My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
As announced previously, the Catholic Bishops of the United States will be drafting a document on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church to be voted upon at our next meeting in November. An important aspect of this topic is the relationship between receiving the holy Eucharist and the sacrament of penance.
St. Paul urges us to examine our conscience before receiving holy Communion, saying that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor. 27-29).
Some people wonder, “Are we not all unworthy?” After all, before distributing holy Communion, the priest shows the Host and the Chalice to the faithful and proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.” Then the people respond, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” This response calls to mind the words that were spoken by the Roman centurion to Jesus when he begged the Lord to heal his sick servant (Matthew 8:8). But then we immediately add, “Only say the word and my soul shall be healed,” again echoing the words of the centurion as he proclaimed, “Only say the word and my servant will be healed.”
We hear the healing word of Jesus in the prayer of absolution pronounced by a priest in the sacrament of penance. The Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats the two-thousand-year-old teaching of the Church, “Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion” (n. 1385).
How do we know if something is a grave sin? Grave sins are also called mortal sins because they are deadly to our relationship with God. Examples would be the seven capital or deadly sins: pride, envy, anger, avarice, gluttony, lust, and sloth. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: ‘Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother’ (Mk 10:19). The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger” (nn. 1857-1858).
There are several good guides available online to help us examine our consciences, such as those provided on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/sacraments-and-sacramentals/penance/examinations-of-conscience. There you will find Examinations of Conscience based on the Ten Commandments and on Catholic Social Teaching, as well as Examinations of Conscience for Children, Young Adults, Single People, and for Married Persons.
It must be noted that missing Mass on Sunday is a grave sin because it violates the Third Commandment to keep holy the Sabbath, which for Catholics includes going to Mass every Sunday. Catholics who knowingly and deliberately miss Mass on Sunday, unless they are excused because of illness or dispensed by the diocesan bishop or the pastor, such as during a pandemic, commit a mortal sin and need to confess that sin and receive sacramental absolution before receiving holy Communion. Receiving holy Communion while in the state of mortal sin is itself a mortal sin, the sin of sacrilege.
How often should a person go to confession? Canon 989 of the Code of Canon Law says, “After having reached the age of discretion, each member of the faithful is obliged to confess faithfully his or her grave sins at least once a year.” That would be the bare minimum. I recommend going to confession at least once a month, even if you have only committed venial sins, that is, less serious sins that are not grave or mortal. I only recommend practices that I am willing to do myself, and so my practice is to go confession at least twice a month. The ideal is to go weekly. Confessing our sins, even our lesser faults and weaknesses, helps us to grow in holiness as we identify our shortcomings and areas of our life that call for repentance and conversion.
Some people ask, “If Jesus is loving and merciful and has forgiven our sins by His death on the cross, why do I need to confess my sins?” The answer is that Jesus began His public ministry by calling people to repentance: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). We must repent and ask forgiveness of our sins in order to live the Gospel message fully. Although the sacraments are efficacious because Christ himself is at work in them, “the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 1127-1128).
May God give us this grace. Amen.