A middle-aged man enters the confessional, kneels down behind the screen and begins by saying “The sins from my past still bother me. I know I will feel better if I confess them now, again.” I want to say “Your sins have been forgiven so I don’t encourage you to confess them again.” However, if I say that, I know the man will be in anguish, the pain of the sting of past sins and my seeming indifference to the compulsion to confess them again will cause him confusion and more pain. So, I say nothing. I listen.
I know it is not just me because other priests have remarked to me that they are encountering more good people who have become scrupulous. It seems to me that it is not more individuals that is causing the upsurge in the use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I think it’s many of the same people returning to the sacrament again and again to rehash old sins –serious though they may have been– because they have been taught a relatively new spirituality based on frequency of reception of this sacrament. It’s a new spirituality but the same old quest for earthly perfection.
Reconciliation is what it says it is, a repairing of a rift that had occurred between the penitent and Our Lord. The Catholic Church does not require someone to “go to confession” regularly or to ever seek out this manner of growing in the Christian life. The Church does require by law that Catholics receive the Holy Eucharist once a year to retain active participation in the life of the Church. It does not require a person to go to confession first, unless that person has committed mortal sin. In that event, the sinner must seek reconciliation as soon as possible otherwise a new sin is incurred.
Many members, including priests assume that a person cannot get through a year without committing a mortal sin. This casual approach to the gravity of mortal sin makes me upset.
Mortal sin means that the person has committed a sin unto death. If the sinner dies in mortal sin he/she loses salvation and goes to hell. Many people come to the Sacrament confessing that they have sinned mortally when they have not. Using the Lord’s name in vain while working on a particularly frustrating piece of business is sinful but who can say that that is mortal? Standing up, however, in a court room and calling on God as your witness as you perjure yourself is mortal. Remember, a mortal sin involves “grave matter,” “sufficient reflection,” and “full consent of the will.”
Reconciliation is not a pathway of spiritual growth it is a bridge over which a condemned sinner crosses over into salvation. Catholics need to remember what the old Baltimore Catechism taught: We should turn to the Lord and ask for forgiveness whenever we have sinned. Because we love God, we ask in our disgrace for Him to forgive us. And, He does.
The worse thing about repetitions and efforts at ritual cleansings is that it denies the mercy of God. Our Lord lifts up the sheep caught in the brambles and frees her. He embraces the prodigal son (or daughter) and throws a party because his loved one was lost and is now found.