Preparing for First Penance

FR. WILLIAM SAUNDERS

My child is preparing for First Penance. The director of religious education at my parish said that a person only has to go to confession when he has a mortal sin. I know children that have not gone to confession since First Penance. I was taught that a person had to make an “Easter Duty” of going to confession and Holy Communion. What is the straight answer?

Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered, died, and rose for our salvation — to forgive our sins and to offer us everlasting life in Heaven. Moreover, He wanted His healing ministry of forgiveness for sin to continue through the sacrament of penance. On the night of the resurrection, Jesus appeared to the apostles and said, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you ... Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men's sins, they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound" (Jn 20:21-23). Therefore, all of the faithful who are conscious of sin should avail themselves of the reconciling graces offered through the sacrament of penance.

Granted, the person who is conscious of mortal sin must receive sacramental absolution for forgiveness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, "Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to Him" (No. 1855). Therefore, sacramental absolution is necessary to forgive mortal sin, to restore the sanctifying grace in a person's soul, and to reconcile the person fully with God and neighbor.

This teaching was clearly articulated in a previous age of confusion: The Council of Trent, responding to the objections of the Protestant leaders who denied the need for confession, taught, "All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession, even if they are most secret and have been committed against the last two precepts of the Decalogue; for these sins sometimes wound the soul more grievously and are more dangerous than those which are committed openly" (Doctrine on the Sacrament of Penance).

Note also that a person must receive sacramental absolution for mortal sin before receiving Holy Communion. The only exception to this norm, according to the Catechism, is when a person Ahas a grave reason for receiving Communion and there is no possibility of going to confession" (No. 1457). Emphasis here must be placed on the phrasing "grave reason" and "no possibility."

While confession is necessary for the forgiveness of mortal sin, it is also a most important means of grace and a good spiritual practice for the forgiveness of venial sin. Pope John Paul II, in a general audience address given on Sept. 15, 1999, reminded bishops of "the importance of the necessary pastoral care for instilling a greater appreciation of the sacrament [of penance] in the People of God, so that the message of reconciliation, the path of conversion, and the very celebration of the sacrament can more deeply touch the hearts of the men and women of our day." Our Holy Father also stated, AIt would, therefore, be foolish, as well as presumptuous, to wish arbitrarily to disregard the means of grace and salvation which the Lord has provided and, in the specific case, to claim to receive forgiveness while doing without the sacrament which was instituted by Christ precisely for forgiveness" (On Reconciliation and Penance, No. 31). Consequently, a faithful Catholic must never discount the spiritual exercise of confession, from beginning to end: to take the time to diligently examine one's conscience, to have contrition (i.e. sorrow for sin), to make a firm amendment not to sin again, to confess one's sins, and to receive absolution and the graces which heal the soul of sin, restore fully sanctifying grace, and fortify it against future temptation. Regular confession of venial sin helps the individual to form his conscience better, fight against temptation, be aware of the occasions of sin, and progress in the life of the Holy Spirit (cf. Catechism No. 1458).

Yes, strictly speaking, the Code of Canon Law asserts, "After having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year" (No. 989). However, the Code also asserts, "It is to be recommended to the Christian faithful that venial sins also be confessed" (No. 988.2). (This regulation is a slight variation of the old "Easter Duty" prescribed by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) which stated, "Every faithful of either sex who has reached the age of discretion should at least once a year faithfully confess all his sins in secret to his own priest. He should strive as far as possible to fulfill the penance imposed on him, and with reverence receive at least during Easter time the sacrament of the Eucharist.") Only a legalist would suggest that a person only has to go to confession when in a state of mortal sin, thereby hinting regular confession is not necessary. Regular confession is the recipe for sainthood, and all of the saints of our Church knew it. This Lent, each of us should take the time for a good sacramental confession.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Saunders, Rev. William. "Preparing for First Penance " Arlington Catholic Herald.

This article is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.

THE AUTHOR

Father William Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Sterling, Virginia. The above article is a "Straight Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father Saunders is also the author of Straight Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral Press in Baltimore.

Copyright © 2003 Arlington Catholic Herald




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