The “profit” of the confession of venial sins comes, above all else, from the fact that when we go to Confession, we receive a sacrament. The forgiveness of sin takes place by the power of the sacrament, i.e., by the power of Christ Himself. In the sacrament of Penance, says the Council of Trent, “the merits of the death of Christ are applied to those who have sinned after Baptism.” It should be noted, too, that it is not upon the sins committed themselves that the action of the sacrament falls but, rather, upon our interior aversion of heart from sin; it is this that the power of the sacrament takes hold of, as it were, and elevates in order to unite us to God through grace. Since it is exclusively venial sin that is in question here, the grace bestowed by Confession is not, as in the case where mortal sin is confessed, a new life of grace, the “state of grace”; rather, it is the strengthening and deepening of the supernatural life already existing in the soul and an increase of the love of God. In these circumstances, the sacrament is primarily positive in its effects: it strengthens the supernatural life of the soul, increases sanctifying grace, and, along with this, gives actual grace that stimulates our will to acts of love of God and of contrition for our sins. Such sentiments of love tend to uproot venial sins and cast them out of the soul, just as light dispels and does away with darkness.
The value of the confession of venial sins lies furthermore in this: that the power of the sacrament not merely blots out these sins but also undoes their evil consequences in the soul more fully than is the case when venial sins are forgiven outside Confession. Thus, for instance, when venial sins are forgiven in Confession, a
greater part of the temporal punishment due to them is forgiven than would be outside the sacrament with the same sentiments of contrition. But especially, the sacrament of Penance cures the soul from the weakness that follows venial sin and from the weariness and coldness toward the things of God and the inclination toward worldliness that venial sin brings; it delivers the soul from its reawakened inordinate inclinations and instincts and from the domination of concupiscence: and all this by its sacramental power, i.e., by the power of Christ Himself. Moreover, the confession of venial sins gives the soul an interior freshness, a new aspiration and impetus toward self-surrender to God and toward the cultivation of the supernatural life: results that are not usually produced at all when venial sin is forgiven outside Confession.
A very important advantage of the confession of venial sins is that, as a rule, our examination of conscience and especially our acts of contrition, of purpose of amendment, and of resolution to atone and do penance are much more carefully made when we go to Confession than is the case in the extrasacramental forgiveness of venial sin, e.g., by means of an aspiration or by the pious use of holy water. We know quite well what an effort it needs to formulate properly the accusation of our sins for the priest and how intent we must be to elicit a good act of contrition and a purpose of amendment and to form the intention to do our penance and atone for our sins. We must consciously and of set purpose apply ourselves to making these acts well.
Indeed, it is only right that we should take this trouble. For these acts of interior aversion from our faults are required not merely as a psychological predisposition for the reception of the sacrament of Penance; they are essential constituent parts of the sacrament. They are necessary for the very existence of the sacrament; and the measure of the effects of the sacrament—of the increase of divine life and of the remission of sin—is determined by them. Apart from the sacrament of Matrimony, Penance is the most personal of the sacraments. The personal dispositions of the penitent—his personal expression of sorrow, of accusation of sin, and of the desire to atone for it—are absolutely necessary for this sacrament. Its efficacy depends essentially on our personal attitude to the sins we have committed and on our personal turning back to Christ and to God. In the sacrament of Penance these personal acts of penance of ours are elevated; they no longer remain purely personal but are linked up with the sufferings and death of Christ, from which the power of the sacrament comes. Here, indeed, we see clearly the great value and advantage of the sacrament of Penance.
What we call the sacramental grace of the sacrament of Penance—the grace that belongs to this sacrament and is not given and cannot be given by any other sacrament—is sanctifying grace with the special power and function of remedying the debility of soul and the lack of vigor and courage and energy caused by venial sin and of strengthening the soul and removing the obstacles that the working of grace encounters in it.
Another important value and advantage of frequent Confession is that, in it, our venial sins are confessed to the priest as the representative of the Church and thus, in a sense, to the Church itself, to the Christian community. It is true that the person who has committed venial sin remains a living member of the Church. But by his venial sin, he has offended not only against God and Christ and against the good of his own soul; he has also acted against the interests of the Christian community, the Church. His sin is a spot and wrinkle on the garment of the Bride of Christ (see Eph. 5:27), an obstacle preventing the charity poured forth in the Church by the Holy Ghost (Rom. 5:5) from flowing freely in all the members. Venial sin does a wrong to the community of Christians and is a failure in charity toward the Church, in which alone are the sources of life and salvation for the Christian. Therefore, it can be atoned for in no better way than by being confessed to the representative of the Church, absolved by him, and expiated by the penance he imposes.
Editor’s note: the above excerpt is taken from Frequent Confession: Its Place in the Spiritual Life, available now from Sophia Institute Press.