A reader writes:
My husband is in RCIA, and he thinks he has to be in the Confessional for 6 hours, relaying every horrid thing he ever did in his childhood, like the one time he killed a bird out of meanness, and all those times he didn’t keep holy the Sabbath growing up, etc.
Okay, just to make sure you know: Your husband doesn’t need to confess anything from before he was baptized. Baptism wipes out all sins prior to it, so if he wasn’t baptized until sometime after he was an infant then he doesn’t need to worry about that chunk of his life.
And he keeps asking me for an example of a venial sin. Believe it or not, I can’t think of an example.
Well, killing a bird out of meanness and not keeping the Sabbath holy as a non-Catholic strike me as two good examples.
Killing a human is a grave sin, but killing an animal is not–unless by killing it you somehow gravely damage a human being (e.g., by killing the horse of a man who needs the horse to earn his livelihood or killing a very expensive purebred pet or something).
Similarly, non-Catholics are not obliged by canon law to attend Mass or to refrain from servile labor on Sundays. Their obligations for Sunday observance are much more general and, not being bound by a specific standard, they generally do not sin mortally if they fail to go to church or otherwise observe Sundays. This is especially so for those raised in households where Sunday observance was very lax.
Second, our pastor and instructor, whom I love and respect, kind of laughed and said, "I’ve been a priest for 35 years and I haven’t yet met someone who’s broken all ten Commandments."
I was thinking to myself, "Oh, yes you have. You’ve met me."
Further, my husband has also broken all ten. All one has to do is read one of those Examination of Conscience books to figure out that most people have broken all ten.
True, but you have to realize that the things listed in an examination of conscience aren’t all mortal sins. For example: "Have I stolen the property of another?" is only mortal if you gravely harm the person from whom your steal. If you take a box of pens home from work then that’s going to be venial (unless for some really weird reason the existence of your place of employment hinges on its having that box of pens or something).
If you steal a thousand bucks from work, though, that’s going to be mortal since that thousand dollars represents a thousand dollars of damage that was done to some person or persons (like your fellow employees) who would otherwise have it (the loss of a thousand bucks being a serious matter for anyone who isn’t very wealthy).
My husband was raised in a single parent home where religion was not a priority. I asked him the other day, "When you (stole the candy, killed the bird, missed Church) did you know it was a sin?" He replied that he knew in his heart those things were bad, even if he didn’t know they were ‘sins’. So, does he have to confess them?
The fact that he couldn’t articulate the word "sin" in connection with them doesn’t of itself mean that he’s off the hook, because he still knew they were wrong and did them anyway. But the fact that he was raised in this kind of religiously lax family (in the case of missing church) and that he’s talking about very small things (stealing candy, killing a bird) mean that the grave matter needed for mortal sin is not there.
Am I going to be an old woman before my husband emerges from the Confessional?
That would depend on whether there is a mini-black hole or other extreme gravitational force in the confessional that could warp spacetime while your husband is making his confession.
I mean, we’re trying to have kids, for crying out loud.
Good luck with that! We need more kids around!
Can you, at your leisure, please explain ‘First Confession: What to Say, What not to Say"?
In a post I did earlier today (by a strange coincidence), I talked about how the process of making a confession generally works, and I’m sure that they’ll give your husband additional guidance in his RCIA course.
I would say this, though: It is clear that your husband is currently suffering from a case of confessional scrupulosity, by which I mean that he’s overestimating what sins he needs to confess. This is a normal thing in persons just coming into the Church, because he hasn’t yet had a chance to learn what does and does not need to be confessed. As he learns more, this tendency should go away.
A standard piece of advice for people who have scrupulosity is that they are to confess ONLY those sins which they are CERTAIN were mortal sins and to refrain from confessing everything else, simply saying "And for all my sins I am sorry."
I would therefore look through the Ten Commandments, with a knowledge of the different ways one can offend against them, and say, "Can I remember any cases where I KNOW that I GRAVELY offended against one of these DELIBERATELY and KNOWING that it was a grave violation at the time?"
Since he was raised in a religiously lax family, he likely did not know that many of the sins he may have committed in his life were grave violations, even if they were.
Making this kind of confession will suffice. As long as he doesn’t deliberately hold back something that he KNOWS to be a mortal sin then the absolution will be valid, and if he later comes to the conclusion that something he failed to mention was mortal then he can confess it at that time.
I’d also be patient with him. First confessions of adult converts can often take a while. I think that my first one lasted for something like 45 minutes (though that may be a bad memory and it may have been considerably less). It took so long not because I had that many mortal sins to confess, but because I was new to confession and was in the same situation as your husband.
I didn’t know what to confess and I wasn’t efficient at it, so I went into too much detail and confessed all kinds of things I didn’t know to be mortal, just to be sure. I didn’t know, for example, that I could just say "I have THIS to confess and THAT to confess" and move through things swiftly. Today the same initial confession would take me five minutes–ten tops, depending on any questions the priest wanted to ask me.
Also, if it is going to take a long time, you can simply stay home while your husband does it. He also might want to make a special appointment for it rather than making other people wait in line during a really long confession.
One thing that might help your husband get through it would be to write out a list of what he needs to confess. If he does this, he should do it BY HAND (NOT on a computer, where there could be an electronic record of it created accidentally or by spyware).
If he thinks he may be overcome by emotion, he can also hand the list to the priest and say "I confess THIS." If he does that, he should afterwards get the list back from the priest and DESTROY it (tearing it into little bits and flushing it down the nearest men’s room toilet would be a good way).
Measures such as these should allow him to get through the confession more quickly and get back to your marriage . . . already in progress.