“What exactly constitutes serious sin?”
“Should I go to confession first before receiving Holy Communion if I missed Mass?”
“Should I go face-to-face or behind a screen?"
“What happens if I deliberately withhold a sin in confession?”
Having heard numerous confessions for over 20 years, I think that it might be helpful to give a type of primer or refresher course for using the Sacrament of Penance. While it may take some time to get everything covered thoroughly, here is my humble attempt to help simplify matters.
The first act important to a good confession is a thorough Examination of Conscience. We have to look at our lives and see what we have done that is sinful. Many people reflect on the Ten Commandments, the teachings of Jesus in the Gospel, the letters of St. Paul or some formulated written examination to help with the process.
Any known serious sin needs to be confessed in kind and in number. What this means is that I have to tell the priest exactly what I did and the number of times that I did it. I have had people come into confession and say, “Father, I did some really bad things.” This really leaves the priest clueless. Bad things can run the gamut from stealing to murder to adultery to whatever. It is too vague. The reason we need to know the number of times is to give us some sense of the frequency of the problem.
Serious sin basically consists of the following three conditions:
· Grave Matter - The nature of what was done is serious business
· Sufficient Reflection - The person thinks about it and realizes it is wrong to do it
· Full Consent of the Will – The person freely commits the sin knowing it is wrong
In other words, a serious sin (sometimes called a mortal sin) is an action that I know is seriously wrong and yet I choose to do it anyway.
Sins that lack one of the above conditions usually are considered venial or less-serious sins. While they do not necessarily need to be confessed in number (“I lied six times”), the gravity or nature of the sin is important. It can be the difference between lying to the telemarketer that “He is not home” to lying to your wife that “I have to work late” (because you are having an affair with your secretary). Both are forms of lies, but one certainly is more serious than the other.
Usually what is best is to determine certain patterns of venial sin and to confess the patterns that you are aware of rather than try to number every single sin (which is usually only a calculated guess anyway).
Now we have begun looking at conscience and sin. Next comes the manner of going to confession.