Confession and Sanctification
Originally published in German as “Die Beichte und der Fortschritt meiner Seele” (Imprimatur: Vienna, 1954)
By Friedrich Wessely (1901-1970)
Translated by Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist.
Note: The Rev. Friedrich Wessely (1901-1970) was a priest of the Archdiocese of Vienna and professor for Spirituality at the University of Vienna. He brought the Legion of Mary to Austria and and inspired the founding of the Vienna Oratory. Wessely’s pamphlet on Confession was given to me by my own confessor, and I have found it helpful indeed.
I. Confession as a Means of Sanctification
Confession is one of the most eminent means of our sanctification. We know that through Confession our sins are forgiven and we are restored to the state of grace. Or that if we have not lost the state of grace Confession increases the grace already in us. The increase of grace strengthens our ability to do good, and enables us to to approach the goal of our lives – conformity to the Son of God – with ever greater strength.
Each man is called, as St Paul puts it, to be conformed to the image of the Son of God (cf. Rom 8:29); each in a particular way and to a particular degree. At the end of his life, whether it be long or short, each man ought to have realized this goal and thus be admitted to the beatific vision of God. Now Confession is not only one of the most effective means of remaining on the right path or returning to it when it has been lost— it also enables one to progress along that path with such speed that at the end of one’s life one is really at the goal, and not in need of any purgation in the next life. It is of the first importance to keep in mind what goal God wills us to reach in this life; for only if we realize that holiness, union with God, perfect purity of heart is the ideal that we must try to realize in this life, will we see the true value of the means of sanctification and make full use of them.
So Confession is a significant help on the path to our sanctification, and the faithful consider it a great blessing and a necessary institution. Indeed there are scarcely any truly pious souls who do not consider the sacrament – even apart from its role in reconciling us with God – as a means of quickly approaching the goal of life. Nevertheless, there are perhaps few who can say from their own experience that Confession has helped them to a life of higher virtue. This is often a cause of great concern to such souls. They feel themselves at fault, but do not know how to increase the effect of this sacrament in their lives. Thus they are often discouraged and are even tempted to give up the practice of frequent Confession. The present pamphlet is therefore intended as an aid to receiving the Sacrament of Penance as well and as fruitfully as possible.
II. The Effects of Frequent Confession
There can be no doubt that the effects of Confession vary according to the disposition of penitents; the effects can be relatively small, but they can also be very great.
Often after a long life devout souls say that their spiritual state has not changed much and that frequent Confession has had no effect. But this complaint is usually not really justified. For one ought not to overlook the fact that even the preservation of the state of grace or the ability to stand up again quickly after serious falls are effects of frequent Confession the true worth of which is inestimable. Moreover, one can surely say that frequent Confession allows one to have greater contrition for one’s sins, since they are still fresh in the memory. One can also point out that the regular reception of this Sacrament makes one’s conscience more sensitive, so that any deviation from the right path is more easily detected than if a long period of time has elapsed since the last time one attempted to examine one’s conscience. So there are a number of points that make it clear what a blessing frequent Confession really is, and it would be a sign of ingratitude and weak faith if one were to ignore them.
Finally there can be no question that a man who confesses frequently and regularly will be granted an interior transformation, even if he has to confess the same sins his whole life long, since at the end of his life he will realize his sinfulness more than he could at the beginning, feeling more ashamed of his weakness than if he had fallen but once. Thus he will easily say with full conviction: “Lord have mercy on me a sinner!” And precisely on account of that realization he will enter the Kingdom God justified.
It is thus clear that frequent Confession is a blessing, but it is also clear that one ought not to be satisfied with its minimum effects. One ought rather to strive to make the reception of this sacrament as efficacious as possible, so that one can attain to perfect purity of heart. Now in order to do this certain conditions have to be met.
III. The Conditions for a Good Confession
In order to receive the Sacrament of Penance fruitfully it is necessary to fulfill carefully all that belongs to the essence of the Sacrament as well as those things that have always been recommended by the teaching of the Church. These consist principally in a good preparation, the confession of one’s sins, and the fulfillment of one’s penance.
Preparation for confession can be further divided into proximate preparation (preparation in the strict sense) and remote preparation.
Proximate preparation includes the examination of conscience, which ought to begin with an invocation of the Holy Spirit; contrition for sins committed; and finally the resolution not to commit those sins again and to convert one’s life.
Remote preparation includes everything that can be done by the penitent to give himself comprehensive knowledge of his sins, to deepen his contrition, and to strengthen his resolution.
It is necessary to fulfill these precepts and counsels carefully in order to receive the Sacrament of Penance fruitfully. But when we say that care is necessary we do not mean that we ought to be filled with worry and fear. We must rather be confident in the knowledge that the Church, like a good mother, teaches us these things in order that we might progress toward God as quickly as possible, that our souls might expand and develop ever more richly, and that the peace of God might entirely fill our hearts.
We begin with a consideration of the preparation for Confession.
IV. Preparation for Confession
1. Remote Preparation
An important remote preparation for Confession is the attempt to overcome obstacles to deep self knowledge. Among these obstacles are an insufficient realization of the holiness of God and a certain blindness of the soul.
Realizing the Holiness of God
We have often been struck with amazement by the fact that some otherwise pious souls are so little troubled by certain faults. Their consciences remain tranquil despite the faults which they do not deny. This comes from an insufficient realization of the holiness of God. If one really knew who God is one would tremble at the slightest infidelity to Him. It is therefore necessary to learn to live “in the presence of the eternal and infinite God,” to keep constantly in mind the words of Our Lord which speak so earnestly of the importance of fidelity in little things. It is good to keep the example of the saints before us, who would only lift their hearts up to God with the greatest reverence and awe.
Healing the Blindness of the Soul
We have certainly noticed that certain persons who try to live a devout life, dutifully observing all the precepts of religion, and perhaps considered excellent Catholics, nevertheless have crass faults. The strange thing is that they are not aware of their faults. They examine their consciences and confess their sins often. And yet they simply overlook “materially grave” sins or remain in a state that gives scandal to those who know of it. This disharmony and contradiction that strike us so painfully in the behavior of others is unfortunately not entirely overcome in our own lives. We can be sure that we have something in us that is not conformed to the image of Christ – indeed something contrary to that image – something that would cause us sorrow and shame if we knew of it, and which we could only correct with difficulty.
But you will say: the sin of which I am not myself conscious will not be regarded as a sin by God! That is certainly true, but let us take care! Just as there is culpable ignorance, so there is also a culpable blindness. If a man persistently ignores the warning to be more loving and courteous he will soon be blind to such duties; without noticing it much, without even recognizing it, he will soon become a very rude person whom others try to avoid.
This spiritual blindness is especially dangerous when it stems from exaggerated self-esteem. The Pharisee in the temple who thanks God that he is not like other men, who sees only his own prayer and fasting, is a type of character not seldom met with. His exaggerated self-esteem blinds him to many hideous parts of his person. One could not have such indignation at the faults of one’s neighbors if one did not feel oneself incapable of committing them. There is nothing wrong with noticing the faults of others, but if one is indignant at them and constantly criticizing them, then one can be sure that one lacks self-knowledge, even if one goes to Confession frequently and examines one’s conscience daily. This blindness will not be taken from us by our confessors, and even the counsel of the best of spiritual directors will not free us from our ignorance.
These words should not discourage us. God expects only good will of us. And we show good will when we are honestly ready to awake from blindness, and to correct every fault that we are able to detect – either through our own examination or through the help of others.
2. Proximate Preparation
a) Examination of Conscience
For many persons examining their conscience is almost a form of torture. They are possessed by the fear that they will not detect all their faults, or they tie their minds into knots trying to weigh the exact degree of gravity of each sin. They do not think themselves able to make a good Confession unless they have attained perfect clarity about their interior state. But what is the point of all this worry? One ought to keep in mind that God alone knows the number and gravity of our sins. It is certainly true that a certain amount of care and concentration is necessary for an examination of conscience, but not more than is necessary for any serious activity. If we ask for God’s help in prayer before the examination, we can be confident that he will be with us with the assistance of his grace, that our Lord Jesus is as close to us as he once was to the Samaritan woman, whom he gently lead to the knowledge of her sins. Perhaps He does not wish to show me every single sin that I have committed, perhaps the best of Teachers wishes only to show me this or that sin, just as in the letters to the seven Churches in Revelation he showed the leaders of each Church only one thing that displeased Him.
If you notice that you are filled with fear and anxiety during your examination of conscience, then try first to quiet your heart, recollect, let the merciful eyes of God rest on you, and regard your soul as it were with His eyes. It is sufficient to see that which God helps you to see. Determining the number of your sins is less important than realizing that these sins caused Jesus pain, that Jesus silently and lovingly atoned for them. Being able to weigh the gravity of your sins is less important than to offer Our Lord the consolation of your gratitude for His atonement and your firm resolution to serve Him more faithfully. It is more salutary to repent of sin because one sees that it offends God than because one sees it as proof of one’s own misery and weakness. It is more important to pay a creditor, or make arrangements to pay him as soon as possible, than to make a fuss about the fact that one is in debt.
Other persons are filled with reluctance at the attempt to remember past faults, and so they make their examination of conscience very lightly. They confess whatever happens to enter their minds. I am not speaking here of those who are so overburdened by work (a growing problem in our time) that they do not have much time to prepare for Confession. They too make only a brief examination of conscience, and yet it is enough for they have the right intention. God lets them see in a few moments how they have offended Him, and in a few moments they are able to make strong resolutions to serve God more faithfully, and for love of Him to carry their daily burden or the difficulty of living with others more patiently; or they are able by some other method to separate themselves from some fault, refusing it and making some resolve which combats it.
I am not speaking of such people who cannot prepare themselves thoroughly because of a lack of time—rather I am speaking of those who cut their preparation short out of negligence. They wish to confess only sins that they can easily remember, or sins which they merely assume that they have committed without knowing for certain in order to spare themselves the trouble of examination. These people should realize that they offend God very much. They know not how wretched they are; they know not that they are among the lukewarm, even if they confess regularly out of habit or because they are constrained by a religious rule. They do not know what satisfaction they will have to make in the next life if they do not convert. But God is merciful, and waits patiently for their conversion. He does not condemn them yet, and so neither shall we condemn, rather we shall endeavor to understand how such a lukewarm attitude toward confession arises. Does it arise because these people make their Confession too frequently? Ought we to advise devout souls that a less frequent Confession suffices? Is the rule of our religious houses that requires weekly Confession in need of reform?
This much is certain: those who do not know what to confess after one week will not know any better after a fortnight or a month. Frequent reception is not the cause of a lukewarm and indifferent reception of this sacrament. No, it is a faulty disposition that leads one to neglect the promptings of grace, which would cause one to make good resolutions and to hasten forward swiftly. A faulty disposition slowly renders the soul blind to the true nature of spiritual progress. But when one no longer sees what progress consists in, then one is unable to see the state of one’s own soul; one no longer sees any opportunity for spiritual growth. But once one no longer sees the opportunity for growth one naturally becomes weary and indifferent.
If we see that our attitude toward Confession is lukewarm, then we should ask ourselves whether there is any part of our lives in which we are really zealous out of love of God. We shall find to our astonishment that we nowhere have true zeal, or that if there is some work to which we devote ourselves with all our strength, that our motive in it is not purely supernatural. Thus we find that a lukewarm attitude towards Confession is a sign that we are generally lukewarm in our spiritual lives. This can be a wake up call to us. And if we heed this call we shall find that the converse is also true: as soon as we arise and attempt some work purely out of love of God we shall find the desire for the purification of the Sacrament of Confession awake again in our hearts.
There are some persons who find the examination of conscience difficult because they are shy and timid, and have difficulty finding the right way of describing their sins. Perhaps they have had embarrassing experiences of Confessions. Perhaps their confessors told them that they did not confess well, that they confessed mere imperfections not sins, but that the validity of the Sacrament depends on the penitent confessing actual sin. Perhaps this was well-meant advice, or perhaps not; perhaps this advice proceeded from the false assumption that penitents are able to describe their interior state accurately, and perhaps the fact was overlooked that often expressions which seem to indicate mere imperfections actually imply sins. Perhaps such imperfect expressions ought to have shown the confessors that the penitents were unable to see their interior state and recognize their sins, and that they were thus in need of gentle help. But it matters little whether a penitent was embarrassed through just or unjust criticism; one ought not to allow oneself to be deterred from the Sacrament by embarrassing experiences. After all, one does not confess in order to satisfy the priest, but rather in order to receive forgiveness from God. One ought not to worry about what the confessor will think; one must try to overcome the fear of man in all things.
The Invocation of the Holy Spirit
All instructions on Confession agree that one ought to begin the examination of conscience by calling the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, to one’s aid. This helps us to see the vital point that we must examine our consciences with our hearts full of faith. We must try to look on ourselves as it were with God’s eyes. God knows the graces that He has abundantly sowed in our hearts that they might bear fruit, that they might conform us ever more clearly to the image of His Son. The Son of God desires to be able to recognize in us friends and brothers. The Holy Spirit has filled us with His gifts that in our daily work we might ever more become instruments of His love. If one realizes this then one will see how far short of the ideal one falls. Even if one confesses regularly one will see how numerous were the sins of omissions one committed, how many graces one squandered, how bitterly (in human terms) one’s conduct must have disappointed God. The saints wept bitter tears over their sinfulness. They did not do so out of unhealthy exaggeration, but out of a deep knowledge of their souls, a bright light helped them to see their own unworthiness. If we ask Him, God will give this light to us as well.
(to be continued)