March 2, 2016
A Good Time to Confess
Two weeks ago, my column was about the Sacrament of Baptism, remember?
I recalled our Catholic belief that, at Baptism, original sin is washed away, and our soul is teeming with God’s very life, the actual indwelling of the Blessed Trinity we term sanctifying grace.
That’s how God always wants our soul to be: free from sin, radiant with His grace, innocent, like it was on the day of our christening.
But, what happens when that glow is tarnished by sin? Are we lost? Can we recover it?
You bet we can! How? Through the Sacrament of Penance!
I love hearing confessions at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. (I also love going to confession, and need to, about every two-weeks-or-so.) Often, people who observe they are “new Catholics”—in other words, adults who entered the Church at the Easter vigil over the last recent years—come to confession, and tell me that one of the attractions of becoming a Catholic was the Sacrament of Reconciliation (as confession is sometimes called), and that they approach it a lot. God bless them!
I only wish we lifelong Catholics would do so! You will not be shocked by the statistic that only about 10 percent of our Catholic people rely regularly (at least once a year) on this powerful vehicle of God’s mercy.
Why? I guess there are a number of reasons Catholics sadly shun the confessional.
For one, some report “bad experiences” from confession in the past, especially as kids. That’s sad, and not a favorable reflection on whatever priest happened to be crabby that day.
But, come on! Odds are we have some fretful experiences of a dentist, a nurse giving us a shot, an exam or teacher at school, but we have hardly given up on all of those!
Two, some report that they no longer know how to go to confession. Once again, a rather lame excuse. We don’t really know how to give blood either, but I’m sure glad so many simply trust the professionals who guide us through this life-giving procedure. All we have to do is say, “Father, it’s been awhile, I’m rusty. Can you help me out, and even help me remember and confess my sins?”
Three, tragically, some folks stay away because they think their sins are so ugly, horrible, and many that God wants nothing to do with them. While a realistic admission of the evil of our sins is good, to stop there is not. The main message of God’s revelation, in the Bible, and especially in the words of Jesus, is that God’s mercy is a lot more powerful than our sins. Don’t “play God” with yourself! He’s told us over and over that He wants to forgive us. Don’t be stricter on yourself than He is!
But I’m afraid reason number four is much more common today: “I don’t have any sins!”
We Catholics used to be mocked because we believe that one human person, Mary, was free from sin, in anticipation of the mercy of her Son. Now, we seem to believe she’s not the only one: I’m immaculate, too!
One priest tells me, “When someone says to me, ‘Father, I really don’t have any sins to confess,’” he replies, “‘Well, you do now, because you just told a lie.’ The Bible tells us that ‘He who says he is without sin is a liar.’” He’s got a point!
What’s sadder than sin is to presume we’re without any! If we think we are without sin, we reject Jesus, who came to save us from our sins! “Nice of you to offer yourself as a Savior, Lord. Thanks, but no thanks. Others sure need you—I’ll tell you their sins if you want—but I don’t.” To claim to be without sin is to make our Lord’s death on the cross useless.
Five, some Catholics today ask why we have to confess our sins to a priest. This is especially timely as we are relentlessly reminded of the sins and scandals of priests. And we are supposed to confess our sins to these hypocrites who are worse than me?
Well...yes. While the form of the Sacrament of Penance as we know it took centuries to develop in the Church, the principle of forgiveness of sins by an agent of Jesus dates from the first Easter night, when the Risen Lord gave His first priests, the apostles, the authority to forgive sins in His name and by His power. Thank God that the effectiveness of the sacraments hardly depends on the sinlessness of the priest!
Reluctance to confess to a priest is especially strange in a culture where people are telling their deepest secrets and vices to any TV talk show host around, and where “transparency” and “getting it all out” is praised when it comes to drugs, alcohol, and sexual immorality. A psychologist teased me, “I’m glad folks have dropped going to confession. A lot of my patients desperately want an assurance of mercy, love, and a fresh start. They’d save money going to you instead of me!”
Those are some of the reasons I guess folks have dropped confession. I recently confided in our priests that we’re to blame partly, too, as we rarely preach it, encourage it, or teach our people about it.
And along comes Pope Francis! The Pope of Mercy! The Pope who reminds us that Jesus told us not to judge! Yet, surprise, the Holy Father who constantly speaks of the power and beauty of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, who is not shy about letting us watch him kneel in front of a confessor, and who himself sneaks over to St. Peter’s Basilica to hear confessions.
And...the Pontiff who has proclaimed a Year of Mercy, urging us, like a prophet of the Old Testament, like Jesus, like the apostles, like the saints, to ask Jesus for His mercy in our prayer, in the sacrament, and then to show this mercy to others.
This is the Successor of St. Peter who has softened the hardened heart of the world, who speaks often of sin, Satan, hell, the hypocrisy of those who judge others but not themselves, the power of the Sacrament of Penance, and the explosive, liberating medicine of mercy!
This is the Holy Father who claims, “The best Christians are those standing in line for confession; the happiest are those who have made a humble one.”
What a better time to “get back in line” than Lent of this Year of Mercy!