Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Confession and Growth in Chastity
This is an excerpt from an article of John A. Hardon, SJ on the value of receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation frequently in our pursuit to grow in the virtue of chastity. It's a timely read for us since we will have another opportunity to avail the sacrament this coming Sunday with our spiritual director, Fr. Dan. (Welcome back!)
On a personal note, it seems as though, with repeated offenses and habitual falls, that it is of little to no use to go back to Confession. This is obviously a dangerous trap from the enemy. You will only give him much pleasure if you give in to this thought. It is like telling you not to take a bath often because you are going to perspire and smell awful at the end of the day anyway, right? Oh, please be kind with your neighbors!
We must acknowledge though that acquiring this virtue is difficult but not impossible. On the contrary, having frequent recourse to this sacrament helps us to grow in humility and gives us the opportunity to persevere in our commitment to live authentic Christian lives. Humility and perseverance are indispensable in our struggle to be chaste.
The Value of Frequent Confession
There is no doubt that the practice of frequent Confession, in the absence of mortal sins, is a relatively recent development in the Catholic Church. Such development under divine guidance is part of the genius of Catholic Christianity. It is also one of the signs that the Church is an organism that is growing and thriving for the best of reasons: the Church is alive.
Consequently anyone who frowns on frequent Confession and goes back to dusty volumes about the practice of sacramental Penance in the early Church is behind the times. People, who would not be caught dead with a copy of St. Augustine in their hands, will dig up obscure passages from the Church’s ancient practice in their effort to discredit the value of frequent Confession. These critics, I must say, are behind the times. They are reactionaries who fail to realize that the Church is the living and therefore developing Mystical Body of Christ.
Pope Pius XII rebuked those who criticized the long lines of penitents who had nothing more to confess than failures in patience and charity. What he then said, deserves to be memorized:
"It is true that venial sins may be expiated in many ways that are to be highly recommended. But to ensure more rapid progress day by day in the practice of virtue, we will that the pious practice of frequent Confession, introduced into the Church by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, should be earnestly promoted. Through frequent Confession genuine self-knowledge is increased, Christian humility grows, bad habits are corrected, spiritual neglect and tepidity are resisted, the conscience is purified, the will strengthened, a salutary self-control is obtained, and grace is increased by virtue of the sacrament itself (Ibid)."
The Pope wrote these words in 1943. In the light of what has since happened, I consider his strong defense of frequent Confession prophetic. We shall not restore the Church to her former glory and, please God, to a more glorious future until we bring back frequent Confession.
Growth in Chastity Through Frequent Confession
We return to where we began. How does the frequent reception of the Sacrament of Confession enable us to grow in fruitful chastity? The answer is really the eight ways in which the Vicar of Christ tells us that frequent Confession is beneficial to our spiritual life. Each of these eight ways contributes to our growth in what we are now calling the reproductive virtue of chastity.
1. Frequent Confession increases our self-knowledge. If there is one knowledge we all need it is the honest appraisal of our own selfish selves. We therefore grow in chastity by the clearer understanding of how naturally egotistical we are. The grace we receive from the sacrament of God’s mercy helps us realize what our Lord meant, that we are His disciples in the measure that we love others as He has loved us.
2. Frequent Confession helps us to grow in Christian humility. As we have said more than once, God punishes the proud by depriving them of the power to control their sexual drives. This sacrament gives us the light to see our nothingness and thus provides us with the grace we need to grow in chastity.
3. Frequent Confession corrects our bad habits. Another name for a bad habit is vice. Among the vices of our fallen nature, lust is second only to pride in its constant need for conversion. The more often we receive this sacrament, the more chaste we become as our lustful inclinations are subdued.
4. Frequent Confession resists our spiritual neglect, which is a synonym for tepidity. In the language of the Bible, a tepid person is lukewarm in the service of God.
Christ could not have been more emphatic than what He told the apostle John, speaking to the people of Laodicea, “I know all about you; how you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were one or the other, but since you are neither, but only lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelations 3:13-14). There is nothing more important than to overcome tepidity in the spiritual life. Why? Because tepidity deprives us of the grace we need to preserve our chastity. The frequent reception of the sacrament of peace gives us stability in resisting the demon of lust, and thus growing in angelic chastity.
5. Frequent Confession purifies our conscience. We know that conscience is our mind passing judgment on the morality of our actions. A pure conscience is conformed to the will of God. The more often we go to Confession, the more clear our conscience becomes. In other words, the better we see what God wants us to do, and not what we prefer. God wants us not only to master our sexual passions. He wants us to reproduce ourselves in spirit, which is another name for reproductive chastity.
6. Frequent Confession strengthens the will. A strong will is a generous will. A weak will is a selfish will. How the philosophy of the world has perverted the very meaning of words. In the language of our secular culture, strong-willed people are the proud titans of industry and commerce and politics who dominate others in order to assert their power.
Never before in human history has there been more need for human wills to be strong in their sacrifice of themselves and submission to the will of God.
God humiliated the proud Romans of the first century of Christianity by allowing them to become slaves of their sexual passions. He is doing the same in our day. One so-called developed nation after another, intoxicated with pride, is wallowing in lust.
The frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance strengthens our wills to overcome the worst enemy in our lives, which is our own self-will. But more than that, the more we sacrifice our selfish desires, the more we grow in humility, which is the foundation for the virtue of chastity.
But there is still more. The prevailing culture of our day calls for reparation. The crimes of lustful pride which have created a culture of death demand expiation before the offended justice of God. What better reparation can we make than by the practice of what I do not hesitate in calling heroic chastity. This is a chastity that witnesses to a world drunk with pride and sunk in lust. However, where can we get the strength of will needed to practice heroic chastity? Only from Christ, by receiving His Body in Holy Communion and receiving His grace in the sacrament of mercy.
7. Frequent Confession provides us with salutary self-control. It is impossible to be too clear on the meaning of self-control. What is this self which needs to be controlled? It is the Ego which the English language from time immemorial has capitalized. This is the Ego of which Christ spoke when He defined His true followers. “If anyone wishes to come after me,” He declared, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
The term “self-control” is ambiguous. In the mind of Christ, self-control means self-denial. It is nothing less than mastering the most assertive part of our created nature, which is to be absolutely independent.
How, then, does the Sacrament of Confession give us self-control? It gives us what we most need in life, namely to subdue our egomania, that does not stop even at dictating to our Creator and Lord.
This self-control is at the root of Christian chastity. Those who are chaste, on the Savior’s terms, not only restrain their venereal appetite. They love God so deeply that they want to share His love with others. If they are married, they wish to cooperate with the Creator in reproducing themselves not only in body, but also in fact especially in spirit. If they sacrifice marriage, in Christ's words “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” they do so in order to be more fruitful in reproducing offspring for eternal communion with God.
We are not quite finished. The Church tells us that through the sacrament of Penance a salutary self-control is obtained. The mastery of our self-will is salutary from the Latin word salus, which means “salvation.” The frequent confession of our sins is a divinely ordained promise of everlasting salvation. Why? Because only the chaste of heart will see God. Chastity of heart includes purity of body; but more important, it requires purity of soul, which is another way of saying total freedom from adoration of Self.
8. Frequent Confession increases divine grace in virtue of the sacrament itself. What are we saying? We are saying that every time we go to Confession, we infallibly increase the presence and power of our supernatural life. We become more holy, more pleasing to Christ, more believing, more trustful, and above all, more loving of God and more lovable to God.
In the deepest sense of the word, we become more chaste. We become more purified of the worst stigma that can stain the human spirit, the stain of a sterile self-love.
Growing in the Likeness of Christ
I would like to close this article with the beautiful tribute authorized by Pope Paul VI. It is one of the most eloquent pleas in papal history for frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance. Issued after the Second Vatican Council, it emphasizes that this sacrament is not only for the remission of mortal sins. It is an infallible means of becoming more and more like Jesus Christ.
Says the Holy Father, “Frequent and reverent recourse to this sacrament, even when only venial sin is in question, is of great value. Frequent Confession is not mere ritual repetition, nor is it merely a psychological exercise. Rather it is a constant effort to bring to perfection the grace of our Baptism, so that we carry about in our bodies the death of Jesus Christ who died; so that the life Jesus Christ lives may be more and more manifested in us. In such confessions, while indeed confessing venial sins, penitents should be mainly concerned with becoming more conformed to Christ and more submissive to the voice of the Spirit.”
What is the successor of St. Peter telling us? He is saying that by frequent Confession we grow in the likeness of the all-chaste Son of God, whose chastity is another name for His sanctity.