At one time every Catholic above the age of 7 or 8 years old who wanted to receive Holy Communion at Mass on Sunday would line up outside the Confessional on Friday or Saturday night and confess their sins to the Parish Priest. If you didn’t go to Confession, you didn’t go up for Communion on Sunday. Every weekend the Priest would settle himself in the “box” and hear Confessions for an hour, two or more until all his flock had a chance to receive the Sacrament, lineups were typically long.
Nowadays the reasoning is still somewhat there (don’t receive Communion if you are in a state of mortal sin), but the long lineups to the Confessional are gone. The understanding of what venial and mortal sins are is tepid at best. I’m not a Theologian so I won’t start parsing out what is venial and what is mortal, but I will try to explain in general terms and what my rule of the thumb is.
First, some definitions:
Sins are a behavior or action that God Himself has defined as offensive to Him or against His “code of conduct”, but I find it helpful to remember that sins aren’t an arbitrary thing that God has marked out just to show us who’s boss and flex His Divine muscles…sins are actually something that scar our soul in some way, something that wounds and weakens us and because He is a loving Father to each of us, He doesn’t want us to live our lives wounding ourselves and each other.
Venial Sin: This is a sin that is an offense to God, but not one that is so grave that you lose Sanctifying Grace and are in a state of mortal sin. Some examples of venial sin would be: Wasting time on Facebook instead of getting the dishes done; Being uncharitable in your thoughts against someone; Spending a chunk of the family’s grocery budget on that expensive perfume you’ve been wanting and feeding them Kraft Dinner for a week to accommodate the financial hit. Every time we attend Mass and the Priest leads us in the Penitential Rite (the Confiteor…”I confess to Almighty God…” and then the Priest offers the general absolution “May Almighty God have mercy on us…”), our venial sins are absolved.
Mortal Sin: If you die in a state of mortal sin, Heaven is closed to you. Some examples of mortal sins: Stealing from someone; Missing Mass on Sunday without excellent reason (sick, hurricane); Receiving Holy Communion while knowingly in a state of mortal sin; Having an affair. Only the Sacrament of Reconciliation to a Priest (with a sincere and complete confession) can absolve us from mortal sin.
For some authoritative reading, see: Catechism of the Catholic Church: Sin. The best person to help you sort out when a sin is mortal and when it’s venial is your Priest. If you don’t trust his judgement (because unfortunately some Priests can be a bit loosey goosey and this may cause you to feel unsure), find another Priest whose judgement you do trust.
Now that we have the gist of things sorted out, why go to Confession regularly if you aren’t running around murdering people or robbing banks? Since we’re all “good people” and attending Mass wipes our souls clean from venial sins, why worry about going to Confession regularly?
Here’s the secret that not many people realize: Every time we go to Confession, with a sincere heart and a sincere purpose of amendment, not only are all our sins wiped away…the Sacrament also pours healing balm over our wounds (because although our sins are absolved, the damage they’ve done, the wounds, are still present) and gives us the strength to overcome habitual sins and also to blossom more and more spiritually. Being absolved from sins wipes the slate clean, but the Sacrament of Reconciliation also provides us with weapons to fight our spiritual battles as well as helps us to grow more and more beautiful in a spiritual sense. Without trying to judge people, this is why we witness even daily Mass attending folks stunted spiritually: dollars to donuts they aren’t going to Confession on a regular basis.
Question: Can’t I go to God directly & confess my sins? Why do I need a Priest? Actually you CAN go to God directly, you CAN ask for His forgiveness one-on-one and it’s good to do so each night when you reflect on the day and where you went wrong. He indeed may forgive you, in fact likely He will. But here’s the kicker: there’s no 100% assurance or guarantee that He will. With the Sacrament of Reconciliation, there is that guarantee…YOUR SINS ARE ABSOLUTELY, 100% FORGIVEN when the Priest absolves you (with the caveat that you are sincere in your Confession, complete in telling all the sins you are aware of and truly repentant with a desire to amend your life). Not only do you have that guarantee, you also reap the rewards of all that lovely, life giving Grace pouring as heavenly ointment over the scars left behind and healing you in ways that only the Sacrament itself provides.
My Rule of Thumb:
I like to go to Confession at least once a month for the First Saturday Devotion (more info on that here). I find it more beneficial though if I go every other week. The tricky part here is that you go with a sincere heart of confessing your sins and getting them absolved, not going to “tick that box” for the First Saturday devotion. God isn’t impressed when we’re just going through the motions, we have to be sincere. When I first came back into the Church, I found it helpful to go weekly.
Tip for when you’re too ashamed or scared:
Living in today’s world, embracing its nasty way of life, chances are you have quite a lot of dirty laundry to get washed when you first re-enter the Church. It’s embarrassing and probably some eyebrow raising stuff needs to be purged from your soul. It’s not easy going to a Priest that you see weekly or daily at Mass. Here’s how I dealt with that little problem: I went to priests that I would never see again or at least not for a long time. Because I live in Saskatoon, I can go to a priest on the north end of the city and not see him again for a year or so, he’ll never remember me. Or if there’s a Mission going on at a parish somewhere, chances are there’s an out of town priest hearing Confessions, I’ll grab that opportunity. I’ll even drive to North Battleford or Prince Albert or Lloydminster. Too extreme? Look, the most important thing is that you get this done and make as complete a Confession as possible after a long absence from the Church. If it makes you feel better running miles to go to a priest out in the sticks somewhere, do it. This will be for the first year or so and then you’ll settle down, purge all the old dirty laundry (keep in mind once you’ve confessed something, it’s done with…no need to keep bringing it up) and fall into a routine where you’re more comfortable seeing a local priest regularly.
But I cry all the time in Confession:
I don’t know why this is but when doing face-to-face Confessions, I always end up crying and feeling sorry for myself. What I do now is sit behind the curtain or grate so that I can make my Confession without looking at the priest. The funny thing is many times I’ll poke my head around the curtain and say “hello” to Father before I get started. A lot of people prefer making an anonymous Confession and that’s totally fine, in fact I believe this is something that Holy Mother Church insists has to be made available to all her children if they want it.
Should I make an appointment with a priest or go during public Confession times?
A general rule of thumb is that if you need more time with a priest, say if you’re looking for some spiritual direction, you should make an appointment. If you can be in and out of the Confessional in 5 to 10 minutes, then going during posted weekly times is fine. The problem with setting an appointment is that there is no chance of anonymity if that’s what you’re wanting.
Looking for the box Confessionals?
A lovely Redemptorist priest once proclaimed to me: “Oh Terry, you don’t want to go back to the old days when we were stuffed into a hot, old rickety box speaking into some hole in the wall when making Confession”…and I’m like “oh yes I do!”. I much prefer the old style box Confessionals where there’s no way for the priest to see who’s on the other side and it’s easy for me to stay focused and not worry about tears or my nose running or how swollen my red face is. I’m also not reacting to any twitches the priest may have flashing across his face. I find I can be more straightforward, more sincere and not distracted by “self”. I know of two Churches in Saskatoon where these are still available: Our Lady of Czestochowa and Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church, if this too is what you’re looking for you’ll find them there…check their websites for Confession times.
The most important thing: Just go. And keep going on a regular basis (at least once or twice a month). You’ll find the practice of making a regular Confession very healing and beneficial.