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During a desperate battle on Guadalcanal in World War II, an American soldier threw himself on a Japanese grenade that landed among his mortar crew. The soldier survived the blast but was horribly wounded and maimed.
A chaplain visited the young man in an army hospital and asked him, "Why did you take that million to one chance and risk your life that way?"
The soldier smiled and replied, "It was like this, Father: I had gone to confession that morning, so I was ready to die, but I didn't know if the other guys were ready."
This American hero perfectly drives home a point about death and our need for confession.
Death is the rudest of all visitors. He never announces himself and always comes when we least expect and are least prepared for his visit.
Even if we're sorry for having offended God but don't go to confession regularly, we should at least prepare ourselves for the dreaded visitor.
"But, Joe," you say, "I'm not a bad person. Why do I need to go to confession regularly?" Obviously, I can't be your conscience, but I do have a good understanding of human nature. After all, I'm a human (believe it or not).
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize that Catholics aren't utilizing the confessional as they should. We live in a culture where what was once viewed by polite society as wrong is today the norm. We think nothing of dressing immodestly, using artificial contraception or even fudging on our taxes. Yet virtually everyone goes to Communion at Mass — despite a paltry few showing up for confession.
All sin — original and actual — is washed away in baptism. But that sacrament of initiation does not protect us from sins subsequently committed. Jesus understands human nature perfectly because He both created it and lived it. He, therefore, established the sacrament of penance so we could find reconciliation with God from sins we commit after baptism.
All sacraments have both matter and form. The matter of the sacrament of penance is each sin the penitent contritely confesses to the priest. What sort of matter would be considered worthy of confession? Well, after randomly poking through the written examination of conscience in front of me, I'll put to you a few questions, and you can decide if you perhaps need to go to confession:
These are just a very few of the moral questions to ask ourselves.
We should never allow shame or fear to prevent us from confessing our sins, especially mortal sins. Speaking from a purely human standpoint, I can understand how tempting it is to withhold a particular sin during confession. I've been tempted more than a few times myself. However, logic tells us such shame and fear are superfluous. The priest, who hears our confession, is acting in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. In other words, it's actually Christ to whom we are confessing our sins.
Furthermore, the priest is bound by the seal of confession. That means he can never tell a soul — including his own confessor— the matter of anyone's confession. Indeed, many priests have been jailed, tortured and murdered for not divulging the contents of a penitent's confession. The seal of confession even extends to the point that a priest can't use the knowledge gained from a confession for any reason. Let me illustrate that point.
Let's say that Fr. Patrick has appointed Judas Avarice to oversee the parish finances. One day, Judas goes to confession and tells Father that he's embezzled $250,000 from parish funds. Since Judas must replace the money to satisfy God's justice, Fr. Patrick tells Judas he must replace the money. However, there are two things Father absolutely cannot do. First, he can't tell the police and have Judas prosecuted, as that would violate the seal of confession. Second, Father can't later replace Judas in his position, as this also would be acting upon knowledge gained in the confessional. The seal of confession is that strict!
Now let's get back to being tempted to withhold an embarrassing mortal sin in confession. If a penitent deliberately omits the confession of a single mortal sin, he then commits the additional mortal sin of sacrilege, risking eternal punishment. Furthermore, he leaves the confessional without having any of his sins forgiven. In order to be forgiven and reconciled to God, the penitent must confess this particular sin of sacrilege. He must also confess any Communions received since that sacrilegious confession, as they are also sacrilegious. He must also confess all the sins of his sacrilegious confession and all mortal sins committed since then.
Whew! It's a lot easier to avoid the sacrilegious confession in the first place. A life hack I learned is when you're tempted to omit a mortal sin in the confessional, just tell the priest you're being tempted and the temptation will flee.
Now, sometimes people simply forget to confess a mortal sin. Don't try to play games with God, as He knows the truth, but if you genuinely forget to confess a mortal sin during confession, it's still OK to go to Communion, as God forgave the sin if you made a good confession and didn't deliberately omit any mortal sin. However, know with moral certitude that you are obligated to confess the forgotten mortal sin the next time you go to confession.
Finally, most Catholics think the priest must forgive your sins. No, not necessarily. Jesus gave His priests a decision-making power in the confessional, so a priest may withhold absolution if the penitent suggests he lacks sorrow for his mortal sins or if he indicates he won't break with the sin. For example, a man confesses several acts of adultery because he has a mistress. The priest tells the man he must break off the adulterous relationship. The man refuses. The priest would be within his right and doing his duty to refuse absolution.
The sacrament of penance is also called "reconciliation" and "confession." Next week, we'll take a final look at this wonderfully merciful sacrament.