This is Impractical and Unrealistic. Such Resolutions are Impossible to keep, here in this Earthly Condition of Human
Trial and Weakness. Rather Father Baur advises, we should make Practical Resolutions like:
"'As soon as I recognize that I am Distracted, I will Recollect myself'; "As soon as I recognize that I am becoming Irritated,
I will make an Act of Patience or of Conformity with God's Will'... If a Person attempts more than this, his Purpose of Amendment is Doomed to Failure,
and only Disappointment and Discouragement will result" (p. 60).
Helping Our Confessor
Another Final Point, Saint Francis de Sales makes about Confession, is important to consider. It regards
the need to Acknowledge one's Failings, in a Way that allows the Priest to be as Helpful as possible. He is
the Physician, God appoints for the Ailments of the
Soul. If the Confessor is to do his Work of Healing, he needs
to Understand what the Ailment Truly is. What should be Avoided, Saint Francis observes, are
Two (2) Things:
Vague Accusations that could, in fact, be made by the Greatest Saints. He cites such examples as,
"I have not Loved God as much as I should;
I have not Prayed with as much Devotion as I should;
I have not Loved my Neighbor as I should..."
(Introduction to the Devout Life, Part2, Chapter19).
These are Universally True of Man, and give a Confessor nothing to work with. They are Signs the Penitent
needs to give more Thought as to 'Why', for example, he has not Loved his Neighbor as he should:
Perhaps it was because you saw some Poor Person in Great Need, and you could Easily have Helped him, but did not care to
do so. Well, Accuse yourself of this Precise Thing and say, "I saw a Poor Man in Want, but out of Negligence, Hardness of Heart, or Contempt for him,
I did not Help him as I could have done . . . Accuse yourself of this with complete simplicity as to what you find wrong
without making such general charges. In Confession they are neither hot nor cold (Ibid.).
2) Stating One's Venial Sins in a Factual Way, but going
no further. What is Helpful to a Confessor is knowing Deeper Motivations and Pertinent Circumstances. "For example, don't be
Satisfied with saying that you told a Lie without harming anyone by it. State whether it was done out of Vainglory, to Praise or Excuse yourself, or told
as a Foolish Joke or through Obstinacy . . . ." But there are other considerations as well: "Tell if you have continued
a Long Time in your Sin, since the Length of Time, ordinarily greatly Increases Sin. There is a difference between some Passing Act of Vanity that has
slipped into the Soul for a quarter-hour, and One our Heart has Indulged-in for One, Two, or Three days. Hence we must State the Fact, the Motive, and
the Duration of our Sins ...." (Ibid.).