Monday, October 23, 2017

When one doesn't have major sins to confess, is going to Confession still necessary?

I was recently asked if I could write about how one should be making regular confessions when one doesn’t have major sins to bring up to the confessor.  Regular confession indeed does have a value that many Catholics don’t consider on a regular basis.  Like an unused treasure of immense value in one’s possession, I can see that very few Catholics are truly aware of how availing themselves to this on a regular basis can aid them in the most important task of their lives – to live sanctified and holy lives.

As a confessor, I really can understand the fact that going into the Confessional is not often seen as an exciting thing.  It’s not like as if one gets a buzz the way that going through the turnstiles of Disneyland gives a buzz to children or those who are young at heart.  Rather, because one is grappling with the reality that one hasn’t quite lived up to the high calling of a child of God, one is understandably dealing with various degrees of feelings of guilt, shame, discomfort, embarrassment and being tongue-tied in trying to articulate one’s transgressions and shortcomings.  So, the confessor-priest is fully aware of how the penitent feels.  We may not show it, but we know it, and God forgive us priests who may show impatience with penitents just because they are very regular at confessions.  As a priest, I aim to treat each penitent as someone with an inestimable value for God because I am certain that no saint is in heaven because they stayed away from this sacrament while they were living.

In a way, it is easier to confess having committed those “big-ticket” sins because they are rather ‘cut-and-dry’.  But I think the challenge comes to those who want to be regular with the celebration of this Sacrament, but find it difficult to name any of those cardinal sins which cut one’s spiritual connection with God in a serious way, the way mortal sins do.  The way we sinners struggle with the little, seemingly insignificant ones show a sincerity of heart that must delight God.

Perhaps we need to understand that this Sacrament is not only for serious sins.  This sacrament helps us to maintain a strong connection with God’s love and it gives us Sanctifying Grace.  Sanctifying Grace is the grace of God which helps us, as the word implies, to live a sanctified and holy life.  Every time a penitent ends the confession with the Act of Contrition and hears the words of Absolution given by the priest, his ability to stand ‘right’ in God’s love is renewed.  In that state, one is able to be more resolute in his task of being Christ in the ways that he lives – from being a good parent, a loving and faithful spouse, a responsible citizen who doesn’t flout rules, and living with charity and love.

Each time we fall short of living the sanctified life, we set up, as it were, layers of insulation that puts a distance between God’s love and us.  It’s not that God doesn’t want us to be close to him.  His love, as we know, is eternal.  Nothing can make God love us less, and nothing we do can make God love us more.  But when we sin, or when we fail to love (which is what sin is at its roots), it shows that we love God less than we ought.  We need to see sin and sin’s effects as these insulation layers that make it harder for us to be sensitive to God’s love.

Being regular at Confession helps us in manifold ways.  It helps us to be conscious of the small ways that we may have set up these ‘insulating’ layers in our life to keep us further, as it were, from God and his grace.  Small sins, habitual things that keep us entrenched on ourselves and the ways that we give in to our ego needs may not be huge sins in themselves, but they do add up and when left unchecked, can become the gateways to the larger and more serious ways that we end up sinning. 

Maybe an analogy may help here.  When we are in a state of grace, we are facing God and looking at him directly.  Sanctifying grace helps us to do that.  Sins cause us to lose this loving gaze that we have on God’s divine face.  Minor sins are the ways that our eyes are averted and when we look obliquely.  When the sins are a bit more grave and serious, our head is turned slightly away from God.  Major sins or what the church calls Mortal sins are those sins that cause us to not only turn our heads, but our entire bodies away from God and when we show him our backs.  We have, in effect, literally turned our backs to God. 

The Fathers of the Church have always encouraged the use of a daily examen of conscience as a daily and regular guide to check where we stand in the way that we relate with God, not unlike the way that soldiers in parade formation check their dressing by casting a glance over their left shoulder to spot the position of the soldier’s shoulder standing on right next to them.  Just as looking at their marching partner’s shoulder keeps them in line, looking at the list of the daily examen points helps to keep us in line with God’s call to a sanctified life. 

I am appending below a helpful list that any serious penitent can go through to make a daily or weekly examination of conscience.  It is not a comprehensive list, but I believe that it helps those who are keen on making confession regular to look deeper into their lives so that they can better benefit from the grace that comes with celebrating the Sacrament with better preparation.

A short Examination of Conscience
•  When was my last good Confession? Did I receive Communion or other sacraments in the state of mortal sin? Did I intentionally fail to confess some mortal sin in my previous Confession?
•  Did I seriously doubt my faith or put myself in danger of losing my faith through readings hostile to Catholic teachings or involvement in non-Catholic sects? Did I engage in superstitious practices: palm-reading, fortune telling, etc.?
•  Did I take the name of God in vain? Did I curse, or take a false oath? Did I use improper language?
•  Did I miss Mass on Sundays or holy days of obligation through my own fault, without any serious reason? Did I keep fast and abstinence on the prescribed days?
•  Did I disobey my parents and lawful superiors in important matters?
•  Did I hate or quarrel with anyone, or desire revenge? Did I refuse to forgive? Did I hurt or cause to kill someone? Did I get drunk? Did I take illicit drugs? Did I consent to, recommend, advise or actively take part in an abortion?
•  Did I wilfully look at indecent pictures or watch immoral movies? Did I read immoral books or magazines? Did I engage in impure jokes or conversations? Did I wilfully entertain impure thoughts or feelings? Did I commit impure acts, alone or with others? Did I take contraceptive or abortifacient pills or use other artificial means in order to prevent conception?
• Did I steal or damage to another’s property? How much? Have I made reparation for the damages done? Have I been honest in my business relations?
•  Did I tell lies? Did I sin by calumny, or detraction telling the unknown grave faults of others without necessity, even if they are true? Did I judge others rashly in serious matters? Have I tried to make restitution for the bad reputation I caused?
If you remember other serious sins besides those indicated here, mention them in your Confession.”


  1. Dear Fr Luke

    Thank you very much for this post.
    While you did not mention to reflect on the frequency of the sins in all areas, you included ‘How much?’ in the stealing or damage of another’s property. The former would be no less grievous and offensive than the latter and potentially adds even more insulating layers. Why and does quantum calls for more reflection than frequency?

    1. Thank you for your question, and I think it is a very relevant and helpful one for many Catholics who want to benefit in the best way from this Sacrament. While it is true that I may not have mentioned that we should tell the Priest how frequently we have committed the sin being confessed, it is just as important as including details, like the amount when confessing the sin of theft.

      The help that comes to us as penitents coming to Confession is two-fold. One of which, of course, is having our sins forgiven by the Priest who stands in the person of Christ in the Sacrament. The second help that comes to us is that it should help us identify the areas in our lives that trip us up, or where we are prone to giving in to sin. It is in this area that the information that we bring to the confessor matters.

      Let us take the sin of stealing. While it is a sin, it becomes much more grave and mortal if it is embezzling 5 million dollars as compared to a one-off taking of a 5 dollar note from the family petty cash that is placed in the cookie jar. And if one confesses having disobeyed one’s parents, the gravity of the sin against the 4th commandment, what makes the sin more or less grave would be the age of the penitent and what the nature of this disobedience was. A 4 year old child who is willful and disobedient is counseled very differently from a 40 year old who goes against the advice of his loving parents to not go partying five nights a week and coming home at 3am inebriated. Compare this to a 60 year old who doesn’t comply with his elderly parents’ request for some financial help to have three decent meals each day. In a way, they are all sins against the 4th commandment, but the gravity of the sin isn’t the same.

      What many penitents struggle with is habitual sins, and it is particularly in this case that the number of times one gives in to such temptations will give us confessors a good idea of how much one really tries to fight against giving in to the sin, or how mired one is in the sin, affecting one’s freedom and also one’s culpability.

      I hope this helps.

      Fr Luke