ROMAN CATHOLIC BOOKS
PARDON AND PEACE:
Alfred Wilson, CP
Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat,
MANY non-Catholics cannot see
any necessity for Confession nor what good it would do God to ask a man
to his fellow-man. A question often on their lips is: "Why confess to a
man?" Confession, they think, slights the Divine Mercy and makes God
appear exigent, hard to satisfy, and slow to forgive. When this opinion
does not spring from a spirit of arrogant insubordination, but from a
sensitive concern about the attributes of God, it is worthy of respect.
are wrong in concluding that because they can see no need for
Confession, therefore there is no need. God, Who is infinitely more
far-seeing than they, may see reasons where they see none. At the same
time, we must admit that if Confession did actually reflect badly on
God, it would be proved false. Any Sacrament which obscured the Divine
Mercy and made God appear an exacting tyrant, would have to be
rejected. Our whole point is, however, that Confession proves the exact
opposite. Confession is not necessary to appease God's anger and win
His pardon. An act of perfect contrition gains us instantaneous pardon
and immediate restoration to grace. The truly contrite receive pardon
as readily and as quickly as the Good Thief. We must not allow our
faith in the readiness of God to forgive to be dimmed or obscured by
Confession; otherwise, our attitude towards God will be far more
misguided than that of non-Catholics. They endeavour to honour the
Mercy of God; whereas, the jansenistically-minded dishonour it.
Confession expresses a human need, not a Divine need, and is necessary
to satisfy man, not to satisfy God. When our Saviour instituted
Confession, He was thinking of us, not of Himself. Whenever there is
sincere contrition, He pardons in a flash, and would pardon without
more ado, if such an arrangement were good for us. He saw, however,
that it would not be good for us to be let off without an apology for
serious sin. Parents often insist on an apology from an erring child
even when they have long since forgiven it in their hearts. They
insist, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the child, whose
ultimate good they unselfishly consider. In the same way, God insists
on an apology from us, for our sake not for His.
It is evident that penitents often fail to realize this, because if
they did realize it, they would not approach Confession as they do.
Many of them seem to think that they have no hope of recovering the
Divine Friendship until they have been through all the formalities of
Confession, and woe betide them if they make any slips. What a complete
misconception of the Sacrament! In that case, God is more difficult to
propitiate now than He was before the Incarnation. If they are truly
contrite, they are already in the grace and friendship of God.
Confession is designed not to placate the Divine justice nor to win a
tardy concession of mercy, but to enable us to gain the maximum
benefits of Divine Mercy. If you are contrite, He has already forgiven
you, and Confession means that He wants to enfold you in His arms and
bathe you in His Precious Blood.
The idea of many non-Catholics that our Saviour intends us to confess
directly to God in secret is not absurd, but how much it overlooks!
Jesus could have been satisfied with that, had He not been infinitely
wise and infinitely tender.
After all, the Apostles in the upper room on the first Easter Sunday
could have confessed (and presumably did confess) to God their
miserable cowardice and infidelity. But they were glad of the
reassurance of pardon from the lips of Christ. If we assert that they
should have had sufficient faith in the mercy of God to be able to
dispense with such a reassurance, the plain fact confronts us that they
had not sufficient faith, and that Jesus condescended to their
weakness. In like manner, Jesus "yesterday, today and the same for
ever" condescends to our weakness, and His condescension is Confession.
If we were Angels, we might dispense with verbal and perceptible
reassurances of God's pardon. Because we are not Angels, the senses
must crave for help and reassurance; and we should be humbly grateful
to God for all the sense-helps which He, in His mercy, gives us.
To talk to God is one thing, but to be quite certain that God is
talking to us and speaking words of pardon and peace is quite another
thing. Those who have tried confession to God in secret admit that it
was like "talking to nothing" or like "arguing with yourself on your
knees." It might be different with a Saint, but Saints are few. "Whose
sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them." How reassuring to hear
the words of pardon from the lips of the priest, speaking in the name
and with the delegated power of Christ: "I absolve thee from thy sins,
in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost."
Let us not disdain the extra mercies of Christ. There is no absolute
need of Confession as a prerequisite of satisfying the justice of God.
Christ could have left us to our own devices and the torturing
uncertainties of direct confession to God, but He was too kind. Not
merely would He give us Scriptural reassurances of His mercy, He would
also leave us a standing proof. He saw that auricular Confession would
be necessary to give us conclusive proof of pardon and the maximum
relief and peace of mind.
Besides being (as we have seen) indispensable medicine for the
regaining of perfect spiritual health, Confession is also necessary to
intensify our realization of the malice of sin. If we "got away with"
sin too easily, we might make light of it. God insists on a formal,
penal apology for serious sin to prevent us from confusing His mercy
If He made no fuss about serious sin, we might easily conclude --- to
our own undoing --- that it is not really so heinous and so odious to
Him. He has, therefore, obliged us to confess our sins because He is
wise and kind.
The Sacrament of Penance was instituted to make reparation for sin
easier, not to make it more difficult. The inspiration of Confession is
mercy not justice. It is remedial not revengeful. To have other
thoughts about it, is to insult the mercy of God and regard Jesus as a
task-master. Let us never lose sight of the fact that Confession is
meant to be a help not a bugbear.
It is evident that confession to a fellow-man can never be easy, and
may be extremely difficult, if there is a shameful tale to tell. From
the nature of the case, Confession is a burden. It is unthinkable that
our Saviour would add unnecessarily to the natural difficulties of
Confession. He was indignant with the Pharisees because they "bound
heavy and insupportable burdens and laid them on men's shoulders." It
would be implicit blasphemy to presume that He has followed their
A law which is too severe for ordinary mortals is no law at all.
Instead of being "an ordinance of reason for the common good," which is
the definition and purpose of law, an excessively severe law would be a
stumbling-block to the common detriment.
If Confession were made too difficult, it would be not a help but a
terrifying bugbear. The burden would then be insupportable, and the
remedy worse than the disease. It is safe to presume, therefore, that
our Saviour has not added to the inevitable intrinsic difficulties of
Confession. It is impossible to visualize Him piling on the agony.
Better for Him not to have instituted Confession at all than to have
done that. Better to have left us free to confess directly to God in
secret. He would defeat His Own purpose if He made Confession
unnecessarily difficult. The burden was imposed to be a blessing in the
long run. Unnecessary requirements would be unnecessary sources of
anxiety and insecurity, tending to make Confession a sacrament of
strain and worry instead of a sacrament of peace.
Let us not defeat our Saviour's merciful designs by approaching
Confession as though it were the imposition of a prosecuting attorney
anxious to trap us into further mistakes. We must be careful not to
hurt our Saviour by want of trust. If we make Confession a botheration,
we are not using it properly, because we are not using it according to
the mind of Christ.
Civil authorities set up courts of justice, where strict justice is
meted out. Our Divine Saviour has set up instead a Court of Mercy, and
its name is Confession. The difference between the two courts is
admirably illustrated by a story told of Father Henry Day, S.J., whose
father is a judge. One day a penitent was seen coming away from Father
Day's confessional, obviously very jubilant. Her friend noticed it and
remarked on it. "Why shouldn't I be?" was the decided retort. "He has
only given me three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys and his father
gave me three months."
We must never lose sight of the fact that Confession is preeminently a
Sacrament of mercy. Jesus comes to us as our merciful judge on the Way,
that He may not have to be a stern judge at the Journey's End. If we
treat Him as a taskmaster, we completely misunderstand Him. It is no
excuse to say that we want to be on the safe side. We do not put
ourselves on the safe side by insulting Him and nursing heretical
ideas. Not merely need we not, but we must not, make Confession a
worrying nerve-straining effort. Straining is prohibited not commanded.
Because Confession is not meant to be a bugbear, all theologians teach
that no one is obliged to put himself to serious inconvenience when he
goes to Confession. This is a principle of great importance, which
should be well pondered and never lost sight of. If we act on any other
principle, we are guilty of obstinate pride by constructing our own
practical theology in direct opposition to the teaching of Christ and
All Our Lord demands is that we take enough trouble to make our
confession sincere. When we have confessed sincerely, there is
absolutely no need to worry because we did not confess with the
greatest possible earnestness and intensity. We are bound to do our
best; but we are not bound to do our bestest-best (if I might be
pardoned the ugly phrase).
If penitents remembered this, they would save themselves much entirely
unnecessary worry and nervous strain. It is a patent fact that many
Catholics go infrequently to Confession because of a false notion of
its requirements. They imagine that they must make a super-effort every
time, and naturally they cannot make such an effort often, because it
takes too much out of them. Even some of those who go frequently to
Confession find it a strain, and are relieved when they have got
Saturday night over.
To act like this is to play into the hands of unbelievers. At the
Reformation, Confession was called a "butchery of consciences," and
Catholics were accused of leaving nothing to the mercy of God.
Over-anxious penitents might profitably ask themselves what they do
leave to the mercy of God.
It is unfortunately true that some penitents find Confession a source
of serious nervous strain. The mere thought of the approach of
Confession day causes them to become nervous and preoccupied; and for
days beforehand they are recurrently spring-cleaning their consciences.
After Confession they never feel satisfied that they have done enough;
perhaps their examination of conscience was not sufficiently thorough,
perhaps they should have given more time to preparation, perhaps their
sorrow was not what it ought to have been. They keep going over their
examination of conscience in case they left out something, they
multiply acts of contrition and scheme to test the sincerity of their
contrition, they try to work themselves up to a fakir-like frenzy of
fervour and devotion. How insulting all this to the merciful Christ!
What son of a Master do they think they have? A single, simple,
straightforward effort is enough. He who has done his best, with
moderate diligence, has done all that Christ demands. If a penitent
wants to do more than is demanded, he should examine his motive. If the
motive is love, well and good; if the motive is fear, it is cowardly
distrust and far from good. If he thinks a nerve-racking effort
necessary, he insults Jesus by implying that He intended to make
Confession a botheration. If he does not think all this fuss necessary,
he condemns himself as ridiculous and his conduct as dishonourable to
God. If Jesus is satisfied, there is no reason why anyone should worry.
Let us hope that the scrupulous will not approve this doctrine as
consoling theory and then do nothing to reduce it to practice. Those
who are inclined to go back on past confessions, and have repeatedly
done so despite explicit prohibitions of the confessor, could
profitably change the direction of their scruples and examine
themselves instead of their confessions and --- confessors! They
suspect, perhaps, that the confessor is lax and taking a risky course
of action --- which, besides being a rather serious rash judgment of
the priest, amounts to an obstinate refusal to submit to any judgment
but their own.
Obviously, in their own conceit, they are wiser and more prudent
than the confessor. Not realizing how meticulously exact they are, he
is dispensing them from an obligation, and they want no dispensations.
He is doing no such thing. He is not dispensing them from anything but
simply declaring that the law no longer obliges, because they have
already done more than the Lord demands. Further effort would imply
self-will, secret pride, want of trust and an appalling misconception
both of the nature of the Sacrament and of the goodness of God. An
illustration should make this clear.
Suppose I lost a small sum of money and asked you to look for it for
me. Suppose I said: "If you don't find it within a quarter of an hour,
don't look any longer." If you did not find the money in the stated
time, and did not look for it any longer, obviously I could not blame
you; and if I did blame you, I should be both unreasonable and unjust.
Our Lord tells us to use moderate diligence in preparing for
Confession, and if we do no more, He cannot blame us without being
Let us study the kindly, helpful intentions of Jesus in obliging us to
confess serious sins, and we shall be saved from forming a distorted
idea of this Sacrament of Mercy and from approaching it in fear and
THE ACTUAL TERMS
It is surprisingly easy to fulfill the task set in Confession, because
amazingly little is absolutely demanded. God's terms are the easiest
possible. It is child's play for a sincere person to secure the valid
reception of the Sacrament of Penance.
The three indispensable acts of the penitent are confession, contrition
(which includes purpose of amendment) and satisfaction. The essential
requirements for the validity of these acts are amazingly light; the
rigorist would probably say --- scandalously light.
For the sake of clarity, let us consider the various kinds of
confession which our Divine Saviour could have imposed. We may reduce
them to four heads:
1. A general accusation of sin, such as, "I have sinned." This is
called by the theologians generic confession.
2. An indication of the theological species of sin. "I have sinned
mortally or venially."
3. The accusation according to number and kind of all sins, whether
mortal or venial.
4. The accusation of all mortal sins
according to number and kind.
Generic confession --- "I have sinned" --i s obviously demanded from
the nature of the case. Unless confession of some sort were prescribed,
there would have been no point in instituting the Sacrament. Our
Saviour was not obliged to institute the Sacrament, but once He did so,
He was obliged to insist on generic confession.
As regards the other forms of confession, He was perfectly free to
choose. This is a point of great importance. In making His choice He
acted as a legislator. His choice represents positive law; and positive
law, as we have seen, does not oblige with serious inconvenience.
We should not allow ourselves to have any doubts whatever as to what
our Saviour has chosen to oblige us to confess. Ignorance on so vital a
point is lamentable and must lead to confusion of thought and endless
THE EXTENT OF THE LAW OF CONFESSION
Jesus has obliged us to confess mortal sins according to their kind and
number. There is never an obligation to confess venial sins, unless we
have no other matter; in which case, we must confess at least one
venial sin for which we are truly sorry.
A law to confess all sins, mortal or venial, would be extremely onerous
and worrying, and it was to be expected that our kind Saviour would not
Confession of only the theological species of sin, "I have sinned
mortally or venially," would, by its vagueness, destroy to a great
extent the efficacy of the Sacrament. A vague confession would not
induce adequate relief of mind, and would deprive the Sacrament of much
of its satisfying and therapeutic value. It is not surprising,
therefore, that our Saviour did not choose that form of confession.
The actual obligation of confession is surprisingly easy and should
reassure those who are inclined to make examination of conscience a
fierce, nerve-racking ransacking of the soul. We are obliged to confess
only mortal sins. Now even a very ordinary Catholic would not need to
look for mortal sin. The thought of the sin would have been torturing
him ever since the time it was committed, and the difficulty would be
to forget rather than to remember. As soon as he knelt down to prepare
for Confession, his sin would be nagging at him, and would, so to
speak, give him a knock-out blow between the eyes. No need to find out
the sin; it will find him out and, like an unwelcome guest or a bore,
will introduce itself. A sincere person can, therefore, find necessary
matter for confession in a split-second.
There is never any obligation to make a complete catalogue of venial
sins, and it is seldom or never wise to try. If some venial sins are
omitted, it does not matter; because, provided we are sorry for
them, (there's the rub!), they are forgiven by the absolution. It is a
mistaken policy to rake up forgotten venial sins at the next
confession. There never was any obligation to confess them, so there is
no need make so much fuss about them. They are forgiven already, no
extant obligation to confess them remains, so there is absolutely no
reason why we should not be done with them.
It is pathetic to find people harrying themselves to a state of stupor
by excessive concern about the confession of venial sins. Penitents
with a haunted look about them, will say anxiously: "But suppose I
leave out some venial sins?" Well if you do, it is no great matter.
Inform yourself about the Church's teaching, and you will cease to be
your own unlawfully appointed inquisitor.
When theologians say that our sorrow must be universal, they mean that
it must include all mortal sins, not that it must include all venial
sins. Similarly, when they speak of the necessity of safeguarding the
integrity of confession, they mean that, in ordinary circumstances, we
must never omit to confess a mortal sin. In extraordinary circumstances
when it is morally impossible to make an integral confession the
obligation to do so is for the time being suspended because our kind
Divine Legislator does not wish even this law to oblige with serious
inconvenience which arises from unusual and accidental circumstances.
Applications of this law are rare and best left to the confessor, so it
is hardly necessary to treat of them at length here. The law is of
practical application, however, in cases of scrupulosity.
Thus a scrupulous person, for whom examination of conscience is a
nightmare, may be dispensed from the obligation of integral confession,
and should have no hesitation in restricting himself to generic
confession at the request of the confessor.
The obligation of Confession has been made as easy and worry-proof as
is consistent with the purpose of the Sacrament. The same is true of
the second act of the penitent --- contrition.
It is presumed that you know the distinction between contrition and
Contrition is sorrow for sin because we have offended God's infinite
goodness. Attrition is sorrow for sin for some less noble and more
selfish supernatural motive, for example, that we have lost Heaven and
In the Sacrament of Penance attrition is enough to obtain the pardon of
the most heinous sins. The implications of this doctrine are a
startling manifestation of Divine Mercy, meriting prolonged and
grateful meditation. This teaching means that if we take the trouble to
go to Confession, God is willing to forgive us our sins, even our
mortal sins, just because we have turned to Him with a feeble incipient
love, which is still largely selfish and occasioned principally by a
prudent regard for the security of our own skin. Even though we are
still much more concerned about ourselves than Him, He forgives us
because we are back once more on the road that leads to Him. Only God
would forgive on such terms. One wonders how He can, how such easy
forgiveness is consistent with His dignity. Who said that we leave
nothing to the Mercy of God?
Outside the Sacrament of Penance attrition is not enough to restore the
mortal sinner to grace; inside the Sacrament it is enough, and this is
a very powerful reason for confessing to a man if that man happens to
be a priest. Forgiveness is very much more certain in the Sacrament of
Penance than it could possibly be elsewhere; in fact, when we have done
what Our Lord demands, forgiveness is morally certain. Penance may be
called the Sacrament of easy forgiveness.
Another startling aspect of the sufficiency of attrition is that all
that is absolutely required for the validity of the Sacrament of
Penance is attrition for mortal sins.
If we are not sorry for some venial sins, even if we are not sorry for
any of our venial sins, the Sacrament is not invalidated provided we
have attrition for mortal sins, even past and confessed mortal sins.
Needless to say, such imperfect dispositions diminish the grace
received from the Sacrament, but they do not nullify it.
Mere humans could never be so merciful. The implications and
significance of this ready forgiveness should inspire the most absolute
confidence in the Divine Mercy. Consider one
parallel case and see how you would act. A former friend has robbed you
and made an attempt on your life. Afterwards he comes to you and
expresses his regret for the attempted homicide and restores his
ill-gotten goods; but adds that he is not in the least sorry for a
succession of petty slights and pin-pricks spread out over years. You
might forgive him his major offences, but would you readmit him to your
friendship? Yet that is what God does for us. Provided we are sorry for
our major offences, He tolerates our minor ones and receives us back to
His friendship. His kindness is amazing and should be most reassuring.
Whenever we go to Confession honestly determined to try to avoid all
mortal sin, it is almost impossible not to have the required minimum of
attrition if we have any faith at all, and are not quite asleep. Could
He have made things easier?
A word about purpose of amendment, just to emphasize the easy
requirements of the Sacrament. Suppose you went to Confession in a
hurry. You made definite acts of contrition, but you cannot recall
having made any explicit acts of purpose of amendment. Was the
Sacrament validly received? It was. Genuine contrition implies hatred
of sin, which, in turn, implies a determination to avoid it in future.
This is not a wise procedure, but it is enough to secure validity.
Failure to make clear-cut explicit acts of purpose of amendment is one
of the major reasons why the Sacrament does not produce more fruit (as
we shall see later), but for the moment we are discussing what is
absolutely necessary, not what is advisable. If we see how easy it is
to lay the necessary foundations, we shall, to our own great benefit,
approach the Sacrament with confidence and tranquillity of mind.
With regard to satisfaction, the essential requirements of the
Sacrament are that at the time the penance is given, we are willing to
accept it. If we changed our mind afterwards and refused to say the
penance, we should, needless to say, commit a sin; but even then the
Sacrament would not be undone. If the penance was a grave one imposed
for mortal sin, refusal to perform it would constitute a new mortal
sin. If the penance was a light one, refusal to perform it would amount
to a venial sin.
If deliberate refusal to say a penance does not invalidate the
Sacrament, it is perfectly clear that indeliberate omission of the
penance through forgetfulness does not invalidate it. If the omission
is due to a bad memory, there is no sin at all; but only a regrettable
loss of grace and sacramental satisfaction. Say your penance reverently
and earnestly, because it has a double value and works ex opere operato as well as ex opere operantis
(i.e. its efficacy is partly due to the sacramental operation of Christ
and partly to the virtuous activity of the penitent); but do not say it
anxiously, as though indifferent or distracted saying of it would ruin
Our Divine Saviour has obviously done His best to make Confession as
fear-proof as possible, so let us not frustrate His merciful designs by
introducing unwarranted fears based on ignorance. It is possible to
commit a good many sins in the actual act of Confession and yet not
nullify the Sacrament. He demands the very minimum. It is not for a
moment suggested that we should be content with the minimum. All the
same, it is a great advantage to know the minimum requirements of
Confession, because such knowledge enables us to appreciate how easy it
is to lay the sure foundations; and when we have done that, we can go
on tranquilly to raise a noble superstructure, which we cannot do if we
spend all our time worrying about the foundations.
Why is Confession so easy? "Because by His bruises we are healed. The
chastisement of our peace was upon Him. The Lord laid on Him the
iniquity of us all." The blows that were aimed at us fell aslant across
His bruised and battered Body and He broke the force of the blows. That
is why we get off so lightly. "He took the handwriting that was against
us and nailed it to the Cross in His Own Body." He made the supreme
sacrifice and perfect satisfaction for all the sins of the world.
Moreover, in the Agony in the Garden, He made a perfect Confession and
a perfect act of perfect contrition for all
the ns of the world. "Him Who knew no sin He hath made sin for us." His
Confession was absolutely accurate: His contrition, His sadness, was of
infinite intensity. Remember that, when you go to Confession, He has
already told those very sins you are about to tell, He has sorrowed for
them. Our task is to supplement His perfect Confession and perfect
contrition as best you can.
Naturally, you feel that your effort is hopelessly inadequate. Of
course it is. His will supply. Think more of His Confession and you
won't be so worried about your own. You never approach Confession
alone. He is always by your side, ready and anxious to help; and He
will never fail you nor allow you to fail Him, if you do your honest
best. Remember hat Confession is a Sacrament of Mercy and approach it
with childlike trust. He wants our trust and is pained when we do not
trust Him. And, after Calvary, the Mass and the institution of this
Sacrament of Mercy is it surprising?