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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

Confession before Communion

Fr. Scott A. Haynes


Confession of sins in the tradition of the Roman Rite.

In our day, many Catholics who receive Communion make little use of the Sacrament of Confession to prepare for a worthy reception of this great Sacrament of Christ’s True Presence. It is necessary, therefore, that we underline Christ’s fundamental invitation to conversion. According to certain ill-informed writers, Christ did not institute the Sacrament of Penance (Confession) or, at the very least, did not necessitate the person confession of sins to a priest in order to obtain sacramental absolution.

Some authors argue that confessing sins to a priest is a late invention of the Roman Catholic Church. In certain regions, where general absolution of a large group of people has become the norm, twenty centuries of Catholic doctrine, dogma, and tradition are being treated as if they do not exist.

On Easter Sunday night, Jesus Christ created the Sacrament of Confession. The Evangelist St. John writes:
“The doors were locked in the chamber where the disciples were for fear of the Jews.”
Jesus appeared among them. The Risen Lord said, “Peace be with you,” showing them His hands and side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were overjoyed. “Peace be with you,” He repeated once again.
“As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.”
He then breathed on them and said,
“Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven. For those whose sins you retain, they are retained” (John 20:19-23).
According to the Catholic Church, Christ granted the Apostles and their successors the right to forgive sins if they judge the penitent to be truly sorry for their sins. The priest absolves the penitent who has perfect contrition, which is to say, he who is sorry for their sins for having offended the love of God, as well as the sinner who has confessed with imperfect contrition, which is to say, for a penitent who is sorry for his sins because of the fear of hell’s punishment. The ramifications of this authority to decide whether or not to absolve sin are central to the Sacrament of Penance. Christ’s teaching indicates that the sinner must confess his sins before gaining pardon. He must admit what he did wrong.

This suggests that auricular confession, in which the priest listens to the penitent tells his own sins, is of divine origin. The confession of sins was not something invented by the Church. It is a divine rule that no one on Earth has the authority to change. It is an unalterable tenet of the Catholic faith.

In the early centuries after Christ, Christians strived to lead exemplarily lives of holiness. Living in those early times after Christ’s death and resurrection, they understood that being a Christian likely meant that they too could die as a martyr. Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire and participating in the Mass and Sacraments was to risk one’s own life. To be identified as a Christian, at various times of persecution, was to be marked as a martyr. For the first three hundred years of the Church’s history, every pope was a martyr of the faith. Thousands of people, men, women, and even children, shed their blood as a sign of their devotion to Christ.

Because most Catholics were generally living the life of grace in the early Church, the Sacrament of Confession was not as frequently received by most. Living virtuous lives, these zealous Chrisitians kept their own potential martyrdom before their eyes each day. Yet, even in the early Church, people did sin, and sinners could seek forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance Christ established by confessing their evil thoughts, words, and deeds, receiving absolution from the Priest, and performing penances—penances which to us today might seem extraordinarily difficult.

In the early days of the Church, people primarily considered the use of the Sacrament of Penance for those in mortal sin. It is true that we can obtain forgiveness of venial sin in other ways, whereas it is necessary to go to confession to be absolved of mortal sin. Perhaps because of the less frequent use of the Sacrament of Confession, there arose an attitude of severity in the clergy toward penitents who made confession of serious sins. There were times when bishops had to be chastised by the pope for being too harsh with penitents, either in demanding a sinner’s public confession of mortal sins, or in refusing to grant absolution for certain sins, such as apostasy, adultery, fornication, or murder.

The Sacrament of Confession in the Byzantine Rite.

One text delivered in the middle of the fifth century by Pope St. Leo the Great deserves to be cited in its whole. He is writing to the bishops of Campania, Italy, to chastise them for requiring public confession of sins before obtaining absolution in the sacrament of Penance.
“I have recently heard that some have unlawfully presumed to act contrary to a rule of Apostolic origin. And I hereby decree that the unlawful practice be completely stopped. It is with regard to the reception of penance. An abuse has crept in which requires that the faithful write out their individual sins in a little book which is then to be read out loud to the public. All that is necessary, however, is for the sinner to manifest his conscience in a secret confession to the priests alone…”
Pope St. Leo the Great goes on to write:
“It is sufficient, therefore, to have first offered one’s confession to God, and then also to the priest, who acts as an intercessor for the transgressions of the penitents” (Magna indignatione, March 6, 459).
As a result, private, individual confession of one’s sins to a priest may be traced back to apostolic times. In the sacrament of Penance, Christ Himself ordered confession, and His instructions have been followed since the first century of the Christian period. The precept of sacramental confession was one of the tenets of revealed religion that the Church had to defend.

In the sixteenth century, Protestant leaders rejected Confession as a divine institution. They were especially hostile to the Catholic Church’s teaching on the need of confessing one’s sins to a priest. As a result, the Council of Trent promulgated fifteen formal definitions on the sacrament of Penance. Two of them expressly address the requirement to confess sins to a priest. The following positions are judged to be incompatible with the Catholic faith:
“If anyone says that sacramental confession was not instituted by divine law or that it is not necessary for salvation according to the same law; or if anyone says that the method which the Catholic Church has always observed from the very beginning, and still observes, of confessing secretly to the priest alone is foreign to the institution and command of Christ, and that it is a human origin: let him be anathema.”
The Council of Trent would further declare:
“If anyone says that, to obtain remission of sins in the sacrament of Confession, it is not necessary according to divine law to confess each and every mortal sin that is remembered after proper and diligent examination, even secret sins, and sins against the last two commandments, and those circumstances which change the character of a sin…or finally that it is not permissible to confess venial sins: let him be anathema.”
Personal, private confession of sins to a priest in the Sacrament of Penance is the right of every single believer, as well as the Divine Redeemer, Christ. By faithfully observing the centuries-old practice of the Sacrament of Penance—the practice of individual confession with a personal act of sorrow and the intention to amend and make satisfaction—the Church defends the individual right of the human soul: man’s right to a more personal encounter with the crucified forgiving Christ, with Christ saying, through the priest the peaceful and healing words of absolution.

Confession is also a right on Christ’s behalf with regard to every person redeemed by Him on the Cross of Calvary. By establishing this Sacrament of Penance, Christ’s right to meet each of us in that moment of conversion and forgiveness. By administering the Sacrament of Penance (Confession), the Church openly asserts her confidence in the mystery of the Redemption with man’s interior truth, we need a Savior.

Confession has shown to be quite beneficial in maintaining or restoring our spiritual calm. Nothing disturbs the human soul more than the nagging sense of shame in the depths of a person’s soul when sin separates us from God. Nothing rivals the sense of love, joy, and peace that comes from the Sacrament of Penance—which, in Christ’s words, is the Sacrament of Peace.


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