The Sacrament of Penance, which involves confessing your sins to a priest, is dying out in Britain. Here few people come to confess their sins and, while all churches advertise times of Confession, it may soon be the case that, as in other countries, they may stop bothering if no one comes.
So, when people give up Confession what replaces it? I take it as read that people keep on sinning. What changes is that they get their absolution elsewhere. Either they absolve themselves, telling themselves that God has forgiven them, or they persuade themselves that their sins are not sins after all. The falling off in Confession goes hand in hand with a falling off in the sense of sin.
Some may think that a good thing. I do not. It is healthy to have a realistic sense of one’s own sinfulness. We need to acknowledge the truth about ourselves: that we need God’s help, His grace, if we are to be saved. Our sins stand between us and God. Without true repentance for sin, there can be no spiritual progress.
So that is the first step in preparing to go to Confession. You go because you need to go, because you are a sinner, and because you wish to grow closer to God. One should put oneself into this frame of mind: you approach Confession as a humble petitioner, coming to Him who has all the graces and gifts that you so sorely need.
The next step is to consider that God, the fount of all grace, is generous in His gifts. He wants to give us His grace, even though we may not deserve it. The best way to appreciate this is to remember that Jesus never turned anyone away. Neither will He turn us away. So we approach the sacrament with confidence in God.
But what should one say as one confesses one’s sins? After these generalities, what particularities? At this point one should not slide into the composition of a list, the so-called “laundry list”. Rather, one should think of the goodness of God as it has been manifested to us personally, through our baptism, and in all the years since then. That was the moment when He chose us to be His adopted children. We can compose a laundry list of our blessings and then ask ourselves how we have responded to His loving adoption.
It is only in this light that sin makes any sense. There is a difference, after all, between mistakes (things that no one should undertake if they have any sense) and moral faults (things that are of themselves wrong) and sins: the things we do which offend the love of God. None of us like making mistakes, and most of us despise moral faults in others and, if we are honest, in ourselves. But Confession is really about pinpointing our failure to respond to the Father’s love offered to us in Christ. Breaking the speed limit without a compelling reason to do so is mistaken, and it is a moral fault; but we need to repent of it as a sin against the Father’s love, which is rather different. If I do 48mph in a 30mph zone, I am not causing offence to the law of the land, which is administered impartially, but I am failing to live as a responsible adult, in that I am abusing my God-given freedom. I am acting irresponsibly.
After all, at baptism I was anointed prophet, priest and king, and yet here am I not really acting as a thinking person should. The speed limit and other laws are impartial and impersonal. But the Law of God is a law given in love, given to us to keep because God loves us. Sin is, in a sense, an infraction of law, but in a deeper sense it is a failure to love the One who loves us.
It is only when considering one’s vocation as a baptised person, called by Love to love in return, that one can see sin in its true light, as anything that damages that vocation.
It is at this point that one can look at the Ten Commandments, not as 10 laws, but as 10 consequences of our baptismal call. Because we are baptised we will have no truck with strange gods, and we will reject theft, murder and adultery. Thus, bearing in mind our call and our covenant, we can formulate our list of ways in which we have failed to live up to the covenant.
This list will not consist purely of actions as such (though sinful actions are clearly to be confessed). As well as actions that cannot be reconciled with the covenanted relationship, there are attitudes as well which damage our relationship with God. Worst of these is pride, but let us not forget greed, envy, laziness and lust.
One does not have to take the Ten Commandments as one’s textual help. Another good passage is this one from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13, from the fourth verse onwards: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing. For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
“When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
Here is love in its fullness, a clear exposition of what we are called to: against this positive we can measure our negatives, and confess our sins, desiring with all our hearts to experience more love, until love shall be all in all.