It is something that Catholics are told they must do and are urged to do frequently from the very beginning of their faith formation. Sadly, today, many Catholics are not doing it all. It is the act of going to a Priest and confessing their sins in order to receive forgiveness for those sins.
Whether it is due to poor Catechesis, parents not setting a good example, or living in what is becoming an overwhelmingly secular world, too many people today, old and young alike, do not seem to recognize the danger they are putting their immortal souls in by not going to Confession on a regular basis. And this is truly sad.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it in this way:
1446 Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as “the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.”47
A Unifying Sacrament
When I was young, I used to go to confession because I was afraid of going to hell. As I got older I was sometimes even overwhelmed by guilt and shame over a certain act or habit. All too often fear, guilt, and shame interferes with our being reconciled with Christ through the sacrament of confession. But the good news is that by confessing our shameful actions to Christ in the confessional, we can be done with them and rid of them forever.
As I grew and matured as a Christian, though, so did my reasons for going to confession. I no longer go out of fear. I now go to frequent confession because I love God and desire to be united to Him in this sacrament on a regular basis.
The Beginning of Wisdom
As it says in Proverbs 9:10, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.” And also, as I have heard Dr. Scott Hahn say before, “The love of the Lord is the end or fulfillment of wisdom.” In other words, going to confession on a regular basis is a very good way of getting to know God by allowing him to get to know me. The more that I open up to God, the more of Him that I can incorporate into my life.
Confession accomplishes several different things that are related to each other by consequence. First of all, confession makes me humble and hopefully keeps me that way. That in turn leads to perseverance which prevents me from getting complacent and giving up. This in turn leads to hope that sin can be overcome and grace can take hold. This then leads to an increase of faith in God and His grace, which makes it all possible in the first place. And finally, this leads to a greater love of God who I now feel much closer to than before the whole process started.
Our role in Confession is pretty basic. We go to Confession to say ‘I’m sorry God, for all my sins.’ But that is only the starting point because there is more to Confession than this. We should be striving to reach a point in our lives where we can say ‘I am sorry for becoming the person that those sins have turned me into.’ So our real role in confession is one of surrender. First I surrender my will, and then I surrender myself. And that includes being totally honest with God.
Being Honest with Ourselves
Many of us can probably relate to moments where we thought or felt that it was not completely necessary to tell the priest everything in confession. After all, I am sorry aren’t I? And I promised that I would not do it again, didn’t I? But we need to be completely honest with ourselves and God in order for His grace and His mercy to reach every area of our lives that need healing. And that, again, involves humility.
The way I see it, I must be humble enough to not only admit everything to God but also to trust that He will resolve everything as well. When I learned to confess in this way, my entire understanding of confession began to develop into an experience that I now look forward to instead of one that I dreaded. Now I look forward to the sacrament of penance with hope and faith and confidence. I realize that there is only one priest, and His name is Jesus Christ, and I don’t need to be afraid of Him.
Scripture clearly defines what Christ’s role in Confession is. In 1 John 1:9 we read “If we acknowledge our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.”
When I honestly and humbly tell God that I am sorry for what I have or have not done, I know that in Jesus’ name I am forgiven. But that is just half of it. I also promise to make a firm purpose of amendment and to not do it again. And in return for that, I receive divine grace that cleanses me from the deceptive attraction that sin can have over my life.
Confession is More than Forgiveness
In Confession Jesus does not just forgive us and send us out into the world to pick up where we left off. He cleanses us so that we can begin in a new direction that more closely follows Him and leads to eternal life. And one of the ways in which this occurs is through penance. The Catechism explains it this way:
1459 Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused.62 Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must “make satisfaction for” or “expiate” his sins. This satisfaction is also called “penance.”
In other words, it is not just what I have done or failed to do, but who I am becoming or have become in the process of committing sin. Sin changes me but confession changes me also. What Christ is really doing in confession is not just wiping my slate clean but helping me to become more like Him. Paul states this in 2 Corinthians 5:17-18:
“So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation.”
A Transforming Sacrament
So the sacrament is all about becoming more Christ-like. Being a Christian is about much more than just being good or obeying certain commandments. It is about establishing a relationship with God whereby we are transformed into the image of His Son so that we can become truly God’s children. In the end, that is what all of the sacraments and the whole of the Christian life is all about.
I remember a quote that has been attributed to Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich: “The devil took my shame away from me when he convinced me that sin was pleasurable. I will not now allow him to give my shame back to me as I prepare to meet my Savior in confession.” And that should be our attitude as well. For Jesus Christ is indeed our savior. He can save us from anything if we allow Him to.
It’s true that mentioning embarrassing things in the confessional is not easy. I know this full well. But the reward far outweighs the difficulty. To come out of the confessional knowing that I have been totally honest with Jesus and that He has forgiven me and restored my peace with God is priceless. It creates a new me and sets my soul free.
Living in freedom
John 8:36 says “If the Son sets you free you will be free indeed.” And that basically is how we should live our lives on earth until our time here is completed. Remaining in peaceful freedom and union with Christ that is never broken by serious sin.
I can say that it has been a while since I have had to confess serious sin. And I give all the credit to God. It is not something that I achieved, but rather something that I received. As a result, my life has become more heavenly minded. I realize every day that one day I will leave this world and go to be with the Lord, and as a result I make that the main motivation behind how I strive to live.
And even if we are free from serious sin, we should still go to confession regularly. One priest explained it to me by saying that just because you are not seriously ill, this does not mean that regular visits to the doctor are not a good idea. And if the doctor gives you a clean bill of health, so much the better. Frequent confession is a lot like that.
Take Time to Reflect
A simple tool in our spiritual life that can aid in making a good confession is a spiritual diary or prayer journal. After daily scripture and prayer, I take a writing tablet and quietly reflect on my life with God and write down what comes to me, both good and bad. I reflect on the day and how I have spent my time. This helps me remember my life and actions in greater detail. And the greater the detail that I bring with me to confession, the more completely I am transformed into Christ, and the more aware I am of His presence in my life. And that produces true freedom that nothing else can equal.
So try not to be afraid or ashamed to go to confession, and by all means do not put off going to Confession. Right now is the best possible time to get right with God and closer to Christ, and to begin growing into the real you that God created you to be all along.