One question that is often asked about the Sacrament of Penance (that’s our topic now) is: “How often should I go to confession?” Once again, there’s a strict, short, legal answer – two, in fact – but there’s also a practical answer, which I think is even better!
The first legalistic answer is easy to repeat: “Each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess mortal sins at least once a year.” That’s canon 989 of the Code of Canon Law, repeated in no. 1457 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The second legalistic answer is a moral one: any time you realize that you have committed a grave sin – usually called “mortal” sin – go to confession. Until absolution is obtained after sacramental confession, the presumption exists that communion with God and His Church has been lost. That’s why for people in a state of mortal sin, reception of the Eucharist is improper – and is in fact additionally sinful!
The longer but better answer which I often give is: go to confession at least four times a year. Many people try to confess during Advent and Lent. Well, that’s fine, but to make sure you’re dealing with your sins and not just with your personal feelings of devotion at special times of the year, I recommend you make sure you face your own weaknesses fair and square a couple of other times as well. That can be especially important if Advent or Lenten penance is too rushed or focuses mostly on communal sin. Even though I’m a big fan of the Penance Services and “Light Is On For You” evenings held in virtually all parishes just before Christmas and Easter, I have to be honest and warn you that these occasions are not the best setting for dealing “in depth” with personal failing.
Some of the best confessions I’ve ever heard (or made myself) have been at the beginning of the year, either the calendar year in January or the school year in August/September. At such times our natural human optimism in the face of opportunity can prompt “a new beginning,” maybe in the form of “resolutions” for the new year. Lazy, summertime confessions also can be good ones, since we may have the extra time to confront and discuss our sins with the priest.
Overall, in my opinion, most people don’t confess often enough. That’s why I think the legal answers alone are poor ones. Sure, it’s possible to be too scrupulous and feel so overwhelmed by sin that God’s mercy is doubted – but your confessor probably will warn you if your spiritual life is actually being harmed and not helped by too much confession! For most people, the good habit of regular confession only becomes real if the Sacrament is celebrated a minimum of four or five times a year.