In his diabolical quest to destroy the Church at its very foundations, the infernal enemy has made varied and frequent onslaughts against all the Sacraments, from first to last. The heretic Wycliffe attacked that of Penance, which is a powerful aid for sinners to reach heaven: he denied the divine character of the institution of auricular confession while also affirming that it is of no use to the contrite. Following in his footsteps, Peter Martinez of Osma taught that contrition is all that is needed to attain the pardon of sins. Luther, in turn, discarded confession altogether as a ‘slaughter of consciences’. His contempt for auricular confession would be shared by Protestants to this day. Rationalists and unbelievers alike also never cease to insist that confession is nothing but a priestly invention for tormenting souls.
Today, other means and affirmations are employed to challenge this Sacrament and the sound doctrine that the Divine Savior bequeathed to us, lovingly safeguarded by Tradition and the Church’s infallible Magisterium.
Is the sacrament of Penance valid without the confession of one’s sins? It is known that only the mute and hearing-impaired are permitted to confess by means of signs and gestures. But does that make it licit to omit the verbal declaration of our sins in confession out of shame, fear, or some other difficulty we may be experiencing? Can we receive God’s pardon by simply presenting ourselves to the priest with contrition?
Let’s review what pure and sound doctrine has to teach on the matter. And let’s recall exactly what evils await those who profane this sacred Sacrament, and the end they will meet in eternity.
Enter the various parts of our study
II – The penitent who conceals mortal sins while confessing commits a sacrilege
III – The consequences of bad confessions
IV – The obligations of confessors in ministering the Sacrament of Penance
I – The Sacrament of Penance requires the accusation of faults to be validly administered
He who conceals his sins prospers not, but he who confesses and forsakes them obtains mercy. (Prov 28:13)
To hide one’s sins may happen in two ways: first, in the very act of sinning. […] Secondly, one hides one’s sin previously committed, by neglecting to confess it: this is opposed to Penance, and to hide one’s sins thus is not a second plank, but is the reverse, since it is written (Prov. 28:13): ‘He that hideth his sins shall not prosper.’ (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, III, q. 84, ad 1)
Man is bound to confess his sins even as he is bound to confess his faith. But confession of faith should be made ‘with the mouth’, as appears from Romans 10:10, therefore confession of sins should also. Further, who sinned by himself should, by himself, do penance. But confession is part of penance. Therefore the penitent should confess his own sins. I answer that Confession is not only an act of virtue, but also part of a sacrament. […] yet, in so far as it is part of a sacrament, it has a determinate act, just as the other sacraments have a determinate matter. And as in Baptism, in order to signify the inward washing, we employ that element which is chiefly used in washing, so in the sacramental act which is intended for manifestation we generally make use of that act which is most commonly employed for the purpose of manifestation, viz. our own words; for other ways have been introduced as supplementary to this. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, Supplement, q. 9, a. 4)
Just as in Baptism it is not enough to wash with anything, but it is necessary to wash with a determinate element, so neither does it suffice, in Penance, to manifest one’s sins anyhow, but they must be declared by a determinate act. It is enough for one who is ignorant of a language, to confess by writing, or by signs, or by an interpreter, because a man is not bound to do more than he can. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, Supplement, q. 9, a. 3)
As stated above (a. 1, ad 1/ad 2), in this sacrament the acts of the penitent are as matter, while the part taken by the priest, who works as Christ’s minister, is the formal and completive element of the sacrament. Now in the other sacraments the matter pre-exists, being provided by nature, as water, or by art, as bread: but that such and such a matter be employed for a sacrament requires to be decided by the institution; while the sacrament derives its form and power entirely from the institution of Christ, from Whose Passion the power of the sacraments proceeds. Accordingly the matter of this sacrament pre-exists, being provided by nature; since it is by a natural principle of reason that man is moved to repent of the evil he has done: yet it is due to Divine institution that man does penance in this or that way. Wherefore at the outset of His preaching, our Lord admonished men, not only to repent, but also to ‘do penance’, thus pointing to the particular manner of actions required for this sacrament. As to the part to be taken by the ministers, this was fixed by our Lord when He said to Peter (Mt 16:19): ‘To thee will I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven,’ etc.; but it was after His resurrection that He made known the efficacy of this sacrament and the source of its power, when He said (Lk 24:47) that ‘penance and remission of sins should be preached in His name unto all nations,’ after speaking of His Passion and resurrection. Because it is from the power of the name of Jesus Christ suffering and rising again that this sacrament is efficacious unto the remission of sins. It is therefore evident that this sacrament was suitably instituted in the New Law. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, III, q. 84, ad. 7)
In Penance, the offense is atoned according to the will of the sinner, and the judgment of God against Whom the sin was committed, because in the latter case we seek not only the restoration of the equality of justice, as in vindictive justice, but also and still more the reconciliation of friendship, which is accomplished by the offender making atonement according to the will of the person offended. Accordingly the first requisite on the part of the penitent is the will to atone, and this is done by contrition; the second is that he submit to the judgment of the priest standing in God’s place, and this is done in confession; and the third is that he atone according to the decision of God’s minister, and this is done in satisfaction: and so contrition, confession, and satisfaction are assigned as parts of Penance. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, III, q. 90, a. 2)
Some of the above conditions are essential to confession, and some are requisite for its well-being. Now those things which are essential to confession belong to it either as to an act of virtue, or as to part of a sacrament. […] By reason of its very nature, viz. confession, this act is one of manifestation: which manifestation can be hindered by four things […] fourthly none of those things should be suppressed which should be made known, and in this respect confession should be ‘entire’. […] Wherefore it should be an ‘accusation’ [accusans] on the part of the penitent. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, Supplement, q. 9, a. 4)
But ‘sin, when it is completed, begetteth death’ (Jas 1:15). Consequently it is necessary for the sinner’s salvation that sin be taken away from him; which cannot be done without the sacrament of Penance, wherein the power of Christ’s Passion operates through the priest’s absolution and the acts of the penitent, who co-operates with grace unto the destruction of his sin. For as Augustine says (Tract. LXXII in Joan.), ‘He Who created thee without thee, will not justify thee without thee.’ (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, III, q. 84, a. 5)
In Penance also, there is something which is sacrament only, viz. the acts performed outwardly both by the repentant sinner, and by the priest in giving absolution; that which is reality and sacrament is the sinner’s inward repentance; while that which is reality, and not sacrament, is the forgiveness of sin. The first of these taken altogether is the cause of the second; and the first and second together are the cause of the third. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, III, q. 84, a.1, ad. 3)
Integral parts are those by which the perfection of the whole is integrated. But the perfection of Penance is integrated by these three. Therefore they are integral parts of Penance. Some have said that these three are subjective parts of Penance. But this is impossible, because the entire power of the whole is present in each subjective part at the same time and equally, just as the entire power of an animal, as such, is assured to each animal species, all of which species divide the animal genus at the same time and equally: which does not apply to the point in question. Wherefore others have said that these are potential parts: yet neither can this be true, since the whole is present, as to the entire essence, in each potential part, just as the entire essence of the soul is present in each of its powers: which does not apply to the case in point. Therefore it follows that these three are integral parts of Penance, the nature of which is that the whole is not present in each of the parts, either as to its entire power, or as to its entire essence, but that it is present to all of them together at the same time. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, III, q. 90, a. 3)
Consequently penance holds the second place with regard to the state of integrity which is bestowed and safeguarded by the aforesaid sacraments, so that it is called metaphorically ‘a second plank after shipwreck’. For just as the first help for those who cross the sea is to be safeguarded in a whole ship, while the second help when the ship is wrecked, is to cling to a plank; so too the first help in this life’s ocean is that man safeguard his integrity, while the second help is, if he lose his integrity through sin, that he regain it by means of Penance. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, III, q. 84, a. 6)
Q: Why is this sacrament also called Confession?
A: This sacrament is also called Confession, because to obtain pardon for sins it is not enough to detest them, but it is necessary also to accuse oneself of them to the priest, that is, to make a confession of them.
Q: What is the matter of the sacrament of Penance?
A: The matter of the sacrament of Penance is divided into remote and proximate. The remote matter consists of the sins committed by the penitent after Baptism; and the proximate matter are the acts of the penitent himself, that is, contrition, confession and satisfaction.
Q: In what does confession of sins consist?
A: Confession of sins consists in a distinct accusation of our sins made to the confessor in order to obtain absolution and receive penance for them.
Q: Why is confession called an accusation?
A: Confession is called an accusation, because it must not be a careless recital, but a true and sorrowful manifestation of our sins. (Catechism of Saint Pius X, no. 3.6.14-15)
Confession, then, is defined: A sacramental accusation of one’s sins, made to obtain pardon by virtue of the keys. (Catechism of Trent, 2400)
There is nothing that should be better known to the faithful than the matter of this Sacrament; hence they should be taught that Penance differs from the other Sacraments in this that while the matter of the other Sacraments is something, whether natural or artificial, the matter, as it were, of the Sacrament of Penance is the acts of the penitent, namely, contrition, confession and satisfaction – as has been declared by the council of Trent. Now, inasmuch as these acts are by divine institution required on the part of the penitent for the integrity of the Sacrament, and for the full and perfect remission of sin, they are called parts of Penance. (Catechism of Trent, 2400)
These three parts belong to that class of parts which are necessary to constitute a whole. The human body is composed of many members, – hands, feet, eyes and the various other parts; the want of any one of which makes the body be justly considered imperfect, while if none of them is missing, the body is regarded as perfect. In the same way, Penance is composed of these three parts in such a way that though contrition and confession, which justify man, are alone required to constitute its essence, yet, unless accompanied by its third part, satisfaction, it necessarily remains short of its absolute perfection. (Catechism of Trent, 2400)
The reason why these are the integral parts may be thus explained. Sins against God are committed by thought, by word and by deed. It is, then, but reasonable, that in recurring to the power of the keys we should Endeavour to appease God’s wrath, and obtain pardon for our sins by means of the very same things which we employed to offend His sovereignty. A further reason by way of confirmation can also be assigned. Penance is a sort of compensation for sin, springing from the free will of the delinquent, and is appointed by God, against whom the offence has been committed. Hence, on the one hand, there is required the willingness to make compensation, in which willingness contrition chiefly consists; while, on the other hand, the penitent must submit himself to the judgment of the priest, who holds God’s place, in order to enable him to award a punishment proportioned to the gravity of the sin committed. Hence the reason for and the necessity of confession and satisfaction are easily inferred. (Catechism of Trent, 2400)
But since in confession many things are to be observed, some of which are essential, some not essential to the Sacrament, all these matters should be carefully treated. […]
Pastors should teach, first of all, that care must be exercised that confession be complete and entire. All mortal sins must be revealed to the priest. […] Mortal sins, as we have already said, are all to be confessed, even though they are most secret […] So the Council of Trent has defined, and such has been the constant teaching of the Church, as the Fathers declare. […] We should not be satisfied with the bare enumeration of our mortal sins, but should mention such circumstances as considerably aggravate or extenuate their malice. […] In the second place our confession should be plain, simple and undisguised; not artfully made […] Our confession should be such as to disclose to the priest a true image of our lives, such as we ourselves know them to be, exhibiting as doubtful that which is doubtful, and as certain that which is certain. If, then, we neglect to enumerate our sins, or introduce extraneous matter, our confession, it is clear, lacks this quality. (Catechism of Trent, 2400)
Contrition, it is true, blots out sin; but who does not know that to effect this it must be so intense, so ardent, so vehement, as to bear a proportion to the magnitude of the crimes which it effaces? This is a degree of contrition which few reach; and hence, in this way, very few indeed could hope to obtain the pardon of their sins. It, therefore, became necessary that the most merciful Lord should provide by some easier means for the common salvation of men; and this He has done in His admirable wisdom, by giving to His Church the keys of the kingdom of heaven. According to the doctrine of the Catholic Church, a doctrine firmly to be believed and constantly professed by all, if the sinner have a sincere sorrow for his sins and a firm resolution of avoiding them in future, although he bring not with him that contrition which may be sufficient of itself to obtain pardon, all his sins are forgiven and remitted through the power of the keys, when he confesses them properly to the priest. (Catechism of Trent, 2400)
In prescribing medicine for the body, the physician should know not only the disease for which he is prescribing, but also the general constitution of the sick person. […] The same is to be said in regard to sins. […] Hence it is necessary for confession that man confess all the sins that he calls to mind, and if he fails to do this, it is not a confession, but a pretense of confession. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, Supplement, q. 9, a2)
Q: Which are the qualities the accusation of sins, or confession, ought to have?
A: The principal qualities which the accusation of our sins ought to have are five: It ought to be humble, entire, sincere, prudent and brief. […] Q: What is meant by saying that the accusation ought to be entire?
A: That the accusation ought to be entire means that all mortal sins we are conscious of having committed since our last good confession must be made known, together with the circumstances and number. […] Q: What is meant by saying that the accusation ought to be sincere?
A: By saying that the accusation ought to be sincere, is meant that we must unfold our sins as they are, without excusing them, lessening them, or increasing them. (Catechism of Saint Pius X, no. 73.75.87)
Q: Having prepared properly for confession by an examination of conscience, by exciting sorrow, and by forming a good resolution, what do you do next?
A: Having prepared properly for confession by an examination of conscience, by sorrow, and by a purpose of amendment, I will go to make an accusation of my sins to the confessor in order to get absolution.
Q: What sins are we bound to confess?
A: We are bound to confess all our mortal sins; it is well, however, to confess our venial sins also. […] Q: If a mortal sin, forgotten in confession, is afterwards remembered, are we bound to confess it in another confession?
A: If a mortal sin forgotten in confession is afterwards remembered we are certainly bound to confess it the next time we go to confession. (Catechism of Saint Pius X, no. 71-72.83)
Let everyone of the faithful of both sexes, after he has arrived at the years of discretion, alone faithfully confess all his sins at least once a year to his own priest. (Denzinger-Hünermann 812. Lateran Council IV, The Obligation of making confession and of its not being revealed, Ch. 21, 1215)
If, after having heard the confession, he [the priest] is of the opinion that the penitent did not entirely lack diligence in examining his conscience or sorrow in detesting his sins, he may absolve him; but if he has found him deficient in both, he should, as we have already said, admonish him to use greater care in his examination of conscience, and dismiss him as kindly as he can. (Catechism of Trent, 2400)
From the institution of the sacrament of penance as already explained the universal Church has always understood that the complete confession of sins was also instituted by our Lord, (Jas 5:16; Jn 1:9), and by divine law is necessary for all who have fallen after baptism [can. 7], because our Lord Jesus Christ, when about to ascend from earth to heaven, left behind Him priests as His own vicars (Mt 16:19; Mt 18:18; Jn 20:23), as rulers and judges, to whom all the mortal sins into which the faithful of Christ may have fallen should be brought, so that they in virtue of the power of the keys may pronounce the sentence of remission or retention of sins. For it is evident that priests could not have exercised this judgment without a knowledge of the matter, nor could they indeed have observed justice in imposing penalties, if the faithful had declared their sins in general only, and not specifically and one by one. (Denzinger-Hünermann 1679. Council of Trent, Session XIV, Session XIII, Ch. 5, Confession, October 11, 1551)
The third conviction, which is one that I wish to emphasize, concerns the realities or parts which make up the sacramental sign of forgiveness and reconciliation. Some of these realities are acts of the penitent, of varying importance but each indispensable either for the validity, the completeness or the fruitfulness of the sign. […] We therefore understand why, from the earliest Christian times, in line with the apostles and with Christ, the church has included in the sacramental sign of penance the confession of sins. This latter takes on such importance that for centuries the usual name of the sacrament has been and still is that of confession. The confession of sins is required, first of all, because the sinner must be known by the person who in the sacrament exercises the role of judge. He has to evaluate both the seriousness of the sins and the repentance of the penitent; he also exercises the role of the healer and must acquaint himself with the condition of the sick person in order to treat and heal him. We therefore understand why, from the earliest Christian times, in line with the apostles and with Christ, the church has included in the sacramental sign of penance the confession of sins. This latter takes on such importance that for centuries the usual name of the sacrament has been and still is that of confession. The confession of sins is required, first of all, because the sinner must be known by the person who in the sacrament exercises the role of judge. He has to evaluate both the seriousness of the sins and the repentance of the penitent; he also exercises the role of the healer and must acquaint himself with the condition of the sick person in order to treat and heal him. […] Thus we understand why the confession of sins must ordinarily be individual not collective, just as sin is a deeply personal matter. But at the same time this confession in a way forces sin out of the secret of the heart and thus out of the area of pure individuality, emphasizing its social character as well, for through the minister of penance it is the ecclesial community, which has been wounded by sin, that welcomes anew the repentant and forgiven sinner. (John Paul II. Apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia, no. 31, III, December 2, 1984)
The holy Council, while recording these matters regarding the parts and effect of this sacrament, condemns the opinions of those who maintain that the parts of penance are the terrors of conscience and faith [can. 4]. (Denzinger-Hünermann 1675. Council of Trent, Session XIV, Session XIII, Ch. 3, The Parts and Fruits of the Sacrament of Penance, October 11, 1551)
If anyone denies that for the full and perfect remission of sins there are three acts required on the part of the penitent, as it were, the matter of the sacrament of penance, namely contrition, confession, and satisfaction, which are called the three parts of penance; or says, that there are only two parts of penance, namely the terrors of a troubled conscience because of the consciousness of sin, and the faith received from the Gospel or from absolution, by which one believes that his sins have been forgiven him through Christ: let him be anathema [cf. no. 896 ]. (Denzinger-Hünermann 1704. Council of Trent, Session XIV, Canons on the Sacrament of Penance, Can. 4, November 25, 1551)
If anyone says that in the sacrament of penance it is not necessary by divine law for the remission of sins to confess each and all mortal sins, of which one has remembrance after a due and diligent examination, even secret ones and those which are against the two last precepts of the decalogue, and the circumstances which alter the nature of sin; but that this confession is useful only for the instruction and consolation of the penitent, and formerly was observed only for imposing a canonical satisfaction; or says, that they who desire to confess all their sins wish to leave nothing to be pardoned by divine mercy; or, finally, that it is not lawful to confess venial sins: let him be anathema [cf. n. 899-901] (Denzinger-Hünermann 1707. Council of Trent, Session XIV, Canons on the Sacrament of Penance, Can. 7, November 25, 1551)
II – The penitent who conceals mortal sins while confessing commits a sacrilege
So important is it that confession be entire that if the penitent confesses only some of his sins and wilfully neglects to accuse himself of others which should be confessed, he not only does not profit by his confession, but involves himself in new guilt. Such an enumeration of sins cannot be called sacramental confession; on the contrary, the penitent must repeat his confession, not omitting to accuse himself of having, under the semblance of confession, profaned the sanctity of the Sacrament. (Catechism of Trent, 2400)
Then there are those who confess some sins, and others not, or they split their confession between two or more confessors. But these do not merit, and rather sin by doing so, because they intend to deceive God and they are making a rift in the sacrament. Against the first group someone said, ‘It is unholy to hope for half-pardon from God’. As for the second group (Ps 61:9): ‘Pour out your hearts before him’, because in confession all is to be revealed. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Ten Commandments, no. 38, Prologue)
Q: What does he commit who, through shame or some other motive, willfully conceals a mortal sin in confession?
A: He who, through shame or some other motive, willfully conceals a mortal sin in confession, profanes the sacrament and is consequently guilty of a very great sacrilege.
Q: In what way must he relieve his conscience who has willfully concealed a mortal sin in confession?
A: He who has willfully concealed a mortal sin in confession, must reveal to his confessor the sin concealed, say in how many confessions he has concealed it, and make all these confessions over again, from the last good confession. (Catechism of Saint Pius X, no. 84-85)
Q: What reflection should a penitent make who is tempted to conceal a sin in confession?
A: He who is tempted to conceal a mortal sin in confession should reflect: (1) That he was not ashamed to sin, in the presence of God who sees all; (2) That it is better to manifest his sin secretly to the confessor than to live tormented by sin, die an unhappy death, and be covered with shame before the whole world on the day of general judgment; (3) That the confessor is bound by the seal of confession under the gravest sin and under threat of the severest punishments both temporal and eternal. (Catechism of Saint Pius X, no. 86)
III – The consequences of bad confessions
Having said so much on contrition, we now come to confession, which is another part of Penance. The care and exactness which its exposition demands of pastors must be at once obvious, if we only reflect that most holy persons are firmly persuaded that whatever of piety, of holiness, of religion, has been preserved to our times in the Church, through God’s goodness, must be ascribed in great measure to confession. It cannot, therefore, be a matter of surprise that the enemy of the human race, in his efforts to destroy utterly the Catholic Church, should, through the agency of the ministers of his wicked designs, have assailed with all his might this bulwark, as it were, of Christian virtue. (Catechism of Trent, 2400)
Before all else, I recommend that you take the greatest caution not to fall into sin; and if you have the disgrace to commit one, do not heed the tempter devil; he will try to make you conceal it in confession. […] I wished to say these things to you so that you never let yourselves be deceived by the devil, keeping silent about a sin in confession out of shame. (Saint John Bosco. Biografía y escritos [Biography and Writings], Second edition, Madrid: BAC, 1967, pg. 826)
Do not be afraid to confess to the confessor your defects and your faults. […] Let nothing, my dear sons, take this confidence from you: Not shame, for we know well that human miseries are human miseries, and you certainly do not go to confession to tell miracles. […] Nor the fear that the priest may reveal something of what was heard in confession; this is a tremendous secret for him; the slightest veniality revealed would suffice to condemn him to hell. Nor the fear that what has been confessed to him will later be recalled […] So, take heart, my little sons, let us not make the devil laugh. Confess well, telling all. […] The snare with which the devil commonly traps young people is precisely this: making them feel great shame when they go to confess a sin. When he impels them to commit them, he then takes away all shame and makes them believe that they are mere trifles; but he later gives it back to them, when they seek to confess and, what is more, increases it, and does his utmost to put the idea into their heads that the confessor will be shocked in seeing them thus fallen and will lose the esteem in which he held them. In this way, he ever attempts to lead souls more and more toward the abyss of eternal perdition. Oh, how many souls, especially of young people, does the devil not steal from God, frequently and forever! (Saint John Bosco. Biografía y escritos [Biography and Writings], Second edition, Madrid: BAC, 1967, pg. 527-528)
I looked and I saw [in a dream] three more youths in a dreadful position. Each of them a large monkey on his back. I observed attentively and saw that the monkeys had horns. Each of those terrible beasts, grasped those poor unfortunates by the neck with their front paws, gripping so tightly that the youths’ faces became completely congested, and their bloodshot eyes bulged to the point of almost springing from their sockets. With their hind legs, they so squeezed the youths’ thighs that they could scarcely move and, with their tail, which was most elongated, they also bound their legs so that walking was almost impossible. This means that those youths, even after the spiritual exercises, are in mortal sin: the devil squeezes their neck, preventing them from speaking when they should, instilling such shame in them, that they lose their senses and do not know what to do. This shame, rather than leading them to salvation, leads them to perdition. (Saint John Bosco. Biografía y escritos (Biography and Writings), Second edition, Madrid: BAC, 1967, pg. 577-578)
I asked what these youths should do to rid their backs of such a horrible monster. He hastily said: ‘Labor, sweat and fervor’. I do not understand, speak more clearly. He repeated once again: ‘Labor, sweat and fervor’. […] ‘I understand the words materially, but you would do well to give their explanation’. ‘Labor in assiduis operibus; sudor in poenitentiis continuis; fervor in orationibus ferventibus’. (Saint John Bosco. Biografía y escritos (Biography and Writings), Second edition, Madrid: BAC, 1967, pg. 578)
I assure you, very beloved young people, that my hand trembles in writing these lines at the consideration of the great number of Christians who are eternally lost for not having declared certain sins with sincerity in confession. If, by chance, one of you, reviewing your past life, recalls that you hid a sin in confession, or had the slightest doubt as to the validity of one or other of them, hear what I am about to tell you in the greatest earnestness: ‘Friend, for the love of Jesus Christ and of the Precious Blood He shed to save you, I beseech you to set the state of your conscience straight the very next time you go to confess, and reveal, with sincerity, all that might embitter your soul if you were to find yourself at the moment of death’. (Saint John Bosco. Biografía y escritos (Biography and Writings), Second edition, Madrid: BAC, 1967, pg. 826)
I had a dream. Much of what was seen cannot be described, because… to express them, neither word nor intelligence will suffice. […] There were four youths bound with thick chains and with locks on their lips. I observed them attentively and I knew them. […] I, confounded and overwhelmed at those strange things, asked him the reason for the locks clamping the lips of those fellows. He replied: ‘Do you not understand? These are the ones who keep silent’. ‘But what do they keep silent about?’ ‘They keep silent’. Then I understood that he meant those who keep silent in confession. It is those who, even if questioned by the confessor, do not answer, or answer evasively, or untruthfully. They say that it isn’t so, when it is. […] This is true to such extent, that, in all the world, the number of those who are condemned for going to confession is greater than that of those who are condemned for not going to confession, for even the worst will confess at some time, but very many confess badly. (Saint John Bosco. Biografía y escritos (Biography and Writings), Second edition, Madrid: BAC, 1967, pg. 574.576-577)
But since all mortal sins, even those of thought, make men children of wrath (Eph 2:3) and enemies of God, it is necessary to ask pardon for all of them from God by an open and humble confession. While, therefore, the faithful of Christ strive to confess all sins which occur to their memory, they undoubtedly lay all of them before the divine mercy to be forgiven [can. 7]. While those who do otherwise and knowingly conceal certain sins, lay nothing before the divine bounty for forgiveness by the priest. ‘For if one who is ill is ashamed to make known his wound to the physician, the physician does not remedy what he does not know.’ Furthermore, it is gathered that those circumstances also must be explained in confession, which alter the species of the sin, [can. 7], because without them the sins themselves are neither honestly revealed by the penitents, nor are they known to the judges, and it would not be possible for them to judge rightly the gravity of the crimes and to impose the punishment which is proper to those penitents. Hence it is unreasonable to teach that these circumstances have been conjured up by idle men, or that one circumstance only must be confessed, namely to have sinned against a brother. But it is also impious to say that a confession, which is ordered to be made in this manner [can. 8] is impossible, or to call it a torture of conscience; for it is clear that in the Church nothing else is exacted of the penitents than that each one, after he has carefully examined himself and searched all the nooks and recesses of his conscience, confess those sins by which he recalls that he has mortally offended his Lord and God […] But, truly, the difficulty of such confession and the shame of disclosing the sins might appear a burdensome matter indeed, if it were not alleviated by so many and such great advantages and consolations which are most certainly bestowed by absolution upon all those who approach this sacrament worthily. (Denzinger-Hünermann 1680-1681.1682. Council of Trent, Session XIV, October 11, Confession, Ch. 5, 1551)
May it be God who covers your wounds, not you. In fact, if you wish to cover them up because them cause you shame, the physician will not cure them. May the physician hide and cure them; because he covers them with the plaster. Beneath the physician’s bands the wound will heal; beneath the sick man’s blinds the wound is hidden. From whom do you hide it? From He who knows all things. (Saint Augustine of Hippo. Commentaries on Psalm 31, no. 12)
But let no one think that all the punishment is not taken away because of any deficiency in the redemption of the Lord, whose power is present and works in the sacraments. For, as David says, his redemption ‘is plentiful’ (Ps 130:7). Rather, it is through the fault of the penitent, for not bringing to the sacrament the disposition to receive more. For the penitent may bear such sorrow and shame as to rise from the feet of the confessor pardoned of all guilt and punishment, as with the reception of holy baptism, which removes all of this from anyone who is even moderately disposed to receive it. Let everyone know that the oil which our great Elisha (cf. 2Kings 4:1-7), Jesus Christ our Lord, gave us when he gave us his passion, works in his most precious sacraments so that, with it, we may be able to pay all our debts, living here the life of grace and afterward, that of glory. But we, like the other widow in the story of Elisha, must bring the vessels of our good disposition, according to which each one will receive the effect of Christ’s sacred passion, which in itself is completely sufficient and even superabundant. (Saint John of Avila. Audi, Filia – Listen, o daughter, Ch. 18 – (pg. 81))
For every sinner, while he keeps his sin hidden within his conscience, lurks within himself, hidden in his own heart. But the dead man ‘comes forth’ when the sinner freely confesses his wrongdoing. Lazarus was therefore commanded, ‘Come forth’, as though it were being said to any sinner, who is dead in his sin: ‘Why are you concealing your wrongdoing in your heart? Come out, by means of confession, you who lurk within yourself through denial’. Let the dead man come forth, that is, let the sinner clearly acknowledge his sin, As he comes forth, let the disciples unbind him. That is, if a man is not ashamed to confess what he has done, let the pastors of the Church remove the penalty he had incurred. (Gregory I the Great. Homilies on the Gospels, Homily 26 – (pg. 99-100))
If you do not confess the greatness of the debt, you do not discover the excess of grace. (Saint John Chrysostom. Homily 4, On Lazarus and the rich man, pg. 89)
Let us then leave this pernicious curiosity, and bruise our hearts, let us mourn for our sins as Christ commanded, let us be pricked at heart for our transgressions, let us reckon up exactly all the wicked deeds, which in time past we have dared, and let us earnestly strive to wipe them off in all kinds of ways. Now to this end God has opened to us many ways. For, ‘Tell you first,’ says He, ‘your sins, that you may be justified’ (Is 43:26); and again, ‘I said, I have declared mine iniquity unto You, and You have taken away the unrighteousness of my heart’ (Ps 32:5). (Saint John Chrysostom. Homilies on Saint John, Homily 7)
The first way of repentance is condemnation of sins. ‘Declare thou first thy sins that thou mayest be justified’ (Is 43:26). Wherefore also the prophet said, ‘I said, I will speak out, my transgression to the Lord, and thou remittedst the iniquity of my heart’. (Ps 32:5) Condemn thyself therefore for thy sins. This is enough for the Master by way of self-defence. For he who condemns his sins, is slower to fall into them again. Awake thy conscience, that inward accuser, in order that thou mayest have no accuser at the judgment seat of the Lord. (Saint John Chrysostom. Homily II on the tempter, no. 6)
Do you perceive the perfect confession? Do you see how he [the good theif] stripped himself of his sins on the cross? For it is read in Scripture: Declare thou first thy sins that thou mayest be justified! No one obliged him, no one did him violence, rather he denounced his very self, in saying: And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And then added: Lord, remember me in your kingdom. But before he had laid aside the burden of his sins by confessing them did the thief dare to say the words ‘Remember me in your kingdom’. Do you not see the value of that confession? It opened Paradise! It gave the former brigand the confidence to seek admission to the kingdom! (Saint John Chrysostom. Homily I on the Cross and the thief, pg. 285, I, 3-4: PG 49, 403-404)
For accusing ourselves in our confessions and refusing the spirit’s consent to our fleshly lusts, we stir up against us the enmity of him who is the author of sin, but secure a peace with God that nothing can destroy, by accepting His gracious service. (Leo I the Great. Homily XXVI on the Nativity of Our Lord, no. VI, 4)
Another advantage of confession, which should not be overlooked, is that it contributes powerfully to the preservation of social order. Abolish sacramental confession, and that moment you deluge society with all sorts of secret and heinous crimes – crimes too, and others of still greater enormity, which men, once that they have been depraved by vicious habits, will not dread to commit in open day. The salutary shame that attends confession restrains licentiousness, bridles desire and checks wickedness. (Catechism of Trent, 2400)
To appreciate further the great advantages of confession we may turn to a fact taught by experience. To those who have led immoral lives nothing is found so useful towards a reformation of morals as sometimes to disclose their secret thoughts, all their words and actions, to a prudent and faithful friend, who can assist them by his advice and cooperation. For the same reason it must prove most salutary to those whose minds are agitated by the consciousness of guilt to make known the diseases and wounds of their souls to the priest, as the vicegerent of Christ our Lord, bound to eternal secrecy by the strictest of laws. (In the Sacrament of Penance) they will find immediate remedies, the healing qualities of which will not only remove the present malady, but will also have such a heavenly efficacy in preparing the soul against an easy relapse into the same kind of disease and infirmity. (Catechism of Trent, 2400)
When a person is in mortal sin nothing can be more salutary, so precarious is human life, than to have immediate recourse to confession. But even if we could promise ourselves a long life, yet it would be truly disgraceful that we who are so particular in whatever relates to cleanliness of dress or person, were not at least equally careful in preserving the lustre of the soul unsullied from the foul stains of sin. (Catechism of Trent, 2400)
One who desires to obtain reconciliation with God and with the Church, must confess to a priest all the unconfessed grave sins he remembers after having carefully examined his conscience. […] Individual and integral confession of grave sins followed by absolution remains the only ordinary means of reconciliation with God and with the Church. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1493.1497)
Beneath the changes in discipline and celebration that this sacrament has undergone over the centuries, the same fundamental structure is to be discerned. It comprises two equally essential elements: on the one hand, the acts of the man who undergoes conversion through the action of the Holy Spirit: namely, contrition, confession, and satisfaction; on the other, God’s action through the intervention of the Church. The Church, who through the bishop and his priests forgives sins in the name of Jesus Christ and determines the manner of satisfaction, also prays for the sinner and does penance with him. Thus the sinner is healed and re-established in ecclesial communion. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1448)
IV – Obligations of confessors in ministering the Sacrament of Penance
Moreover, beloved brethren, a new kind of devastation has appeared; and, as if the storm of persecution had raged too little, there has been added to the heap, under the title of mercy, a deceiving mischief and a fair-seeming calamity. […] They do not seek for the patience necessary to health nor the true medicine derived from atonement. Penitence is driven forth from their breasts, and the memory of their very grave and extreme sin is taken away. The wounds of the dying are covered over, and the deadly blow that is planted in the deep and secret entrails is concealed by a dissimulated suffering. (Saint Cyprian of Carthage. Treatise III, De Lapsis, no. 15)
A confessor exposes himself to as much danger of damnation by treating his penitents with too much rigor as he does by treating them with excessive indulgence. Too much indulgence, says Saint Bonaventure, begets presumption, and too much rigor leads to despair. There is no doubt that many err by being too indulgent: and such persons cause great havoc – and I say even the greatest havoc; for libertines, who are the most numerous class, go in crowds to these lax confessors, and find in them their own perdition. (Saint Alphonsus de Liguori. Dignity and duties of the priest: or Selva, part II, instr. 4, no.2 – (pg. 277-278))
It is indeed necessary to admonish the sinner, in order to make him understand his miserable state, and the danger of damnation to which he is exposed; but he must be always admonished with charity, he must be excited to confidence in the divine mercy, and must be taught the means by which he may amend his life. And though the confessor should be obliged to defer absolution, he ought to dismiss the penitent with sweetness; fixing a day for him to return, and pointing out the remedies that he must practise in the mean time, in order to prepare himself for absolution. Sinners are saved in this way […] Great fortitude is necessary in correcting penitents and in refusing absolution to those who have not the requisite disposition, without any regard to their rank or power, or to the loss or injury which the confessor may sustain, or to the imputation of indiscretion or of ignorance which may be cast upon him. […] poor confessors […] For it often happens that they are bound to refuse or to defer absolution, either because the penitent will not do what they require of him, or because he is a relapsing sinner, or because he is in the proximate occasion of sin. (Saint Alphonsus de Liguori. Dignity and duties of the priest: or Selva, part II, instr. 4, no.2 – (pg. 276-278))
Whoever, by the designs of Divine Providence, has the most difficult task of hearing young people in Confession, I humbly beg you to permit me, while omitting many other things, to make, with utmost respect, the following observations: […] Help them to reveal the state of their conscience and urge them to frequent the Sacrament of Penance. This is the best means to distance them from sin. (Saint John Bosco. Biografía y escritos (Biography and Writings), Second edition, Madrid: BAC, 1967, pg. 827)
There are others who, either because they seldom confess their sins, or because they have bestowed no care or attention on the examination of their consciences, do not know well how to begin or end their confession. Such persons deserve to be severely rebuked, and are to be taught that before anyone approaches the tribunal of Penance he should employ every diligence to excite himself to contrition for his sins, and that this he cannot do without endeavoring to know and recollect them severally. […] Still more pernicious is the fault of those who, yielding to a foolish bashfulness, cannot induce themselves to confess their sins. Such persons are to be encouraged by exhortation, and are to be reminded that there is no reason whatever why they should fear to disclose their sins, that to no one can it appear surprising if persons fall into sin, the common malady of the human race and the natural consequence of human infirmity. […] These and many other matters of the same nature demand the attention of priests in confession. (Catechism of Trent, 2400)
Besides the powers of orders and of jurisdiction, which are of absolute necessity, the minister of this Sacrament, holding as he does the place at once of judge and physician, should be gifted not only with knowledge and erudition, but also with prudence. As judge, his knowledge, it is evident, should be more than ordinary, for by it he is to examine into the nature of sins, and among the various kinds of sins to judge which are grievous and which are not, keeping in view the rank and condition of the person. As physician he has also occasion for consummate prudence, for to him it belongs to administer to the diseased soul those healing medicines which will not only effect the cure, but prove suitable preservatives against its future contagion. The faithful, therefore, will see the great care that each one should take in selecting (as confessor) a priest, who is recommended by integrity of life, by learning and prudence, who is deeply impressed with the awful weight and responsibility of the station which he holds, who understands well the punishment due to every sin, and can also discern who are to be loosed and who to be bound. (Catechism of Trent, 2400)
The minister of this sacrament should unite himself to the intention and charity of Christ. He should have a proven knowledge of Christian behavior, experience of human affairs, respect and sensitivity toward the one who has fallen; he must love the truth, be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church, and lead the penitent with patience toward healing and full maturity. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1466)
Saint Laurence Justinian says: ‘Many graces and not a little knowledge is needed by him who desires to raise souls to life.’ […] Saint Francis de Sales also used to say that the office of confessor is of all offices the most important, because on it depends the eternal salvation of souls, which is the end of all the sciences. It is the most difficult, because the science of Moral Theology requires a knowledge of many other sciences, and embraces an immense variety of matter. It is also most difficult, because different decisions must be given, according to the different circumstances of the cases that occur […] Sanctity is still more necessary, on account of the great fortitude which a confessor requires in the exercise of his ministry. (Saint Alphonsus de Liguori. Dignity and duties of the priest: or Selva, , part II, instr. 4, no.2 – (pg. 273-274))