The Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Needed Sacrament

Do you often look out over your congregation assembled for Mass, and wonder where and when the majority go to Confession?

Do you, bishop . . . priest . . . deacon . . . inform your parishioners regularly that they have an obligation to go to Confession at least once each year?

Does your parish provide only one hour per week for private confessions?

Perhaps you have a moderate-sized parish of 1200 families; perhaps an average of two people per family unit, for a total of 2400 people.

Perhaps your parish, like many others, hosts a Lenten and an Advent Penance Service, attended by perhaps 400 people. You realize, of course, that these Penance Services generally attract the same folk, those who are somewhat trained in this version of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but restrained by a lack of counseling for difficult situations: as a pastor once announced, “When you approach a priest, recite your sins and the number of times the sins were committed; that is all.”

But if we are generous, we can allow that 800 people of the parish attend these two yearly Penance Services.

That leaves 1600 people who should confess at least once a year, under pain of mortal sin . . . an average of 31 people who should show up for the one hour of Confession time scheduled for each Saturday afternoon.

Do that many come then?

Of all seven, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, frequently referred to as “Confession,” is the entry point to five of the other six; Baptism is the exception, since it removes all sin from the soul (once). A good Confession seeks to return the soul to that sinless status. Unless one is in the state of sanctifying grace already, one cannot receive the sanctifying graces of those five Sacraments. This gateway Sacrament is not an option, but a necessity — not for the spiritual gift itself, but for the sanctifying grace that springs from the gift. And a greater caution is the possibility of an additional mortal sin of sacrilege in purposely receiving one of the five sacraments with mortal sin already in the soul.

The center of all Catholic belief and liturgy is the Sacrament of the Eucharist, celebrated in the various forms of the Mass. Strangely enough, almost all parishioners who attend Mass file forward to receive Holy Communion. While it is possible there are many saints within a parish community who never commit mortal sins, the possibility also exists that many of the communicants receive the Body and Blood of the Christ unworthily, and subject themselves to the mortal sin of sacrilege described by St. Paul (cf., 1 Cor 11:27-30).

We can make many excuses as the reasons leading to the disuse of this most necessary Sacrament.

The chaos following the Vatican II Council contributed greatly to the confusion surrounding personal Confession. Does anyone remember the many attempts of zealous priests and bishops to offer frequent “General” Absolution?

The explosion of counseling services, psychosis and psychiatry on the years during and after the Council encouraged people to dismiss personal Confession as mandatory. An old Irish pastor commented that as he observed the proliferation of psychiatry, he observed a substantial decrease in personal confessions. His reasoning was that if one were advised they were not responsible for their feelings and certain actions, they might also feel they were not responsible for their sins.

And, perhaps the central reason, possibly related to the Vatican Council: there appeared to be a de-emphasis on the worth and necessity of personal Confession by bishops, priests, and especially those clergy and lay people teaching religious education and RCIA.

Were children properly introduced to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in preparation for First Communion? If the clergy or catechists are unsure of the value or need for Confession, how much of this doubt is transferred to their charges? While faithful and trained volunteers may be scarce, the long-term (lifetime) effect of the teaching may require caution, even consideration of positive teaching pamphlets designed for children, like those of Channing-Bete’s Faithguides.

Are the youngsters preparing for Confirmation prepared for and required to go to Confession before Confirmation? Final consultations with confirmandi indicate some do not even wish to receive the Sacrament, much less prepare for it. Parental or peer pressure is inappropriate for this strengthening Sacrament. The way to lifetime dedication to Confession must be supported at the teaching level, but also at the parental and sponsor level. Confirmation sponsors, just like RCIA sponsors, require training to make sure they are providing the Catholic examples we expect. Experience shows that sponsorship is often honorary, with little if any review of the sponsor’s capabilities or faithfulness to Catholic doctrine. Sponsors tested and assigned by the pastor or parish are preferable to an uncle who lives thousands of miles away.

Is there a concerted effort to encourage engaged couples, specifically, to go to Confession before marriage? FOCUS, Pre-Cana, Engaged Encounter and Sponsor Couple all provide opportunities to discuss this, but again, experience recalls no specific, directed instruction. Confession, along with termination of cohabitation, seems strangely absent for the very critical Sacrament of Marriage.

One may speculate that in those years immediately after Vatican II, perhaps seminarians were not required to go to Confession before ordination. Later, when the permanent diaconate was revived, and permanent deacons were ordained, the mention of regular Confession, and the need for this necessary Sacrament before ordination appeared to be missing from training and discussion.

To be sure, even in the Anointing of the Sick, there has been little, if any, explanation that the anointing must be preceded by Confession (some circumstances may require General Absolution), before the graces of anointing and Viaticum take effect. Neither has this been explained in the various parishes in which anointing is offered during or after “healing” Masses. Indeed, some permanent deacons have attempted to appropriate the Sacrament of Anointing, failing to understand that, without absolution by a priest, the anointing becomes merely a sacramental.

Finally, we arrive at the present-day condition of RCIA, so vital to the growth of the parish and the particular Church. Observation indicates that a vibrant and well-advertised RCIA is the sign of a growing parish. Since, so often, candidates and catechumens are mixed in the same group, with an extended schedule for candidates and a compressed schedule for catechumens, Confession is sometimes overlooked, or “mentioned in passing,” since it is not a requirement for catechumens. Here, with candidates, we have the combination of situations discussed in First Communions and Confirmations, above. As in those cases, the value of properly trained and faithful Catholic sponsors is so important to the integration of these seekers into the truth of the Sacraments, especially Confession. The question becomes, again, how are the presenters of RCIA trained, and do they have a mature Catholic view of the Sacrament of Reconciliation?

All of this leads to one major question. Who is responsible for the disuse, almost abandonment, of this most necessary (personal) Sacrament of Reconciliation?

The individual? Who is responsible for teaching the individual of the worth and necessity of the Sacrament of Reconciliation? While printed information is readily available, the ignorance of this availability is obvious.

The deacon? Although not responsible for the immediate chaos after Vatican II, the deacon should never miss an opportunity in any homily or teaching opportunity, like RCIA, to emphasize the requirement for personal Confession. Indeed, as many times as the Eucharist may be explained or promoted, the necessary Sacrament of Reconciliation should be specified.

The priest? I leave that answer to you priests who read this. Please consider the opportunities offered by parishes which celebrate the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, where personal Confessions are heard before every Mass. Please consider the efforts of the patron saint of priests, St. John Vianney, who labored long hours in the confessional. Please consider also the timing for Masses and Confessions, so more parishioners can avail themselves of these benefits. Yes, the management of a parish requires much time, but as the old Irish pastor observed about providing the Sacraments to his flock at their convenience: “That’s my job.”

The bishop? Yes, the buck stops here. Like Pope Francis did early in his pontificate, the pope can set an example for going to Confession, as well as making himself available to hear Confessions. But the bishop is responsible for the particular church; his duties to his clergy and lay people specify a shepherd’s care. It would seem appropriate that he participate as an example to his clergy in supplying the “everyday” Sacraments, including hearing Confessions.

God will not be mocked by our excuses.

For further reading:

Precepts of the Church: Catechism of the Catholic Church: §2041-42 and on mortal sin, §1857; see also the insight on one’s examination of conscience at CCC §1454.

Deacon James Stagg About Deacon James Stagg

Deacon James Stagg was ordained in 1990. After serving in five parishes in the Atlanta and Birmingham dioceses, he retired from active ministry in 2006. He currently lives in Paris, IL, and seeks to ignite conversations about how to generate enthusiasm among Catholics who still attend Mass.


  1. Avatar Tom Showerman says:

    Thank you Deacon James for this article. This is truly the sacrament of “healing” that is so necessaryfor all followers of Christ.

  2. Could a longer period of preparation help? Daily examinations of conscience aren’t as widely prescribed now. Here is a kind of “personal liturgy” with hymn tunes with lyrics, as prayers, with the penitential psalms with great music and art.

    Perhaps an overlooked issue, after the loss of the sense of sin, is that without practice, Reconciliation is for many people highly disagreeable. Perhaps the sting could be lessened if, instead of going through a temporary emotional depression while in line, the final act of getting Confession can be preceded by organized, personal reflection at home.

  3. Avatar John Laurence says:

    If (when) the windows of the windows of a lighthouse are dirty (or muddy) the light is obscured, dimmed, or even negligible. So it is when we receive the Eucharist without first confessing our sins!

  4. Avatar Part ofthe congregation says:

    “Confession, along with termination of cohabitation, seems strangely absent for the very critical Sacrament of Marriage.” A man I know, when a transitional deacon, in a certain place, and who is now a priest in a different diocese, was told in no uncertain terms by a pastor that telling couples to terminate cohabitation during marriage prep was a sign that the man was uncaring and un-suited for the priesthood. He was asked to leave this diocese and had to go to another place to be ordained a priest. This man was kicked out for doing the right thing!!! Thank God he had the fortitude to stick with it and eventually be ordained.

  5. Avatar Francis Etheredge says:

    Dear Deacon James,
    The Peace of Christ.
    Thank you for your article on the sacrament of Confession; it is indeed a marvel and does include the witness of being refused confession, as I well know. During what turned out to be a time of transition from confusion to clarity about the mystery of marriage, I was refused absolution on the basis that it was not clear to the priest that I had renounced contemplating marriage in a registry office. Altogether, this priest ended up being a wonderful guide through a very difficult time; and, in due course, I met and married my wife, the celebrant of the nuptial mass was this same priest!

    In the book, “Honest Rust and Gold” ( there are a number of almost poem prayers about, among other things, the sacraments; see what you think of this one, concerning confession:


    medicine is when the inward parts,
    having degenerated or, in some way, shriveled,
    are in the very process of being regrown.

    As if the very immersion of baptism
    percolates through the hardened arteries,

    of a prayer-slack dearth of good deeds,

    bursting upon the almost insensible conscience
    sensing something in the crises of life.

    Confession can be like a car-clean:
    efficient for what is obvious,
    almost slotting it in in-between
    shopping and the busyness of the day.

    Or confession is like plunging,
    falling fully conscious,
    or diving deeply

    into the digestive juices of the word,

    uncovering more fully the fullness of being loved
    enough to be opened to receive the salt-gritting

    of a welcoming new nature

    that dissolves edifying gifts
    in the inedible, rejectable and indigestible
    opening the closed hand
    in acts of generosity and forming
    an inwardly pearly brightness.

    And then the outward sign of falling to the knees
    expresses the pattern of forgiveness
    rising, like a thermal, from the
    uplifting waves of the risen,
    crucified Christ

    breaking out a newness,
    from the old-new man
    freshly found in the hands of Christ:

    the transient beauty of a graced love
    bearing an eternally resplendent
    change of what is feebly porous
    into what is magnificently permeated by a
    lasting happiness.

    Walking with others
    helps us to walk in remembrance
    of all who have gone before us,
    helping us to remember all who
    are around us and who will
    see our trail and, possibly, tread after us,
    perhaps running up and wondering
    if they can come too.

    Confession turns our inwardness outward
    in the hope that God’s blessings will befall others
    because of witnessing to the renewing
    He is doing with us.