Peace can be gained from understanding our venial, mortal sins

Published: October 5, 2017

By Kelli Nugent
St. Edward Church, Texarkana

I entered the confessional to confess my sins to the priest — spoken aloud, in humility and with true repentance. Recalling the criteria of mortal sin, that it is grave or serious matter, that one knows it is sinful and finally that one freely chooses to commit the sin, I knew that I needed to ask the confessor a question, “Is this particular sin a mortal sin?”

Because it was grave matter even though well catechized, I could not determine on my own whether or not I was freely choosing to do it. Did I fully consent with my will? For the longest time I did not receive the help I asked for but lived in doubt with no clarity. Individuals may say, “So what?” Sin is sin.

That is quite true and all sin is offensive to God, but even the New Testament makes a distinction between deadly sin and that which is not deadly, sin that kills the life of God within us (mortal) and sin that weakens it (venial). “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly.” (1 John 5: 17)

Were I to receive the Blessed Sacrament in a state of mortal sin would be to commit a greater sin of sacrilege, profaning the Eucharist.

An example of venial sin would be taking a few minutes out of one’s work hours (time owed to your employer in justice) to place an Internet order, check in with social media or check the status of your fantasy sports team if an employer does not allow for those breaks. This is stealing.

Spending excessive amounts of time during one’s work hours doing the same thing would be a grave matter. Mortal sin takes both external behavior and interior understanding of the wrongdoing.

To be clear, there was no “priest shopping,” trying to find one who would tell me what I wanted to hear. Not wanting to deceive myself, I asked for guidance.

Some of the responses I received were, “Follow your conscience.” Yes, indeed, one is obliged to follow one’s conscience, but I was asking because in my conscience, I could not determine the answer.

“Do the best you can.” I am trying not to sin and was making a firm purpose of amendment. Strive as I did, it was a sin that I still struggled against for a long time.

“I can’t judge that,” another confessor said. That left me even more baffled. If not you, who? You, the priest, the alter Christus, in persona Christi, conformed in character to Christ and physically present in the sacrament of reconciliation.

Consider the ramifications. If my sin was indeed a mortal sin, I could not receive Jesus in holy Communion until I had gone to confession — every time. Were I to receive the Blessed Sacrament in a state of mortal sin would be to commit a greater sin of sacrilege, profaning the Eucharist.

If it was venial, it would be forgiven during the sacrifice of the Mass. “Therefore whoever eats the body or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 11: 27) Which was it?

The priest confessor is not Christ, but acts in the person of Christ and is limited by his own experiences and training. I was prepared to answer the confessor’s questions to receive the clarity I needed so that the great divide I sensed between my Savior and me would be no more.

Yes, I do know and am abundantly aware that sacramental absolution takes away all sin, whether venial or mortal if confessed and not intentionally withheld. However, even the intellectual knowledge was not enough to move me past my own question and uncertainty.

Finally, more than 25 years later, I was set free. Christ, disguised only by the priest, spoke a judgment with clarity upon my sin.

Sharing this experience of mine is not intended in any way to malign any priest. I wrote about it in an effort to make clear the burden under which I have lived (some may say, self-imposed by a lack of trust) without a clear, decisive answer to the question asked.

Rather, it is a plea to all confessors. Please, Fathers, exercise the graces, judgment, training and power (faculties) you have been given in directing souls in the confessional.

I did not know the weight of the burden on my soul until it was lifted. Deo gratias!

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