CONFESSION: THE BITTERSWEET SACRAMENT
Has it been a while since you last went to confession? Is the idea of going to confession just too embarrassing, humbling, or confusing for you? Some people haven't gone to confession for many years. Some wonder why they need to confess to a priest at all, instead of directly to God. Others are help back by weighty sins, like premarital sex or abortion. What's holding you back from making a good confession?
Many people feel about as much enthusiasm for going to confession as the do about going to a doctor or dentist. They hold off going until the pain, spiritual or physical, is no longer bearable. But many of us have come to know the incomparable peace and joy that only a good confession can bring us. How can something so bitter, also be so sweet?
As a frail human being I am well aware of how discomforting going to confession can be. Who wants to think about their faults and failings, much less tell someone else about them. I'd much rather be telling you about my good points, my good deeds. And it I tell the priest about that sin, who knows how he will react, or what he's going to think about me. Wouldn't it be much better to keep such sensitive matters between me and God, where they belong?
As a priest, who both goes to confession and hears confessions, I have come to see this sacrament as one of the greatest treasures of the Catholic Church. Were it not for the honesty and wisdom of the confessors to whom I have entrusted my darkest secrets, I certainly would never be a priest today. On the other hand, many of the most blessed moments of my priesthood have come when a suffering penitent has allowed me into their sacred place, to see them as they see themselves, and, in doing so, have allowed God's grace to begin to heal them from within. When we confess our sinfulness, in all its painful vileness, to the priest, when we permit the priest to see us at our worst, and yet, rather than being judged and condemned, find only compassion, understanding, and genuine love, we experience God's forgiveness. It is then, in this sacrament of reconciliation, that we know God's unconditional love. We gain the courage to abhor our sin, and yet to love the sinner, ourselves.
It isn't fun to go to a doctor and have to tell about this or that pain. Wouldn't it be much more pleasant to tell about all the parts of me that appear to be doing just fine? While it is important to keep in mind all that is well with me, it is necessary to focus special attention on my ailing members, so that I can become healthy and whole again. Similarly, in confession, while mindful and grateful for all that is spiritually well with me, to grow spiritually I need to seek healing in my weak areas. A skilled confessor will help us see ourselves more clearly and, hopefully, offer wise guidance that is tailored to our particular strengths and weaknesses.
Sometimes Catholics fail to appreciate how valuable the sacrament of penance can be in our lives. So many people go around heavily burdened with guilt, or continually falling into the same tortuous cycle of sin. Some pay mental health practitioners big bucks for relief, or a cure. While more serious emotional problems may require profession counseling, every Catholic Church offers us, free of charge, the invitation to unburden our hearts. In the 20th century human services, from 12 steps programs to psychotherapy, have come to recognize and promote the importance of unpacking our darkest secrets. Our Catholic tradition of confession has known and practiced this wisdom for centuries.
Whenever and wherever we truly repent for our sins and ask God to forgive us, we are immediately forgiven. God, Who is love, keeps no record of wrongs (1 Cor 13:5). But my sins are more than just a private matter between me and God. Sin cuts me off not only from God, but from God's Church as well. In sinning I let the whole Church down, I weaken the love binding Christ's Body, the Church, together (1 Cor 12:26f). In the sacrament of reconciliation, in exercising the Church's God-given power to forgive sins (Jn 20:23), the priest not only assures me of God's forgiveness, but acts as a representative of the Church, welcoming me back into full communion.
In going to confession, you are free to seek out a totally unknown priest. Most every Catholic Church offers the sacrament of reconciliation every Saturday afternoon, no appointment needed. Your might want to consider, however, selecting for yourself a particular confessor, at your home parish or at The Catholic Center, to see each time you confess. The advantages of this are similar to the continuity afforded you by consistently going to the same doctor. It's up to you.
If you haven't been to confession for a long time, I warmly encourage you to do so, especially if there has been a particular reason holding you back. We priests are painfully aware of our own weaknesses and so cannot, in good conscience, look down upon anyone else for their weaknesses. On the contrary, we cannot but admire the moral courage of anyone seeking healing, asking to be reconciled with God and the Church.
Lent, and Advent, are special times of grace and reconciliation. That is why we invite you to a communal Penance Service right before Easter, and Christmas. But here at Rutgers you should also feel free after any Mass to ask the priest to hear your confession, or to call The Catholic Center for an appointment. And don't worry about having forgotten the prayers or not remembering what to say. The priest will be happy to assist you. The only thing you need to bring to confession is a sincere desire to repent and make a new beginning.
What's holding you back from making a good confession?
Ron Stanley, O.P.
If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9