Confession is the quickening element of the soul’s restoration to the friendship of God. It is consequently an essential feature of true, practical repentance.
Humiliating as it is, the sinner should remember that the best antidote for counteracting the pride necessarily associated with the commission of any sin is the abasement entailed by Confession.
And the sinner is not alone in experiencing this humiliation; he shares it with Christ. The Redeemer bore not only the punishment of sin, but also its debasing shame. Nothing can be more touching than this revelation of Christ’s love for His fallen creatures; the mystery of His humiliation is not merely the veiling under human form of the ineffable, eternal splendor of the Godhead, but His assumption of the weakness of frail, dependent mortals. Christ became a penitent for man, bearing the weight of man’s sins as if they were His own.
In His circumcision, Christ put on the livery of sinners. By submitting to this act, which was the distinctive mark of sinners, He signed Himself with the sign of their condemnation, thus becoming for them an outcast among His brethren through His free acceptance of the burden of common humanity. How profound the humiliation of this act of self-denial for souls — Christ branding Himself with the mark of sinners, assuming their sins as if they were His own! The humility shown by this act deepened steadily throughout the various heartrending scenes of the Savior’s martyrdom until He “emptied Himself” on Calvary.
As the bud contains the rose, so the fuller revelations of the life of God incarnate are latent in their less striking manifestations. His three days’ loss and His being found by Mary and Joseph symbolized the sorrow of the separation following His death and burial, and the joy of His glorious Resurrection. The momentary glimpse of His divinity that the chosen three beheld on Tabor was anticipatory of the fuller, permanent glory with which He would finally adorn His human nature. So likewise, when He freely became a penitent for sinners, there were crises in His humiliating avowal of sin, the thought of which should make us mute with wonderment.
In His agony, as the vengeance of the Father fell upon Him, He felt in His deepest soul the weight of the accumulated sins of mankind, freely accepting them, lovingly acknowledging Himself their bearer as if He were guilty of them all.
While Christ’s agony — when the full pressure of the concentrated iniquities of a doomed race sank into His sorely afflicted soul — was an act in which the avowal of the sins He accepted as His own was distinctly stressed, He anticipated during His life this one signal penitential immolation of Himself. He appeared among those who, under the powerful stimulus of grace, sought baptism of the virile precursor, John the Baptist. That the hope of a fallen race might not perish forever, the curse of the sins of humanity must fall on Him, and He must acknowledge before the world His free acceptance thereof. By His baptism, Christ voluntarily took the place of the sinner, so that He might, through the assumption of the sinner’s shame, wipe out his sin and reconcile him to his God.
When we repent, Christ’s acknowledgment of sin thus establishes a bond of union between Him and us. It is not that His acceptance of our burden releases us from the obligation of doing penance, or frees us from the confession of our guilt. In this, as in every other detail of His life, He is our model. Apart from His words, which make Confession a positive duty, His acknowledgment of our sin is a strong incentive to us to practice it. When we confess, we are not spared the shame and confusion of this hard task, but our sins are greatly diminished by the thought that we share in His humiliation, and consequently render ourselves most dear to Him; for “a contrite and humbled heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.”
The God-Man is the source of all grace to souls. Through His death, He has reconciled us to the Father, who “loveth the Son and showeth Him all things which He doth . . . and He hath given Him power to do judgment, because He is the Son of Man.” To seal and to perpetuate His love, He has sent His priests to be the visible channels through which His graces are to flow; He has charged them to judge the guilt of their fellowmen and to absolve their sins even as He, the great High Priest, did. Like those to whom they are sent, straitened by the same infirmities, they can have compassion on sinners.
The love of Christ for sinners, and His sympathy with them, vested in the confessor, are very powerful as an inducement to the penitent to submit to the act of self-abasement involved in the telling of his sins. The realization of the eternal results of a good confession is of itself sufficient to enable even the most hardened sinner to undergo the momentary embarrassment of unburdening himself to the confessor. The sinner must judge himself now, so that he may escape the terrors of his final judgment before the assembled world. “If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. But whilst we are judged, we are chastised by the Lord, that we be not condemned with this world.” The sincerity and humility of the secret manifestation of our sins to the confessor will forestall their public exposure at the last judgment. Christ will hide our guilt from the eyes of the world if we now, with deep sorrow for our sins, tear asunder the veil of self-love that would hide them from His representative.
As the thought of the Last Judgment presents itself in full force to our minds, we should subject our consciences to the anticipative equivalent of the singular strictness and searching severity of our examination before the whole world. The moral law within us echoes God’s law above us.
Truth, then, should be the soul of the scrutiny we direct to the deepest secrets of our hearts. Our examination and confession must reflect, as far as possible, the justice and unsparingness of our final exposure before our fellowmen. We must sift our consciences honestly and impartially. We must rid ourselves of the spirit of compromise that often conceals vice by the specious pretext of necessity and whittles away guilt by all kinds of subtle sophistry. The miasmic exhalations of our pride must not blind the eyes of our souls.
We must look sin squarely in the face, and not seek, with self-gratifying reasons, to disguise the guilt of its commission. Although we must weigh doubts without scrupulosity, we must not always decide them in our favor. Our examination must embrace every serious infraction of God’s law in thought, word, and deed. Nor are we to exclude our free cooperation in the grave sins of others. Sins of omission as well as sins of commission must likewise enter into the examination of our guilt. In a word, we must judge ourselves justly here, if we hope to escape the visitation of Christ’s eternal justice hereafter.
The mature moral result of Confession is its humiliation. If God commanded us to confess to Him alone, our sorrow would perhaps be as deep, and our purpose of amendment as sincere, but it would not be as humiliating as the truthful disclosure of our sins to a fellowman. We are so constituted by nature that the visible affects us more than the invisible. Very little humiliation would therefore accompany the secret telling of our sins, just as, indeed, very little shame and embarrassment accompany their commission before the veiled face of the unseen yet ever-present God.
The fruitful confusion associated with Confession, which often prevents recourse to it, is an inestimable benefit. It overthrows our pride, the cause of all our sins; it deepens our humility, the foundation of all virtue, by making us share in Christ’s unspeakable humiliations; it confounds us before one instead of millions.
Furthermore, from another angle, Confession is especially beneficial. A thought expressed is a far more palpable reality than when it remains a mere mental existence. Words clarify the vagueness of ideas. They imprint themselves upon the mind with a vividness wholly beyond the power of what is unformulated. Words can fill the heart with joy or crush it with sorrow, whereas thoughts not shaped in words, and therefore dormant, can wield no such influence.
How often does even the most obstinate sinner wince at the mere mention of the word that names the sensuality that degrades him to the level of the brute, that describes the hypocrisy that brands him with the duplicity of Hell! The expression of the sin in words is a living power that often swiftly changes the course of a life. The spoken word has a substantial form, and hence a permanence not possessed by the bodiless, fleeting thought. It is a finger of scorn that points unerringly at the sinner’s crime, and thus increases the consciousness of his guilt.
Remarkable, then, as a means of developing our repentance is the moral result of Confession. Self-delusion alone can defeat this salutary effect. Even the devout are often victims of this fatal vice. If Confession falls under the baneful influence of moral cowardice, if it is the mask of our duplicity, if it hides our hypocrisy, the iron hand of the father of lies has seized our souls and we are hurrying to Hell over the broad road of final impenitence. We must therefore be on our guard lest our confession itself need repentance. We must beware lest the humiliation of the acknowledgment of our sins feed our pride. We must not deceive ourselves by the persuasion that repentance ends with the forgiveness of our sins, and thus freely expose ourselves and fall an easy prey to the same occasions of sin.
As we are creatures of habit, we must exercise special care when we confess frequently. Change being the law of our existence, constant repetition dulls the appreciation of what we do. An act often repeated is apt to become very commonplace.
Not merely the relief of a burdened conscience, which continually urges, under the influence of grace, the habitual sinner to confess, after years of sin, but progress in virtue — this should be the absorbing idea of frequent confessions. Frequent confessions should be the means of sharpening our spiritual vision to see the malice of sin, and thus of inspiring us with a greater hatred of sin. From keen insight into sin, a yearning to advance in holiness should be a habit of our souls, even though we still suffer the obdurate assaults of the wily tempter.
What peace of mind follows the humble, sincere acknowledgment of our sins! What comfort the soul experiences that, with childlike simplicity and intense penitential love of Christ, unburdens itself of its vices, sinking down beneath the Cross with “the sorrow that is according to God!” What joy thrills the penitent after the confessor has pronounced the wondrous words of redeeming love and creative power: “I absolve you” — words that touch and open the springs of Christ’s compassion and forgiveness!
How free and full is the Savior’s mercy to sinners! If we but turn to Him with sorrow and confess our sins, He will turn to us and His mercy will, with undying solicitude, embrace our souls. “Why will you die, O house of Israel? ‘Turn to me,’ saith the Lord of hosts, ‘and I will turn to you.’ ”
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Kane’s How to Make a Good Confession which is available from Sophia Institute Press.