The second commandment of the Church

To go to confession at least once a year

Fr Tomasz Pelszyk

The Church's practice of penance has had a long tradition. However, the most essential thing is the clearly formulated command of Christ, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained' (cf. John 20:22). The teaching of the Church embraces the so-called first justification, which means cleansing through Baptism and the so-called second justification, which is the synonym of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. In Baptism it is required that people hate their sins and turn to Christ in faith.
In penance the situation is more complicated because a believer has betrayed his obligation towards God and the Church. The priest gives absolution in virtue of the authority Christ gave to the Church. The sacrament includes elements of human judgement: accusation of the penitent, sentence of the confessor and satisfaction of the one who received absolution. These are the indispensable elements of the sacrament.

Beginnings of the sacrament of penance

In the history of the Church external rites focused on satisfaction, penance (the penitent could return to the community after he had performed his penance). However, later the external forms were tempered and silent penance was accepted (apart from cases of some public crime). In the ancient Church there were many discussions on the possibility to administer absolution several times. At first, it was assumed that man who was baptised as adult should never commit sins (i.e. mortal sin). However, it was accepted that at the deathbed a sinner that showed contrition could be accepted to the community. After the Edict of Tolerance issued by Constantine the Great in 313 AD very many people joined the Church, which caused moral slackening. And the problem of penance performed several times in life became something very obvious.
Pope Celestine I (422-432) wrote that various kinds of God's mercy came to help when people fell; that it was not only the grace of baptism but also the medicine of penance that restored the hope of eternal life. Every Christian's conscience should be so formed that it did not allow putting off reconciliation with God. In 459 Pope Leo the Great forbade as an abuse the reading out in public of a written statement of the sins drawn up by the faithful because he declared, 'it suffices that the guilt of conscience be manifested to priests alone in secret confession. One can call more people to penance when the conscience of confessants is not revealed to other people's ears'.

Teaching of the councils

IV Lateranean Council (1215), reacting to the heresy of the Albigenses and the scandalous disputes between diocesan clergy and the religious concerning their rights to pastoral ministry, ordered that all faithful should confess to their parish priests once a year (in spite of certain later waverings the rule was obeyed almost to our times). If someone disobeyed the rule he could not participate in services (he could not enter the church) and was deprived of Christian funeral. The council decree was announced several times so that nobody could justify his conduct by not knowing the rule. A sinner could ask his minister to let him go to confession to another priest. At the same time the Council reminded the faithful of the strict duty of the confessor to keep the confession secret (a priest was to be deprived of his priestly office and to do penance in seclusion until his death).
The teaching of John Wyclif (1320-84) wreaked havoc. He claimed that contrition was enough and confession of sins was not necessary. In response to that teaching, the Council of Florence (in the year 1439) reminded the faithful of the three duties of penitents: contrition (of the heart connected with a firm resolution not to sin again), oral confession (confessing all sins to a priest) and satisfaction (defined by priest, especially prayer, fasting and charity). The priest ministering the sacrament of penance must have the power of absolution. The result of this sacrament is forgiveness of sins.
The teaching of Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a specific continuation of Wyclif's errors at the beginning of the 16th century. Luther contradicted the Catholic teaching, claiming that faith was enough for justification, even without contrition. He refused priests (including the pope) power to grant absolution. The Council of Trent (1645-63) reacted to all Protestant errors and all heresies by presenting a positive teaching of the Church on the sacrament of penance. Among other things it pointed to the form included in priest's words 'I absolve you from...', penitent's acts, i.e. contrition (differentiation between 'perfect' and 'imperfect' contrition was made), confession and satisfaction. The essence and effect of the sacrament is reconciliation with God. If the sacrament is accompanied by piety the effects are peace and cheerfulness of conscience as well as spiritual comfort. Contrition was emphasized as 'pain of the soul and aversion to committed sin, together with decision not to sin again.' Perfect contrition is included in love (I am sorry because I insulted God who shows me his perfect love). 'Imperfect' contrition comes from considering the ugliness of sin or fear of punishment and hell, but it also inclines the will to stop sinning. The obligation to confess all mortal sins, committed after baptism, results from God's law whereas common sins can be confessed because of piety (cleansing can be also obtained apart from confession). It is also important to present sincerely the circumstances of sins because they can change the weight of sin. The Council shows the importance of the sacrament, stating that in particular circumstances even a priest, who has committed mortal sin, can give valid absolution. The necessity of satisfaction concerns a simple principle that any evil don by man to man must be redressed. This is a form of punishment, which is due to sinner: one pays for the sin absolved. There can be various forms of penance (purely spiritual ones and material ones). In the background the problem of 'indulgencies' appear, which of course needs special analysis.

Contemporary teaching of the Church

The pontificate of the Servant of God John Paul II was an occasion to re-consider the practice of the sacrament of penance. The Holy Father addressed first of all priests, urging them not to neglect confessing and to do their best to convince people of the power of God's mercy and the necessity to repent. The Church tries to keep the practice of First Friday confession as a form of personal piety and a sign to the world that still needs conversion.
Analysing every word of the second commandment one must state that:
'at least once a year' means absolute minimum, which must be kept if you do not want your soul to be exposed to big risk; a person who thinks that once is enough is mistaken (after all man washes whenever he is dirty, and not only once a year); on the one hand frequency of confession depends on frequency of committing sins and on the other hand it depends on personal piety and awareness of serious threats we face (temptations, occasion to sin);
'go to confession' means to use the indicated sacramental form (confession to a priest), it is usually a confession in a confessional booth, preceded by appropriate preparation (examination of conscience), embracing essential information about confessant (who he/she is, when was the last confession, whether the penance was performed), confession of mortal sins (naming them without hiding or twisting any sin, defining the number of sins and the circumstances) and of common sins, ensuring the priest of contrition and a resolution to try not to it again, asking pardon, absolution and penance; priest's teaching should be seriously treated and his advice concerning ways of repairing harm and intention to perform penance.
The moment of absolution is essential, 'God, the Father of mercies, through the death and the resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.' The penitent should say 'Amen', which means his total acceptance of what has been done in the sacrament and readiness to perform his penance. Thanksgiving to God for his mercy should be the natural consequence of the sacrament (e.g. personal adoration of the Blessed Sacrament).
Your personal involvement in reading this analysis can be your remembering the five conditions of the sacrament of reconciliation (asking yourself if I fulfil them) and making a resolution to examine conscience every day (e.g. during evening prayer; at first you can use patters from prayer books, then focus on your vices and ways to fight them). It would be important to decide on a concrete day of your next confession (e.g. in a month) and to reflect if you need a confession embracing a longer period (from your last retreat, embracing several years and even your whole life before some extremely important event in our lives, especially if we are facing death).

"Niedziela" 20/2007

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: