On Devotional Confession

January 24th, 2015 by Fr. Jeff Lucas

On Devotional Confession

by Bishop Austin Vaughan, Pope Herald 15 (Summer 1984):1

(Editor’s Note: Following are portions of a speech given at the World Synod of Bishops on the role of Confession of venial sins by Bishop Austin Vaughan, Auxiliary of New York.)

I would like to speak in my own name on the role of Confession of venial sins (devotional Confession) in the spiritual life of our people. (We are talking about a Confession where none of the matter is obligatory–either venial sins never before confessed or forgiven, or sins previously confessed and forgiven.)

Such confessions were strongly encouraged in the first 70 years of this century. Now they are sometimes discouraged, more often not encouraged, because they are regarded (by some) as unnecessary, or focusing on trifles, or encouraging scrupulosity, or encouraging immaturity, or wasting a priest’s time, or merely routine and hence impersonal. In recent years, some encouragement has been given to devotional Confession if it becomes a genuine spiritual experience, or if it provides some spiritual guidance or direction. I believe in the value of spiritual guidance in the Sacrament of Penance, because many people receive little or none of it elsewhere. I believe in the value of a priest’s being friendly and helpful in penance, because for many people it is their only personal contact with a priest. I believe that priests and penitents have an obligation to do what they can to make the sacrament in which they are worshipping God together more fruitful.

But I would also like to defend the value of “routine” devotional Confessions, which often do not involve any identifiable profound spiritual experience; often these Confessions are brushed aside as useless or worse.

Difficult Sacrament

There are many times when the Sacrament of Penance will not be an emotionally uplifting experience–either because the penitent finds it hard to confess at all, or hard to confess even some particular venial sins; or because the penitent is tired or out of sorts or distracted; or because the priest leaves so much to be desired in his response, through his own fault or through nobody’s fault; or because the penitent wants to get in and out in a hurry; or because there are long lines waiting, so the process cannot he slow and easy. There are times when both priest and penitent may be glad to get it over with.

Even then, every use of the Sacrament of Penance is an implicit acknowledgement and reaffirmation of basic attitudes in Catholic life. Let me just list 10, although there are many more.

1) Every time I go to Confession, I implicitly acknowledge that I am a sinner–not just a part of a massa damnata, but with sins of my own that were my own fault.

2) Every time I go to Confession, 1 implicitly acknowledge that God’s mercy is always available to me: that I can never get so far away that He does not care for me; that no sin is unforgivable; that God is a Father who sent His Son to save me by His suffering and death. (This has a special significance in an age when many people wonder if God or anyone else really cares about them.)

3) Every time, I implicitly affirm that God’s mercy comes through Christ. The most poorly instructed penitent knows that it is the power of Jesus, not just the priest, who is forging his sins.

4) Every time, I implicitly affirm that God’s mercy reaches me through the Church–that she is the mother who loves me in the sacrament, even when I cannot love myself and that God Himself wants me to come to Him by sharing in the Church’s life.

5) Every time I go to Confession, I reaffirm that a priest is God’s minister in a unique way.

6) Every time I go, I implicitly reaffirm that I can do things with God’s grace that I will never succeed in doing on my own. Otherwise, sometimes a purpose of amendment would be meaningless.

7) Every time, I implicitly affirm that God wants me to face my sins squarely–say I am sorry for them specifically–and mean it. This means rejecting a part of my past life, so that the days ahead can be better than those behind.

8) Every time, I implicitly reaffirm that God expects me to do better, with and through his grace.

9) Every time, I implicitly reaffirm that lie wants me to make up for my sins and those of others.

10) Every time a penitent goes to Confession, he is implicitly drawn to reception of the Eucharist.

In a sense, devotional Confession is our need for redemption come alive.

Increase of Divine Life

We live in a time when things done out of habit are regarded as having less value than those done from careful conscious choice; and sometimes, when we do things routinely, we can forget, why we started doing them in the first place. But many of our habitual actions contain judgments that are deeply a part of us, and that indicate how deeply faith in Jesus has permeated our lives. Frequent recourse to the Sacrament of Penance preserves my sensitivity to my own sins, and to my need for God’s help. It also assures someone who is struggling with temptations that God’s love and mercy and grace are near.

Finally, we believe that reception of the sacrament brings a growth in grace, an increase of divine life in our souls. St. Thomas Aquinas’ explanation of this in theological terms was that the infusion of God’s grace elicits a new and more profound act of charity on the part of the penitent (not necessarily art act of deeper emotional intensity, but a deepening of our commitment to the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity who dwell within us). I realize that some ways of explaining grace in more recent years have obscured this truth–but it is still valid, even in a new intellectual context–and it is a part of the grasp of the faith possessed by many people. They were taught that it is good to receive the sacrament to gain grace, and they are rightly upset if this motivation is made to be of no account.

To sum up, devotional Confession has value:

1) As a means of spiritual growth for ordinary people.

2) As an intensification of the penitents own penitential sense and ecclesiastical sense and attachment to Christ.

3) As a part of ongoing conversion–especially for people who are struggling against temptations, without complete success.

4) As a means of growing in grace, in God’s life in us and with us and through us.

Our people have a right to the benefits of the sacrament, and we have an obligation to do what we can to help make those benefits available to them.

2 Comments on “On Devotional Confession”

  1. Denise Thomas says:

    What a beautiful reflection on a sacrament so misunderstood by individuals inside and out side of the faith. The beauty of a devotional confession has been lost in some respects and in our society of relativism and entitlement we can loose the ability for accepting responsibility for our actions. such small things….they seem to be of minimal account. But they chip away at our character and diminish our ability to love completely and fully as Jesus has shown.

    I have always regretted that a sacrament that is so fundamental and basic to the Roman Catholic faith has often been devalued or viewed only as the stepping stone to the Eucharist. Both Sacraments are important and Reconciliation only improves our ability to appreciate receiving the Eucharist. It must be a part of a full faith life.

    • Arcelio Rullan says:

      I emplaning to do a presentation to a group of students who will be doing their their sacraments of Communion and confirmation. I would like it not to be all lecture. I want to brake up the group into small groups to work on what is a venial sin and a mortal sin. etc. for one hour

      Thank you in advance for your thoughts on this,,



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