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“Ask a Priest: How often can I go to confession?”
Q: Can a person go to confession every week even if they have no mortal sins? Can a person still go and confess venial sins? Or do you need to include one mortal sin from the past? Is it an abuse of the sacrament if you go to confession more than once a week or every week? Is it good to confess temptations, especially the ones you are struggling with? -P.B.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Your desire to take advantage of the sacrament of reconciliation (also called the sacrament of confession, or the sacrament of penance) is admirable. Unfortunately, many people neglect this great means of receiving God’s grace.
Let’s take your questions one by one. First, it isn’t necessary to have a mortal sin in order to go to confession. One of the fruits of frequent reception of the sacrament, in fact, is to help us avoid sin and especially mortal sin. It is enough to confess venial sins, if that is all a person is aware of having committed.
But let’s qualify that last sentence. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in No. 1458, says, “Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit.” Still, a confession is valid even if someone doesn’t mention all his venial sins.
Nor is it necessary to mention a mortal sin from the past, so long as the sin was previously confessed and absolved. A penitent does, however, have to mention mortal sins that he forgot to confess previously. (If a penitent deliberately withholds mention of a mortal sin, then the sacrament is invalid and the sin of sacrilege is added to the guilt.)
Mentioning a mortal sin already forgiven can lead a penitent to a deeper appreciation for God’s mercy. But here we should be cautious. If mentioning past sins brings undue anxiety, or if it springs from scrupulosity, that is not good. It is better to leave such sins in the past. Jesus doesn’t want us to beat up on ourselves needlessly. He completely forgets our past sins that we have sincerely confessed, and he wants us to do the same.
Let’s turn to your question about frequent confession. Weekly reception of the sacrament is praiseworthy, especially for a lay person. (It is the recommended norm in many religious congregations.) In principle, a person could approach the sacrament even more frequently. But here it is important that a person isn’t doing this because of scrupulosity. Some basically good people might fear that the sins from the last confession weren’t forgiven. Or they might think that they are constantly falling into mortal sin and need to go to confession every few days. A person who commits a mortal sin should, of course, try to go to confession as soon as possible. In most cases, though, weekly confession suffices very well for a lay person with a healthy spiritual life.
Someone who feels the need to go to confession every few days might want to consider doing so with the same (solid) priest. That would give the confessor a chance to know the penitent and to look for signs of scrupulosity or other problems that might require special attention.
A penitent is free to mention temptations, although this is optional. Temptations — those that weren’t brought on by some fault of ours — are not the same as sins. Mentioning temptations can help for several reasons. First, it might bring comfort to the penitent, who comes away from the sacrament with an even deeper sense of having opened his soul to Jesus. Second, mentioning a temptation can help weaken its power, since talking openly about a problem can be half its solution. Also, it gives the confessor a chance to recommend additional aids to the penitent.