Our parish’s Lenten Penance Service will be celebrated tomorrow (Monday) evening beginning at 6:00 p.m. Ten priests will be available to hear confessions and offer sacramental absolution. In addition to being a great way to spiritually prepare for the coming celebrations of the Sacred Triduum, confession of our sins is part of the annual Easter duty we have as Catholics, particularly if we have committed any grave, that is, mortal, sins.
While the Easter Duty is not spoken of much anymore, the Code of Canon Law does in canon 920. It’s what canon lawyers call a “bare minimum law.” Catholics, once having received their First Communion, are required to receive Holy Communion at least once a year, preferably during the Easter season (Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday). Confession, as part of the Easter Duty, becomes necessary because Catholics, who are eligible to receive Communion, are never to do so after having committed a mortal sin until having confessed the sin in the Sacrament of Penance. All of us are sinners. We should never delude ourselves in thinking otherwise. However, in God’s mercy and through His Son’s ministry, the Church has been given the Sacrament of Penance to keep us in God’s grace.
The history of the Easter Duty is fascinating to me. The first mention of it is at the Council of Agde (France) in the early 6th century. One of its canons noted that if Catholics did not receive Holy Communion on the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost than they were no longer considered to be “in communion” with the Church. Over time, this canon became more widely applied. In 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council, the precept to receive Holy Communion, at least during the Easter season, became universal primarily because Catholics had stopped receiving the Most Blessed Sacrament out of fear. The bishops at that Council wanted the faithful to know that reception of Communion was a necessary part of being Catholic.
Some in the United States will remember when the precept that the Easter Duty is to be made anytime between Ash Wednesday and Trinity Sunday. This was a holdover of a dispensation given to Great Britain during the time of the Reformation. As priests were not always available, the laity were granted an extension to fulfill the duty. The permission was never lifted and, when Britain began to establish colonies on this side of the Atlantic, the same laws applied here as there. To this day, that law permitting the duty to be fulfilled in the Lent and Easter seasons remains in force – even here!