Sunday, November 27, 2011

Examination of Conscience

No doubt my Canadian friend is wondering if I intend to fulfill my promise and write a bit more on the Sacrament of Penance. I do so willingly in hopes to be a source of encouragement even to one person. 

I want to talk about our preparation for Confession and then about how best to confess, while repeating my advice that Confession can be both regular and frequent, should never be relegated to a perfunctory observance of that minimum precept-ed by Mother Church in all wisdom, and certainly, yes, Confession must be for seeking liberation from mortal sin and restoring the life of grace in our souls as quickly as possible after the fact. 

Preparation for Confession is both remote and proximate. By remote, we mean the daily examination of conscience which every Christian can with profit include in his or her bed time prayers (a critical review of the day, if you will). By proximate, we mean that gathering or gleaning from our daily exam for the sake of preparing our actual confession (it wouldn't be wrong to make of it a rehearsal for our part in the actual celebration of the sacrament). Why the examination of conscience? It is too little to say that we must live consciously. It is wrong to say that the unexamined life is not worth living. Even the simplest, the frailest among us is no stranger to love. As I am able, I must love. The love of my life is always on my mind or in my heart; I seek not to detract even in the smallest matters from our relationship by thought, word, action or omission. The First Great Commandment: How else can Christ live in me but that I love Him with heart, soul, mind and strength? The Second Commandment, which is like unto it: Wife? Husband? Parent? Child? Other who is in some way a part of my life? How else can I truly love them one and all like myself? I owe myself and all my significant others, and Christ in first place, my remote examination of conscience each day and my best possible confession within the sacrament itself, by reason of proximate preparation on my part for that celebration.

The Decalogue, the Ten Commandments are our point of departure for that examination. But some would say that they are so "OT", so bound to the Law, to the letter which kills as opposed to the Spirit who/which gives life! Oh, really? I hadn't noticed and I don't agree. Wouldn't it be better to use the Beatitudes (Mt. 5)? poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting for justice, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, persecuted for righteousness sake, all on account of Jesus... salt of the earth and light of the world...? Leave the inspired Word of God according to Matthew in its full context, as does the Church. Continue reading Matthew 5 from verse 17 on through chapters 6 and 7. Maybe you'll understand the wisdom of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Part Three: Life in Christ is indeed big, but it allows the fulness of the Christian life to shine through in a traditional examination of conscience using the Ten Commandments.

I know people who recommend and have followers who try to make a good confession by expressing themselves using the language of the virtues and vices, but in a detached almost abstract fashion. I much prefer the small boy who clearly says that he hit his sister, he lied to his teacher and he stole money from the top of his parents' dresser. Sure, he was angry, fearful and selfish, but even adults find it hard to work on abstract defects like anger, fear and selfishness. My amendment of life takes on clear form when I stop hitting, lying and stealing. He may say that he has problems managing his anger, but it would be better to say that he's guilty of beating up on the wife and children and needs to stop. Shouldn't our confession be as concrete as our sins? - What? How often? Any extenuating circumstances? - Simplicity and clarity, in the most direct form possible, are for our good.

By the same token, there are those who fail to grasp the gravity of the thoughts and desires we entertain. It is not only looks or an angry glance that can "kill". Many Easter Confessions never come to grips with the 9th and 10th Commandments. We must do so, however, as our lust or envy are really what poison the well of true love.

Frequently we have doubts as to whether the objective gravity of an act or omission isn't or couldn't be mitigated, reduced, cancelled by our frailty or lack of freedom. If you are bound and gagged of a Sunday, you certainly don't commit a sin by missing Mass. Other matters should be as obvious to people but somehow are not. For instance, the matter of the 5th and 6th Commandments (killing and illicit sexual union) are grave as such. But, we live in an ignorant world which is so in many cases in a vincible fashion (no excuse), if only people would accept the gravity of abortion and infanticide, if only they would realize that there is no alternative to a stable and chaste marital union which is open to children. I can remember years ago the rector of our college seminary, in a house conference for us men (18-24 years of age), where he cautiously and respectfully, but firmly explained the moral principles involved and offered a prayer that our hard hearts would soon come to accept sexual self-indulgence as grave sin and to confess it rightly. Too many people judge themselves helpless and hopeless.

Finally, be brief and to the point. If Father needs more details in order to forgive you he can ask. It is my hope that there will soon be so many people waiting of a Saturday afternoon at church that Father will need the time to dedicate to others, many others in need of the forgiveness which comes from God through the mediation of His Church.



  1. A friend who runs a "holy shop" and a publishing house recommended to me 'Frequent Confession' by Dom Benedict Baur. Scepter have produced a new edition of the pre-war translation with some additions and editing for changes in canon law and so on. This book made so many things clear for me. The thing I remember most of all (I dropped my theology degree after three semesters, so I don't know what the consensus is or anything) is his point that the grace of the sacrament does not work on the sin, but on contrition - which is why one can confess the same sins several times, for example. You don't need new sins to go to confession again (should lack of sins be a problem :D). This ands some other points have helped me greatly in the years since I read the book. Apart from the General Theory of Confession, there are many chapters on concrete aspects of confession and preparing for it and making good use of it. It's definitely one of the three or so books I should most like to see published in Polish.

  2. I will have to start looking for "Frequent Confession" by Dom Benedict Bauer. Thank you!


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