By Father Edward McNamara, LC
ROME, 16 July 2013 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: We are constantly being directed to go to confession frequently, and I subscribe to that teaching. I have been puzzled, however, for a long time as to what one confesses on a frequent basis in reconciliation. I certainly know mortal sin and venial sin. I attend Mass every Sunday and receive the Eucharist as often as possible and try to keep myself in check, to avoid sin. But I frequently find myself not knowing what to confess in the confessional, in wanting to go to confession on an ongoing frequent basis of at least once per month. This might sound like a silly inquiry, but if I am thinking it, there must be others who think it too. — J.C., Miami, Florida
A: While this is not, strictly speaking, a liturgical question, our reader is correct in that it is a difficulty faced by many who practice frequent confession.
There are many possible ways to address this question, although the personal nature of each person's relationship with God means that any answer will inevitably come up short.
I have found that, for me at least, Matthew 21:28-31 is of great assistance in understanding the motives and impulses behind the desire to confess regularly. In the passage, a father tells his two sons to go work in the vineyard. One accepts but does not go; the other initially refuses but later repents and toils away. Both sons have to ask the Father's forgiveness, the first for hypocrisy and disobedience, the second for not obeying with the spontaneity and desire to please that are proper to a son.
Frequent confession, above all when there are no grave sins to confess, is like the situation of the second son. We have not responded to the Father's love as we should. And we desire that there should be nothing between us, not even the lesser discordance brought about by reluctance, dourness and a host of other attitudes that sully the beauty of our relationship with him. This is why confession is fundamentally an act of love: We ask forgiveness of those we love. Grudging apologies are reserved for rivals or enemies, not for those we love.
In the light of this desire to maintain the splendor of a filial relationship, there is no great difficulty in having to confess the same faults frequently. These often reflect our habitual weaknesses which are overcome only over time.
A distinction is in order, however. There can be an imperfect repetition when a person has learned in youth a typical list of sins and repeats them without really entering into the depths of his relationship with God. There is also a healthy repetition which precisely recognizes the habitual weaknesses and strives to overcome them.
In this latter case it is also true that as the soul progresses, the sin is only apparently the same, or rather it is the same root but not the same matter. For example, a person might confess to laziness because he flees anything smacking of physical or mental exertion. Yet that person is working under the impulses of grace to overcome this vice. A year or so later the person continues to confess laziness, but by this time it means not putting in all the effort he can and occasionally slipping up. A few years later the same hard-working and hard-praying person confesses to laziness because of an awareness of not making the best use of the time available or of becoming too set in one's way, so as to resist new initiatives of the Holy Spirit. The awareness of progress within apparent monotony is thus one source of comfort in making regular confession a part of one's spiritual life.
One useful method for avoiding routine, above all when a person has a regular confessor, is to concentrate each time on one type of habitual sin and examine it more closely than the others. This can help us grow in delicacy of conscience. At the same time, the penitent must be careful not to convert the sacrament of reconciliation, oriented toward absolution of actual sins, into spiritual direction. Direction is more wide ranging and covers such elements as motivations, attitudes, impressions, personal reactions to grace and the like. Both are good but, as a general rule, should be kept separate.