Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Now that we are in the Lenten season, I recently heard that it is a mortal sin to not go to confession during Lent. Could this be true? — J.B., Ocala, Florida
A: The quick answer to this question is a simple no. The quick answer, however, is not so simple, and some other considerations are in order.
According to canon law:
“Canon 987. To receive the salvific remedy of the sacrament of penance, a member of the Christian faithful must be disposed in such a way that, rejecting sins committed and having a purpose of amendment, the person is turned back to God.
“Canon 988 §1. A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and number all grave sins committed after baptism and not yet remitted directly through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, of which the person has knowledge after diligent examination of conscience.
“§2. It is recommended to the Christian faithful that they also confess venial sins.
“Canon 989. 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.”
However, canon Law also says the following regarding communion:
“Canon 920 §1. After being initiated into the Most Holy Eucharist, each of the faithful is obliged to receive holy communion at least once a year.
“§2. This precept must be fulfilled during the Easter season unless it is fulfilled for a just cause at another time during the year.”
These laws stem from Constitution 21 of the Fourth Lateran Council held in 1215. To wit:
“All the faithful of either sex, after they have reached the age of discernment, should individually confess all their sins in a faithful manner to their own priest at least once a year, and let them take care to do what they can to perform the penance imposed on them. Let them reverently receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least at Easter unless they think, for a good reason and on the advice of their own priest, that they should abstain from receiving it for a time. Otherwise they shall be barred from entering a church during their lifetime and they shall be denied a Christian burial at death. Let this salutary decree be frequently published in churches, so that nobody may find the pretense of an excuse in the blindness of ignorance. If any persons wish, for good reasons, to confess their sins to another priest let them first ask and obtain the permission of their own priest; for otherwise the other priest will not have the power to absolve or to bind them. The priest shall be discerning and prudent, so that like a skilled doctor he may pour wine and oil over the wounds of the injured one. Let him carefully inquire about the circumstances of both the sinner and the sin, so that he may prudently discern what sort of advice he ought to give and what remedy to apply, using various means to heal the sick person. Let him take the utmost care, however, not to betray the sinner at all by word or sign or in any other way. If the priest needs wise advice, let him seek it cautiously without any mention of the person concerned. For if anyone presumes to reveal a sin disclosed to him in confession, we decree that he is not only to be deposed from his priestly office but also to be confined to a strict monastery to do perpetual penance.”
These principles are also mentioned in the Catechism:
“1389. The Church obliges the faithful ‘to take part in the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and feast days’ and, prepared by the sacrament of Reconciliation, to receive the Eucharist at least once a year, if possible during the Easter season. But the Church strongly encourages the faithful to receive the holy Eucharist on Sundays and feast days, or more often still, even daily.”
“The Precepts of the Church
“2041. The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life. The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor.
“2042. The first precept (‘You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation.’) requires the faithful to participate in the Eucharistic celebration when the Christian community gathers together on the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord.
“The second precept (‘You shall confess your sins at least once a year.’) ensures preparation for the Eucharist by the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, which continues Baptism’s work of conversion and forgiveness.
“The third precept (‘You shall humbly receive your Creator in Holy Communion at least during the Easter season.’) guarantees as a minimum the reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood in connection with the Paschal feasts, the origin and center of the Christian liturgy.
“2043. The fourth precept (‘You shall keep holy the holy days of obligation.’) completes the Sunday observance by participation in the principal liturgical feasts which honor the mysteries of the Lord, the Virgin Mary, and the saints.
“The fifth precept (‘You shall observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence.’) ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts; they help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.
“The faithful also have the duty of providing for the material needs of the Church, each according to his abilities.”
From these documents we can deduce that the primary obligation is to receive holy Communion at least once a year, especially during the Easter season. The obligation to go to confession before this reception of Communion is related to this Easter practice so as to be sure of being in the state of grace. Although this is a logical deduction from the spiritual point of view, it must be observed, however, that Canon 920.2 specifies once a year and says nothing about a particular season.
The present Code of Canon Law facilitates making this confession with respect to the earlier law, for example, by removing the requirement to confess to one’s own parish priest in order to fulfill the obligation.
The period for fulfilling the Easter duty, as it is sometimes called, may differ in various countries. In the United States it is from the first Sunday of Lent to Trinity Sunday inclusive; in other countries the season may begin on Ash Wednesday and close on Low Sunday or Ascension Thursday.
Of course, the Easter duty is a minimum requirement in order to motivate people to receive the sacraments. Ideally, a Catholic receives Communion at every Mass that he or she attends. A Catholic should also go to confession whenever he or she is aware of grave sin, and regular confession is highly recommended even if only venial sin is present. As the above text of the Catechism reminds us, this precept: “ensures preparation for the Eucharist by the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, which continues Baptism’s work of conversion and forgiveness.”
If these recommendations are followed then, although the obligation to receive Communion during Eastertide remains, the need to go to confession during Lent or at least at some time before reception at Easter would no longer subsist unless there was the presence of grave sin.
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