A friend asks: “What is distinctive about the grace we receive in confession? How is it different from the grace we receive in communion? Communion forgives venial sin too, right? So how is confession different? How is the grace I get by going to confession not just a duplicate of the grace I already received in communion— so long as I am not in mortal sin?”
I took a stab at an answer. What do you think?
First, the fact that they’re both distinct sacraments tells us the Church thinks they’re both important. They each have a distinct character and thus impart distinct graces. Jesus himself instituted the sacrament of confession as distinct from the Eucharist, giving the apostles and their successors the power to forgive sins, so he must have wanted us to take advantage of it.
I like to think about the outward signs of the two sacraments: in the Eucharist Christ comes to us in the form of food and drink; in confession Christ comes to us in the form of, well, telling our specific sins to someone who not only listens and forgives them but also offers us advice and assigns us penance.
Confession is properly a sacrament of healing. The Church recognizes that we don’t just need communal, corporate liturgy, we also need personalized, individualized attention. We need someone to listen. Confession doesn’t just take away sins, it puts us back in right relationship with God and the Church when that relationship is broken or strained. And the opportunity to sit down and talk with that someone is all about relationship. It’s about Christ coming to us with a voice and a face, not hidden in the form of bread and wine, but really speaking to us in words we can hear. And as we say those sins out loud and acknowledge the specific ways we’ve broken that relationship, confession allows Christ’s healing grace to touch every broken place and heal it. As we expose our wounds, we invite Christ back into the places we’ve shut him out from, we invite him to again become a part of ourselves and our lives, to heal us, strengthen us, and make us whole again. In confession, we ask for specific help in the specific places we are broken.
Yes, the Eucharist also strengthens and heals. But I like to think of the difference between the two sacraments as the difference between needing food and needing medicine. Sometimes when you’re not really all that sick, like when you have a miserable cold, you just need some hot soup and hot tea and a day in bed. But sometimes you need more medical care than just strengthening food. You need personalized attention. Confession is like going to the doctor. He removes debris or dirt from wounds and binds them with clean bandages, sets broken bones, stitches us lacerations, anoints them with healing ointments, administers doses of antibiotics, prescribes ice packs or hot compresses or steroid creams. He tailors the treatment to fit the specific needs of each patient, prescribes medicine for each person’s particular ailments. The Eucharist is nourishing food and it has healing properties, but confession is deep healing.
When we pray the penitential rite, we express our general sorrows for our sins, but it’s sorrow for sin in the aggregate. In confession we examine and enumerate our particular sins. In an examination of conscience we might enumerate our sins, but we don’t receive counseling and we don’t hear the words of absolution. There is something remarkably freeing in having a flesh and blood person listen to your particular sins, give you counsel for your particular struggles, and then pronounce the words of absolution. It is final, it is thorough, and we are left with no doubt at all that we have been heard, that we have been forgiven, and that Christ is working to heal us.
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I also stumbled across this from Pope Pius XII in 1943 from a letter on the Mystical Body of Christ which beautifully enumerates the graces that confession imparts:
“For a constant and speedy advancement in the path of virtue,’ he wrote, ‘we highly recommend the pious practice of frequent confession, introduced by the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; for by this means we grow in a true knowledge of ourselves and in Christian humility, bad habits are uprooted, spiritual negligence and apathy are prevented, the conscience is purified and the will strengthened, salutary spiritual direction is obtained, and grace is increased by the efficacy of the sacrament itself.”
Isn’t it beautiful how he articulates the specific graces of confession?
1. We grow in a true knowledge of ourselves.
If the path to wisdom is “know thyself” then confession is the path to wisdom, isn’t it? Having to put into words exactly the ways in which I’m broken helps me to better know myself. There’s no hiding from the self if you really set out to make an honest examination of conscience and a good confession. And the more you go to confession the more you ask God to help you make a good confession, the more clearly you see exactly why you need it.
2. We grow in Christian humility.
No kidding. Is there anything more humiliating than having to say my sins out loud? But seriously, acknowledging to myself and to others that I am officially a sinner in need of help is the foundation of true humility, knowing who I am in the sight of God. Yeah, we make a general confession at Mass, but it’s easier to rattle that off by rote. Confession makes it personal.
3. We (or Jesus, or both of us together?) uproot bad habits.
It’s not just having to say the same sins over and over again until I’m tired of repeating myself. Confession also gives me the specific graces I need to fight the specific bad habits I have formed. (Also, one priest told me he spends time each day praying particularly for the people whose confessions he’s heard. So how cool is that that just by going to confession you might be getting extra prayer from your priest to help with those bad habits?
4. We prevent spiritual negligence and apathy.
Going to confession is like the opposite of apathy. It’s a sign of my caring, of my seeking out healing. It’s the ultimate in self-care. I’m taking care of my spiritual needs, not neglecting it, letting my soul’s garden go to weeds.
5. The conscience is purified.
Ooh. The conscience can get flabby, a little grubby, or if you tend to scrupulosity a little tied in knots. Confession helps to keep my conscience in good working order, to purify my understanding of sin and evil, to purify my motives. It’s like a good spring cleaning for the soul.
6. The will is strengthened.
I suspect he’s not thinking of the huge effort of the will it takes to even get to confession, though there’s that too. But really this means that Christ gives me the specific grace to want to change, to will to avoid temptation and to seek the good.
7. We obtain salutary spiritual direction.
Even mediocre priests, even bad priests, can still sometimes kick me in the butt, say one word that I really needed to hear. And a good confessor is worth his weight in gold, giving good advice to help me avoid sin, giving a good penance to help form my will.
8. Grace is increased by the efficacy of the sacrament itself.
I’m not sure if this is a separate grace or not, but the sacrament has its own efficacy and gives additional graces. How could it not? If the Eucharist gives grace then don’t you still get more by also going to confession?