Easy Terms
Alfred Wilson, CP

Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat, 1946

MANY non-Catholics cannot see any necessity for Confession nor what good it would do God to ask a man to confess 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.
Non-Catholics 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 with unconcern.

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 vicious example.

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 His Church.

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 unjust.

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 trembling.


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 perplexities.


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 impose it.

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 attrition.

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 deserved Hell.

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 the Sacrament.

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?