The Great Sacrament of Reconciliation (That would be “Confession”)
Homily Notes: 3rd Sunday of Lent (C)
The cry, “Repent!” stirs up negative connotations of some sneering self-righteous Bible-thumper looking down his nose at you as he screeches out, “Repent, you sinners!” To repent implies a movement from freedom to slavery, from happiness to misery, from a smile to a grimace. In fact the opposite is true. Repentance is really the path from garbage to glory, from gloom to joy, from prison to liberty. Repentance is a choice for platinum over tinsel, for marble over veneer, for substance over ashes. Authentic repentance always generates delight and puts a spring in your step. Self-absorbed bitter ego-centrists who refuse to repent are not happy. The saints on the other hand are the most exultant people on earth.
The saints possess God who is the source of all happiness. Every good thing in life and everyone we love is an image of the goodness and beauty of God. The good that we love in the things of this world, and even more the people who we love are a reflection of God. God is the origin, the fullness and the perfection of all our loves in this life. Indeed, our desires for the good and the beautiful are without limit. As St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself O Lord and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” God is the consummation of all our loves. St. Augustine was also right when he said, “To fall in love with God is the greatest of all romances, to seek Him the greatest adventure, and to find Him the greatest human achievement.”
The heart of Jesus’ mission was to call us to repentance, to apply the fruits of His Passion, Death and Resurrection in our lives. To repent is to accept the grace of salvation won for us on Calvary. As Pope Pius XI said, “Place one drop of the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ on your heart and fear nothing.”
As Catholics we have the superlative means of repentance available to us: the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Penance, Confession. The great thing about the sacraments is that they don’t depend on us. Sacraments do not depend on the priest; they don’t depend on the Christian; they depend on Jesus. Sacraments are the touch of Christ: physical tangible signs that Jesus left us, to be present with us throughout time. Jesus embraces us in the sacraments. Through them we know and experience that He is still with us.
Now, let’s be honest, we Catholics don’t care much for Confession. Once upon a time the lines for Confession were long and the lines for Holy Communion were short. Time has reversed that trend. Oh we much prefer a Baptism or Confirmation; who doesn’t love a wedding or even an ordination, but Confession…“You can keep that, thank you very much!”
Many ask, “But why do I have to confess my sins to a priest? Can’t I just go directly to God for forgiveness?” Excellent questions. By all means, we should always go to God immediately in repentance and sincerely ask forgiveness for our sins. This is the first and indispensable element for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. There can be no integral Confession without first going to God in repentance. The sacrament presupposes one has already repented to God; it cannot take place without this contrition. The sacrament is not magic. Sincere repentance to God is the breathing heart and soul of this great sacrament.
But what about this other matter, “Why must I go to the priest?” Short answer: because Jesus set it up this way. The Sacrament of Confession is Jesus’ idea, not mine, not the Church’s. Christians have celebrated this sacrament, uninterrupted, from the apostolic era. Some of the earliest controversies in Christianity centered on whether or not the Church, Christ’s body, could forgive the sins of murder, adultery and apostasy, in His name, through this sacrament. (She can.) The Jews even had a sort of proto-sacrament of reconciliation, as they did with Baptism, where individuals would confess sins to a rabbi (see: Numbers 5:5-7 and Proverbs 28:13).
The reason we confess our sins to a priest is because Jesus gave the priest something extraordinary, something astonishing, something no one else on Earth has—He gave the priest the authority to forgive sins in His own name. On the very day in which Jesus rose from the dead, St. John tells us, Jesus breathed on the apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:22-23) Jesus gave that authority not to everyone, but just to His apostles, and those who would take their place, the bishops and priests who continue Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation. This apostolic authority, handed down unbroken from Jesus Himself to the apostles and to their successors, assures us that it is Christ’s forgiveness we receive through His Body, the Church. As St. Paul wrote, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18) The same Jesus who proved He could forgive sins gave that same power to those who would carry out His ministry of reconciliation.
Jesus left us this great sacrament as the means by which we could encounter His mercy, His pardon, His peace. Through this sacrament Jesus covers us with His perfect forgiveness. We do not have to rely on our own tepid spirits, our own half-repentance and wonder, “Am I really forgiven?” Christ’s forgiveness is perfect through this sacrament in spite of our imperfections.
Catholics still have a hard time with this sacrament. I believe we get too hung up on its human dimension. There is often an intemperate focus on self. So the penitent is caught up in embarrassment or shame. Similarly there is often a preoccupation with what the priest might think. The penitent wonders, “What will he think of me? Is he going to see me later, recall my sins and mutter under his breath, ‘There goes that so and so…?’”
We must take the focus off ourselves. We must take our focus off the priest. Who cares what the priest thinks! He may have just celebrated multiple weddings and be struggling to stay awake. He may be starving to death. He may have to go to the bathroom. Who cares! The priest is tertiary in this arrangement. Let’s focus on what Almighty God thinks, how He judges the disposition of our hearts as we turn back to Him in repentance. No doubt, it is helpful and important to find a good confessor, but thankfully Jesus works through the sacrament no matter what the priest’s dispositions. Most priests, in their better moments, are edified by the tremendous faith that God’s holy people bring to Reconciliation.
This is the great season of repentance; the time to turn ten times more toward Him. There are countless opportunities all over the place to avail ourselves of Reconciliation in these days before Easter. Let us approach this great sacrament of forgiveness, this infinite well of grace and receive the divine life Jesus won for us: His pardon, His peace.