You’ve probably heard the famous story about the priest who was hearing the first confessions of some second graders. “Bless me father, for I have sinned,” began the earnest young man. “I disobeyed my parents, I fought with my brothers and sisters, and I committed adultery.”
The shocked priest held his breath and asked gingerly, “my son, what exactly do you mean when you say you committed adultery?”
“I’m sorry,” said the youngster. “I just don’t like adults very much!” The priest breathed a sigh of relief as he heard the innocent explanation.
Many Catholics can tell interesting personal stories about past confessions. Some of the experiences are funny, some very poignant, and some terribly sad. Without a doubt, though, for many generations confession was an important, even an indispensable part, of Catholic life and culture.
No so anymore. One of the sad developments in the recent history of the Church is the demise of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Catholics don’t go to confession nearly as often as they used to. Monthly confessions are a thing of the past. Some Catholics hardly ever go. And some have abandoned the sacrament altogether. What a sad loss for the Church and its members, and just the time when we need it most!
I guess we can postulate many reasons for the decrease in confessions.
It begins, I believe, with the failure to recognize the reality of sin and the harm it creates in the world and in our lives.
Perhaps it involves a lack of understanding about the role of the Church and its sacramental life. How often have we heard someone ask, “Why do I have to tell my sins to a priest? I confess directly to God.”
Maybe the Church hasn’t emphasized enough the necessity of sacramental confession. (When was the last time you heard a homily about the need for confession?)
Maybe there’s been some misunderstanding about the various forms of the Sacrament, and some Catholics may be confused about “how to make a good confession.”
Perhaps Catholics are just too busy in their daily lives to practice their faith, a reality that affects Sunday Mass attendance as well as confession.
Whatever the reasons for the decline in the Sacrament of Reconciliation it’s high time we rediscover its usefulness in our lives, for confession is a gift of Christ, an absolutely essential part of God’s plan for our salvation.
It’s foundation in Scripture and Tradition is very clear.
At the very beginning of His preaching, Jesus proclaimed, “This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel.” (Mk 1:15) Such repentance is a perennial need for disciples of Christ and certainly necessary in our world today.
Jesus willed that His ministry of forgiveness would continue in the Church. On Easter Day He said to His disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and who sins you retain are retained.” (Jn 20:22-23) While forgiveness can come to us in many ways, its most tangible expression is found in the Sacrament of Penance.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the effects of the Sacrament: “Christ instituted the Sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of the Church . . . It is to them that the Sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification.” (#1446)
The Church reminds us that Catholics are “obliged to confess in kind and in number all grave sins committed after baptism.” (Canon 988, #1) Additionally, “it is recommended to the Christian faithful that venial sins also be confessed.” (Canon 988, #2)
In simpler terms, the personal and complete confession of sins to a priest remains the normative way for Catholics to have sins forgiven. This individual encounter with Christ remains the foundation of authentic moral conversion and personal spiritual renewal. Many of the great saints, including those of our own time, have shown how frequent confession can be an effective means of spiritual growth.
The confession of our sins should be regular practice of our Catholic life, throughout the year. But the season of Lent, with its emphasis on penance and renewal, is a perfect time to rediscover the power and beauty of the Sacrament. It’s a grace-filled source of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace in our lives and through us, for our divided and troubled world.
Confession brings harmony and direction to our lives. On one hand, it looks to the past as we confront our sins, ask for forgiveness and receive God’s blessing. But it also looks to the future, to affirm that with the help of God’s grace we can always do better; we can overcome every fault and make real progress in our spiritual lives.
So, dear reader, please take a moment to read the headline of this article again. It’s addressed do you! When was your last confession? Has it been a while? What’s your excuse? In this Season of Lent the Lord is inviting you – yes, you – to return to confession, have your sins forgiven and begin walking again with the Lord, filled with His grace and peace. Remember, the soul you save might be your own!