Brookline Carmel Bulletin
February 26, 1961
Our most effective weapon against sin has been given to us by God Himself. It is the Sacrament of Penance. In the present economy of salvation it is indispensable. There is no other way of obtaining the remission of mortal sins. Acts of perfect contrition take away serious sin only because they include the implicit intention of going to confession at the first opportunity. And of the many ways of obtaining forgiveness for venial sins, confession is the best and surest.
The constituent elements of Sacramental confession are: on the part of the penitent: accusation of one’s sins, protestations of sorrow for and detestation of them, a firm purpose of amendment and the willingness to make satisfaction; on the part of the priest: the formula of absolution and the imposition of a penance; on the part of God: divine power. The words and actions supplied by the human parties signify reconciliation between God and the penitent and reparation for the disturbance of due order caused by the sins in question. Of themselves, however, those acts accomplish nothing. It is the divine power with which, by the positive will of Jesus Christ, they are endowed that gives them their efficacy. Thus we understand why the Sacrament of Penance is absolutely necessary, given the state of mortal sin. Contrition – sorrow for sins founded upon love for God, the supreme Good – takes away mortal sin all by itself. Attrition – sorrow founded upon fear of Hell – plus the absolution of a duly authorized priest also remits mortal sin. Now we can never be absolutely sure we have made an act of perfect contrition, but we can easily be sure we have made an act of attrition and have received valid absolution. It is lawful, therefore, to resort to an act of perfect contrition to get into the state of grace only when circumstances require we be in that state, and we have no opportunity to get to confession. We understand, too, why the act of perfect contrition must contain the implicit intention to receive the absolution of a priest at the first opportunity.
Every sin produces three effects, all of which impede union with God in one way or another: (1) guilt, (2) the tendency to repeat the same sin, (3) a perversion of the order willed by God. Being guilty of mortal sin destroys friendship with God; tendencies toward sin make perfect union with God impossible on earth, and make the unclouded vision of God after death impossible, too. Unrepaired disorder due to one’s sins defers the possession of eternal bliss until full satisfaction has been made. Of the three effects, only the first, guilt, is infallibly overcome by the valid reception of the Sacrament. The other two only partially, depending upon the subjective state of the penitent and the nature of the penance imposed. Hence, frequent confessions are never inadvisable, since tendencies to sin and the debt of punishment due to sins of the past can always be more completely remitted even after the guilt has long since been wiped away.
Guilt is removed by sorrow for sin and the formula of absolution. The tendency to repeat the same sin is weakened by detestation of it and the firm purpose of amendment. Satisfaction for the injury to God’s majesty and the perversion of order is made by enduring the inconvenience suffered in fulfilling ones’ penance. This same inconvenience helps to weaken the tendency also, for it acts as a deterrent. The best penances are the so-called ‘medicinal’ penances. Because they are acts of virtue directly contrary to the sins committed, they both inflict pain and abolish tendencies to sin. Here are some examples of medicinal penances: against lust: inflicting corporal punishment, say, by take the discipline (Note: this is no longer used); against gluttony: fast and abstinence; against avarice: almsgiving; against pride: performing humble tasks, say doing volunteer work among the dregs of humanity; against anger (the inordinate desire to punish for a wrong): an overt act of friendship. Doing medicinal penances is a kind of purgatory. St. John of the Cross teaches that the dark night of the spirit is the inflowing of God into the soul, grievously afflicting it as it drives out all contrary forms. Those contrary forms are nothing else than the radical, deep-down tendencies and inclinations to sin.
Obviously, we are obliged to confess all our mortal sins, and so are required to spend a reasonable time searching for them. A reasonable time is determined by the state of soul of the penitent. One who rarely, if ever, commits a mortal sin would not have to spend more than time for a quick glance. A mortal sin would be immediately remembered, since it would make a deep and lasting impression upon the conscience of such a person.
One does well to confess all his deliberate venial sins, though he is not obliged to, for these do great harm to one striving for perfection. For these we have to have sincere sorrow, a firm purpose of amendment, and the willingness to do penance for them. Otherwise the absolution has little or no effect upon them.
Imperfections alone do not warrant absolution. In the absence of sin it is necessary to mention some already forgiven past sin. The absolution must have something to work on, namely tendencies to sin and unpaid debt of temporal punishment. But imperfections may be mentioned for the sake of greater humility, and to give the confessor an idea of one’s state of soul, so that he may be able to select suitable medicinal penances.
We often wonder why, after confessing the same venial sins time and time again, we still continue to fall into them. Several reasons may be brought forward to account for this fact. Perhaps our sorrow, detestation and purpose of amendment are not sufficiently intense. Perhaps it is because the confessor fails (I am blushing) to impose medicinal penances. Perhaps what we think are deliberate venial sins are really indeliberate because of circumstances beyond our control. Perhaps God wants them to remain in order to give us plenty of reasons for humbling ourselves. Perhaps our judgment of our actions has been based upon human prudence: what seems wrong to us, may well be, according to divine prudence, quite all right and well in accord with God’s designs. We couldn’t expect Him to help us to achieve an effect at variance with His Will.
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