Question: A priest told one of my relatives that he didn't have to go to Confession before Communion; that an Act of Contrition was sufficient to forgive even the most serious sins. The priest also said that the Church invented Confession in the middle ages because it had too many priests with nothing to do. Can this be right?
Answer: Not much of it! The Sacrament of Confession or Penance was instituted by our Lord on Easter Evening.. He instituted It even though at that time there were only eleven priests to serve the entire world. He appeared to the Apostles in the Upper Room, saying, "Receive the Holy Ghost, whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained."1
Apart from some emergency in which a priest might have to absolve the sins of an unconscious person, or those of a very large number, he must hear the sins of the penitent in order to decide whether to forgive them or not. Is the penitent sorry for his sins? Will he endeavor to avoid committing them in the future? Has he arranged his affairs so as to reduce the danger that he will sin again? Has he made restitution where possible? Even if an emergency excuses a detailed confession, the obligation of confessing the sins forgiven remains, and must be satisfied at the next opportunity. That we may find confessing our sins embarrassing is no excuse to conceal them. The time to consider the embarrassing nature of our sins is before we commit them.
If Confessions were infrequent until the later Middle Ages, it was because the Church expected Her people to sin rarely if at all. In the early days of the Church, most Christians were adult converts who enthusiastically embraced God's laws to prepare themselves for union with Him in the present and in the hereafter. Serious sin required Confession (often to the bishop) and usually a lengthy public penance during which the sinner was excluded from divine worship. Recidivism was generally infrequent. But in the Middle Ages it was recognized that frequent Confession could be a source of grace and a school of holiness. Catholics today are allowed and encouraged to Confess regularly, even if they have no serious sin to report.
Perhaps we can guess at the source of the priest's confused advice to your relative:
Of the seven Sacraments, two, Baptism and Penance, are called "Sacraments of the dead," and the remaining five are "Sacraments of the living." While a man's soul is immortal from the moment of its creation by God, we speak of it (only by analogy) as being "spiritually dead" when it lacks sanctifying grace. Baptism and Penance are the two Sacraments that breath "spiritual life" into "spiritually dead" souls.
Baptism is the "Sacrament of faith." In adult converts, God approaches the individual with His grace, inspiring him to accept the truths of the Faith that He has revealed. The individual is "justified" (sanctified) by his belief of God's revelation, by sorrow for the sins of his past, and by a sincere desire to do better in the future. Sacramental Baptism can make good the minor deficiencies in the person's dispositions. (In the case of an infant, the Sacrament itself supplies all of the missing dispositions of intellect and will.) A person dying with a sincere but unaccomplished desire for Baptism may be saved by the sanctifying grace of his justification.2
Penance, in a similar manner, is the "Sacrament of repentance." Again, God extends His grace to the individual, who responds (hopefully) with sincere sorrow for having offended God. Faith is still presumed, but the emphasis in Penance is on the will - specifically on the conformity of the man's will with the will of God. We can say that a person is "re-justified" by true contrition and intent to amend his ways. Also again, the Sacrament can make good the minor deficiencies in the penitent's dispositions - if, for example, the contrition is less than perfect, motivated more by fear of hell than conformity with God's will.
Baptism and Penance are the normal means prescribed by our Lord for elevating or restoring a soul to sanctifying grace. In either case, justification or re-justification may take place prior to actually receiving the Sacrament. Nonetheless, a sincere desire to receive the Sacrament is an essential part of the process, and must be followed by actual reception of the Sacrament if at all possible - for this is what our Lord established. The only good excuse for not actually receiving these Sacrament if we require them and they are available is death.
The other five Sacraments, those "of the living," must be received in the state of sanctifying grace. If that state of grace is lost through serious sin, the positive law of the Church requires it be restored by Sacramental Confession - it is inadequate to presume that one's contrition and repentance is adequate without the means assigned by Christ and demanded by His Church. Of course, Baptism must be received sacramentally before approaching any of the other Sacraments, for Baptism removes original sin with sanctifying grace, and imparts a character on the soul that prepares it for the reception of future Sacraments.3
Saint Paul tells us that one who receives Holy Communion "unworthily will be guilty of the Body and Blood of the Lord."4 Most moral theologians admit that some urgent necessity might allow the reception of Communion after an Act of Perfect Contrition if no confessor is available. It is hard to imagine such a necessity except, perhaps, for the lone priest who must celebrate Mass for his people but who has no opportunity to Confess.
The response given to your relative reflects the unfortunate idea many Catholics hold today about their relationship to God and His Church. All too often our people phrase questions in terms of "What is the minimum I must do?" or "How much can I get away with?" They treat the Faith as nothing more than a set of rules that must be observed - as though one can "get to heaven" as long as he stays within the prescribed number of "fouls" allowed by the "game." This is simply wrong - and very likely to end in disaster. (See the Apropos section elsewhere in this month's Bulletin.)
We are not contestants in a "game," but souls trying to establish and perfect our relationship with God. We ought not to ask how often we must pray or how often we are required to attend Mass, or to receive Communion, or to make a sacramental Confession - but, rather, how often can we do these things. Quite basically, we ought to be looking for more opportunities to draw closer to God, not for ways to further trivialize our relationship with Him.
Not only are the Sacraments prescribed by God, or even the surest way to salvation. Together with prayer they are the way of union with God, a chance to grow in grace and perfection in ways we may have never even considered.
1. John xx: 19-23.
2. Cf. Council of Trent, Sess. VI, Ch. iv Dz 796/1524 and;
Sess. VII, Canon 4 (Dz. 847/1604); Catechism of the Council of
Trent, Pt. II, Ch. 2, No. 36.
3. Council of Trent, Ibid.; St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa
Theologica III, Q. 63. 4. 1 Corinthians ix: 27
1. John xx: 19-23.
2. Cf. Council of Trent, Sess. VI, Ch. iv Dz 796/1524 and; Sess. VII, Canon 4 (Dz. 847/1604); Catechism of the Council of Trent, Pt. II, Ch. 2, No. 36.
3. Council of Trent, Ibid.; St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica III, Q. 63.
4. 1 Corinthians ix: 27