As we look at the second precept, it is noted again that the precepts give “the very necessary minimum” to be expected if one is to grow in the love of God and neighbor.
The second precept as given by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2042 is “You shall confess your sins at least once a year.” (Please note – the list in The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism is ordered differently; however, we will follow the order of the official catechism as it is our main source for teaching). The same paragraph further explains that this precept “ensures the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, which continues Baptism’s work of conversion and forgiveness.” It likewise is given so as to give greater assurance of right reception of Holy Communion – that is, for receiving communion in a state of grace. By why is it only “once a year?”
While many priests recommend frequent confession (at least monthly or even more frequently), that the precept only asks for confession once each year clearly shows that such yearly use of the sacrament is but the minimum expectation. Remembering that this minimum requirement is understood as what is expected to grow in faith and in the love of God, this precept accounts for a time in early Church history when people rarely went to confession for two reasons. First, the power to absolve properly belongs to bishops (with each priest exercising it only after being given the “faculty” or proper share in this ministry by his bishop). In the early centuries, people rarely received this sacrament for the simple fact that it required going directly to the bishop. Secondly, such rare use of confession was due to the severity of penances – and at the time the penance had to be completely carried out before one was able to be fully reconciled – which might take weeks. However, like all the sacraments, confession is primarily a work of God and a gift of His grace (in this case, the grace of being forgiven of all “actual” sin – which you will remember are the sins that we each individually commit by an act of the will, whether they be serious [mortal] sins or less serious [venial] sins). In more recent Church history (especially since the later Middle Ages), the extending of the faculty to priests to offer the sacrament along with the more private celebration of the sacrament (through the development of the little rooms that we now call “confessionals”) allow for reception of reconciliation to be both frequent and regular.
That some versions of this precept explicitly mention “for mortal sin” indicates the necessity to avail oneself to this sacrament when in mortal sin. While it is always good to also confess venial sins, it is necessary for us to confess any and all mortal sins which we are aware of having committed. Accordingly, the precept wants to emphasize this point of confessing mortal sin simply to make the necessity of such confession explicit.
To consider this precept from the point of view of God’s love for us and our returning of that love to Him, may we reflect on the great beauty of this sacrament as a source of grace and renewal. To only receive it once a year, while it is the bare minimum required, is to not take full advantage of God’s grace offered to us to both forgive us of sins and to strengthen us against the near occasion of sin. The Lord gives us every grace needed to be holy; however, he leaves it to us to open ourselves to accept such grace. Frequent confession (such as once each month – even if only for venial sin) opens us to receive the beautiful gift of God’s mercy and forgiveness – which help us grow in personal holiness and aid us in loving him in return for all his goodness to us.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2041 - 2043 gives the brief definition and the official formulations of the five precepts.