It’s Lent and just about everybody offers a Communal Penance service to their parishioners. Most parishes also extend the scheduled hours for Confession during Lent. In homilies and Sunday announcements, folks are urged to take advantage of the graces in this sacrament. Yet, strictly speaking, the only time the sacrament is required is in cases of mortal sin and also for those who are being received into the Church at the Easter Vigil.
I go to Communal Penance at Lent and I’ll tell who comes to the service in my area. Sweet little old Catholics over 70 and the people who are completely involved in the life of the parish. Of course, I don’t know their minds and lives, yet it seems unlikely many of them harbor secret mortal sins. It reminds me of how Bishop Fulton Sheen described hearing a nun’s confession: “It’s like being stoned to death by popcorn.”
So why should I have to go to Communal Penance when the non-mortal sins I have to confess have already been dealt with at Mass and in prayer?
First, an analogy
The question of why I should go to confession starts with how people conduct relationships. For instance, in marriage there are a set of requirements that most people would agree apply to a good marriage. Being gentle and encouraging, sexually faithful, honest about money and time, respectful of personal “space”, that sort of thing.
But no one who is in love with their spouse would make some list of minimum requirements for the marriage and inform their spouse “this far and no more”. No one would take the attitude that I don’t have to do any more than this list, so I’m not going to. Somehow just writing out a list like that would be evidence that love and commitment are missing.
Or what if you made up a list of the minimum duties you think you owe your children. Then each time one of your children comes to you for help or affection or simply for your companionship, you get out the list and ask them to read it with you. If what they want is on the list… bingo! But if it’s not on the list, well then, that’s not something that you have to do… so, sorry Charlie.
An attitude of just doing what you have to do, just doing your minimum duty, is not love and everybody knows it.
I won’t labor the point any further except to say that even relationships that don’t depend on love — social groups, governments, work places — would not work very well if everybody had a list of minimum requirements and used that list to limit their behavior.
In the case of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it’s not just about “church”
When the Catholic Church urges me to confess venial, non-mortal sins, it’s not about the church trying to boss me around. It’s not about checklists, nor is it a way for priests nose around in my business.
Sin is serious. It’s dangerous whether it is mortal or venial. Mortal sin destroys love, it separates a person from the grace of God. Obviously, that’s a big deal. But venial sin is serious, too. Venial sin in the words of the Catechism allows love to subsist, but it offends and wounds it. And that is serious. It really is.
The great command in Christianity is to love God with everything I have. The second command is that I love the people around me the way I love myself. Anything, anything that wounds my ability to love means that my relation to God is also wounded. Ditto for my neighbor. So I must take venial sin seriously.
The way to take sin seriously is to take love seriously. That means I do not make lists of minimum duties and then refuse to do anything that’s not on the list. Whenever I find something that strengthens my ability to love, then that is something I want to do. Addressing my sin with serious intent strengthens my ability to love. Examining my conscience carefully and honestly, then discussing the results with a priest is a wonderful exercise in self-renunciation and in purification. It is exactly what being a disciple means. Here is how St. Augustine put it:
Whoever confesses his sins . . . is already working with God. God indicts your sins; if you also indict them, you are joined with God. Man and sinner are, so to speak, two realities: when you hear “man” – this is what God has made; when you hear “sinner” – this is what man himself has made. Destroy what you have made, so that God may save what he has made. . . . When you begin to abhor what you have made, it is then that your good works are beginning, since you are accusing yourself of your evil works. The beginning of good works is the confession of evil works. You do the truth and come to the light.
Please don’t look at Reconciliation as something you “don’t have to do”, as if you keep a list of minimum duties. Take the advice of the Church of Christ and confess your sins to a priest this Lent. It really is a part of love.
Love does not look for the least it can do.
Love looks for ways to deepen and strengthen relationships.
Purifying myself of sin increases my ability to love.