My name is Father Vasyl Symyon, originally from the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Mukachevo, Ukraine, and currently a Byzantine Catholic priest within the Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh.
I have served as pastor of two wonderful parishes in the Archeparchy for nearly five years. And during my time here, I have been asked by many of my parishioners about the need to confess their sins. Questions such as: “What must I say when I come to confession?,” “What do I have to confess?,” “Of what I believe I do wrong, are some
of them really sins?,” “What is the definition of a grave sin?,” “What is a venial sin?,” and “When and how often do I have to go to confession?”
With those questions in mind, this article is the first in a series through which I will provide important answers to important questions in the field of moral theology and bioethics based on the teaching of the Catholic Church. Therefore, I hope to enlighten all readers to grow their spiritual lives, enhance their holiness and help them reach the Kingdom of God.
As significant material for this article, I referenced a very important document of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of the United States. On Nov. 14, 1996, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a document, “Guidelines on the Reception of Communion,” which teaches us:
“As Catholics, we fully participate in the celebration of the Eucharist when we receive Holy Communion. We are encouraged to receive Communion devoutly and frequently. In order to be properly disposed to receive Communion, participants should not be conscious of grave sin and normally should have fasted for one hour. A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord without prior sacramental confession except for a grave reason where there is no opportunity for confession. In this case, the person is to be mindful of the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, including the intention of confessing as soon as possible (canon 916). A frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance is encouraged for all.”
First, let me emphasize that all U.S. Catholic bishops prepared this document – this lesson – for all Catholics throughout the nation who were baptized and chrismated/confirmed within the Catholic Church.
Now ask yourself, “Was I baptized and chrismated/confirmed in Catholic Church?” If so, then this message is for you! And for that reason, we will take a closer look at this teaching.
Our bishops encourage us to receive Holy Communion frequently and devoutly. “Devoutly” is defined as “In a manner that shows deep religious feeling or commitment.” In other words, we receive the Holy Eucharist as the most Holy Body and most Holy Blood of Jesus Christ for the salvation of our souls.
The Holy Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” The Eucharist is Holy Communion because by this sacrament we unite ourselves to Christ, who makes us sharers in His Body and Blood to form a single body. We also call it, “holy things,” the first meaning of the phrase “communion of saints” in the Apostles’ Creed – the bread of angels, bread from heaven, medicine of immortality.
The bishops underscore that to receive the Holy Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, we must be prepared and fast at least one hour before communion time. If you want to receive the Holy Eucharist, therefore, you must fast from all food and drink including coffee, pop, chewing gum, candy, etc., (except water and medicine) for one hour before communion.
Furthermore, if you want to receive Holy Communion, your soul must not be in a state of grave or mortal sin. In that case, you cannot approach and receive the Holy Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. If you have committed a grave or mortal sin, you first must go to confession, be absolved of that sin, then proceed to approach and receive the Holy Eucharist with peace in your heart and with the clear conscience.
During one of his talks to the general audience on March 14, 2018, our Holy Father, Francis, Pope of Rome, indicated, “We know that one who has committed a serious sin should not approach Holy Communion without having first obtained absolution in the sacrament of reconciliation … Lent is an opportunity to approach the latter, to confess well and to encounter Christ in Holy Communion.”
At this point, I am sure you want to know the definitions of “sin” and “grave sin.” All sin is an offense against God’s love toward us. Sin is a disordered act of the person who does it. This action does not correspond to the ultimate purpose of a person. When a person sins, he/she takes a direction which does not lead him/her to real happiness and holiness.
Sin is any attachment, thought, statement, action, or inaction contrary to God’s love and law and against anyone’s neighbor. Sin is an act with an influence on the reality of the person and on his/her immediate surroundings (which could have an effect on other people). All sins have some influence on the people who are in close relationship to the one who sins.
The church teaches us there are two types of sin: grave (mortal) and venial. We call a sin of a grave and serious matter a mortal or grave sin. Every mortal sin severs our relationship with God. A mortal sin must meet three conditions:
- Grave matter. It breaksone of the 10 commandments;this act is by itself immoral.We know some sins are moresevere than others. We knowthe difference between sayinga bad word to someone andkilling someone. Therefore, for a sin to be mortal, it must resultfrom a grave act.
- Full knowledge. A person who commits a mortal sinknows it is evil and immoral.
- Deliberate consent of thesinner. A person totally andfreely gives an agreement for amortal sin and commits it.
Here’s one example. Your favorite football team playson Sunday but you also have an obligation as a Catholic to attend the Divine Liturgy.You have a choice, either toattend the game and miss theliturgy or go to church and miss the game. You decide toattend the game all the while knowing God’s commandment to Remember to keep Holythe Lord’s Day (grave matter).You know your obligation to attend church on Sundays (full knowledge). And you freely and on purpose choose the game (deliberate consent) and ignore the liturgy. Here, you have met all three conditions to commit a mortal sin.
So by missing a Sunday Divine Liturgy (and a Holy Day of Obligation) freely and on purpose is a grave or mortal sin. By committing that sin, you cannot receive Holy Communion without going to confession the next time you attend a Divine Liturgy. Other grave or mortal sins include idolatry, murder, abortion, euthanasia, suicide, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, adultery, fornication, pornography, self-abuse, theft, cheating, false witness, envy and buying/selling stolen goods.
I also want to remind you about the Precepts of the Catholic Church: You shall attend mass on Sundays and on holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor; You shall confess your sins at least once a year; You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season; You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the church; and You shall help to provide for the needs of the church.
These precepts, which describe the minimum religious actions required of all Catholics, involve grave matter. Therefore, breaking or neglecting one of these precepts can lead to grave or mortal sin.
The second type of sin is venial sin, one of a less serious matter usually committed out of ignorance meaning a person who commits a venial sin did not know or understand his/her behavior is sinful. Venial sins are sins that have one or two of the three conditions needed for a mortal sin, but do not fulfill all three at the same time. Some examples are vulgar language, failure to pray daily, making fun of people, failure to help people, listening to loutish music, anger, rudeness, gossip, unkind talk about people. Venial sins weaken a person but will not destroy the Grace of God in the soul.
Let’s also consider this situation. A person attending a Divine Liturgy has committed a mortal sin and would like to receive the Holy Eucharist. Yet this person has had no opportunity to go to confession. What should he/she do in this case?
According to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “In this case, the person is to be mindful of the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, including the intention of confessing as soon as possible.”
Our church teaches us that “Among the penitent’s acts, contrition occupies first place. Contrition is “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again.”
Therefore, if you have committed a mortal sin with no opportunity to go to confession before the Divine Liturgy, you must renew your relationship with God by making a solemn act of contrition and asking God to forgive your sin. Then with an honest promise to God, you must go to confession as soon as possible (even immediately after the liturgy if given the opportunity). At all our parishes, we offer numerous times for confession and a sanctifying approach to this holy mystery of God’s love and mercy.
Dear readers, as a priest ofthe Catholic Church, I highly recommend you not receive the Holy Eucharist in a state of the grave/mortal sin. When our church teaches us we cannot receive Holy Communion in a state of grave sin, it does not mean the church wants to categorize, humiliate or punish somebody. By this teaching the church, as Mother to all of us, wants to help us grow in holiness and protect us from mortal sin.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes,“Therefore 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” (1Cor 27-29).
When you receive the Holy Body and Holy Blood of Jesus Christ in a state of mortal sin, you commit another mortal sin – the sin of sacrilege. The Catholic Church teaches us that “Sacrilege consists in profaning or treating unworthily the sacraments and other liturgical actions, as well as persons, things, or places consecrated to God. Sacrilege is a grave sin especially when committed against the Eucharist, for in this sacrament the true Body of Christ is made substantially present for us.” Bishop Milan Lach, SJ, Bishop of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma (Ohio), offers us wonderful advice, “When we feel that we are not in the grace of receiving Holy Communion because we did not forgive someone, or we are holding grudges, or living adulterously, or because of some other serious sin, then it is better not to receive Holy Communion, to stay in the pew, and then ask the priest to hear our confession.”
Every sin wounds the soul as well as a person’s well being. So any kind of penance is medicine – not punishment – to heal the soul of its imperfection. When you prepare for confession, remind yourself that the penance you receive will enrich your soul, increase your goodness and enhance your salvation.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I refer you to the Parable of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of St. Luke. Jesus talks to us about the repentance of the younger of two sons. The younger son came to himself and said, “I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you …” These words are the decision of a man who wants to change himself, to change his life.
The Great Lent is a time of fasting, prayer and repentance. A time to close the doors to darkness, sin and passion. A time for you to renew your relationship with our Heavenly Father. A time to gaze upon Jesus Christ our Savior and pray for His help to change yourself and your life for the better. A time to ask the Holy Spirit for His wisdom and counsel to help increase your holiness. And a time for you to confess your sins on your journey to Gethsemane, Calvary and the Empty Tomb. Our Merciful Father is waiting for you!