Proper Use of the Sacrament of Penance


A wise bishop once said, “Sin is the shipwreck of the soul. If the sin is serious, it is a fatal shipwreck. Confession is the only plank to which we can safely cling, if we want to be brought back to the harbor of God’s grace. If, on the other hand, we receive the Sacrament of Penance with the proper dispositions, not only will it give us grace but confidence and peace of mind as well. This sacrament has very appropriately been called ‘the masterpiece of God’s mercy.’ We should be very grateful to God for this great gift.”


Desiring that all receive this grace-filled sacrament through its proper practice, especially during the penitential season of Lent, the priests here at St. John Cantius Parish would like to offer a few points of guidance:


1. First, as we prepare to go to Confession, awareness of what constitutes a mortal sin versus a venial sin is very important. To commit a mortal sin, one must do something that is gravely and objectively evil, do it with full knowledge that it is evil, and give full consent to it with the will. Venial sin, on the other hand, is a deviation but not a total turning away from God, akin to a sickness in the soul, which may reflect lukewarmness in a person’s soul. Venial sins “bruise” our state of grace with God, but they do not break it, like mortal sins do.


2. Second, when one is aware of a mortal sin, one should go to Confession as soon as possible. It is necessary to do so before receiving Holy Communion. However, regarding venial sins, one does not have to go to Confession every time before receiving Holy Communion or for every venial sin. The Church teaches that if one has only committed venial sins and makes a sincere Act of Contrition, reception of Holy Communion remits those sins.


It sometimes happens, however, that a person falls into mortal sin and then returns to the confessional only a couple days after one’s last Confession. Knowing that Confession is always available here at St. John Cantius Church may cultivate a mentality that one really does not have to try to refrain from falling into habitual sins. Overly frequent confession could be an indicator of presumption of God’s mercy and perhaps a weakened resolve to not sin again (i.e., “I can always go to confession again soon at St. John’s.”) Thus, going to Confession too frequently may indicate an abuse of the sacrament.


Therefore, the priests here at St. John Cantius Church ask that you not make a confession more often than once per week. A good standard practice is once every two to three weeks, although, again, one should go to Confession as soon as possible for mortal sins.


3. Third, regarding the fulfillment of the requirements for indulgences, it is not necessary to go to Confession on the very day of, say, First Friday, First Saturday, Divine Mercy Sunday, etc., which have indulgences associated with them. The Church says that it is sufficient that you have been to confession within 20 days and you have not committed any mortal sins since then.


4. Fourth, some people have a habit of regularly re-confessing past sins—a form of general confession—sometimes repeatedly. You should only confess those sins committed since your last confession (which, by the way, may be the same as past sins since we sometimes have areas of repeated weakness), so that the priest has a better sense of whether he needs to give you any specific spiritual guidance. An exception to this guideline is that if you remember a mortal sin from the past which you have not confessed, then do confess this sin.


5. Fifth, the Sacrament of Confession is for the confession and absolution of your sins. Although the priest may give some advice in regard to your sins, it is not the time or place for in-depth spiritual direction. Unduly extending your confession by asking questions and discussing your spiritual life may indicate a lack of charity to those behind you, who will have to unnecessarily wait longer.


6. Sixth, confession of your sins should be fairly concise, specific, to the point, and well-prepared. Lengthy, detailed explanations of what you did and how you came about doing it are not necessary and only make those behind you wait longer. It also may even be a subtle way of justifying your sin. Simply confess your sins concisely, and if the priest needs more information, he will ask you. On the other hand, the sins you confess should be reasonably specific rather than general observations. For example, confessing “I have not followed God’s commandments” is not specific enough. Rather, please specify the ways in which you have not followed God’s commandments.


7. Finally, sometimes the priest may tell you something in confession that you may not want to hear. Please consider that the Holy Spirit sometimes works in ways that seem blunt in order to help uproot sin. Try not to feel disheartened, but instead, consider that perhaps the Holy Spirit inspired the priest to tell you something plainly because you may need it to help you.


View our regular Confession schedule


Recommended Book:

7 Secrets of Confession by Vinny Flynn