The Sacrament of Confession is a key part of the sacramental system in Catholicism. It has developed over the centuries to this present form. Today, one can receive this Sacrament as often as needed; it is available everywhere and there are no rules about it’s use except the idea of ‘Easter Duty’, that is, the obligation to go at least once a year during the Easter Season. (This, by the way, fits in very well with the emphasis today on Baptism in the
Easter Season. The Sacrament of Confession is the living-out of our Baptismal Commitments.)
But outside of Easter Duty, there is no rule about its use, and certainly none limiting it. But this was not always so.
In the early Church, it was a very serious thing to become a Christian. For one reason, it was against the law and punishable by death. Secondly, you became Christian by an adult decision. Thirdly, you entered a training period that could last a few years. Since Baptism forgave all sin, there was no need for Confession. It was expected that once you were Baptized, you were done with sin.
Any Christian therefore who was guilty of a mortal sin (Murder, Adultery or Apostasy—denying that you were a Christian) was cut off from the community of the ‘saints’. Later, it was decided to forgive them, but only once in their lifetime and only after a public confession of their sin and a long period of public penance that could last years.
As one can imagine, this system was not popular with the people. What happened, therefore, was that people delayed Baptism to their deathbed so that they could take full advantage of the complete forgiveness of all sinfulness without the necessity of telling anyone their sins. The Emperor Constantine took this path.
Another form of Penance developed in the monasteries of Ireland. A younger monk would confess his past sins with an older monk and the older monk would give him a Penance to perform so as to “correct” the sinfulness of the past. The advantage of this form of Confession was that it was private and could be received more than once. As the monks of Ireland traveled through Europe preaching, they brought with them this new form of Confession.
At first, the Church condemned this innovation. But, once again, the people spoke with their feet and started to abandon the older form and accepted this new way of confessing.
It is important to realize that the monks did not impose easy penances. There were no, “Say 3 Hail Mary’s as a Penance.” We have the books that they used to assign an appropriate penance to the sinner, and it was not easy! But it was private and more of a process.
In our own time, we have developed a religious ethos that strives for the easy way to do everything. This has spawned a habitual laxity in our living of the Christian Life and an underlying vice of presumption in our approach to sin and conversion.
The Sacrament of Confession must involve a deep and interior attitude that indicates and nourishes a real change within the person, both psychologically and experientially. While one can have such an intention and still sin again, what is important is the willingness to get up and try again to eradicate the sin completely from our lives. When it is a habitual sin, it requires continual effort and a fierce commitment to following the Lord no matter what.
Even after the sin is removed from a person through repentance and Confession, we still must experience a desire to heal the world we have disrupted by our sin. This is the whole area of reparation and satisfaction that is largely ignored today; but, it is essential. We must try to put aright what we have disrupted in the divine order of God’s Commandments.
As you may see, even venial sins have a destructive impact on our lives and the lives of the Church, even when they do not prepare us for the more serious mortal sins.
We have the ability to receive Confession as often as we need it to help us in this process of reordering, always with God’s assistance, the creation of God and the moral unity of Christian life.
As you can see, Turnstile Confession, where you say your Hail Mary’s and you get cleaned up for Mass, is an emaciated view of the Sacrament and the whole process of moral regeneration that is the Christian call to Metanoia, or true repentance.
It requires a real effort to model our life on Christ and a refusal to compromise our moral vision.