When I was a boy, going to Confession was a regular part of my Catholic school experience. I remember standing in line with the other students as I waited my turn, dreading that dark little box, thinking over my list of sins, and hoping I would remember my Act of Contrition. Once I entered, however, it all happened as it had every time before. I would share the same sins with the pastor who knew me all too well, receive the same words of counsel and be given the same Penance.
It was a ritual that was uncomfortable and yet comforting. For though I found it difficult to share my sins, there was a sense of relief in knowing I was absolved from them and had received the grace to move forward in my journey as a Catholic. Though the experience seemed ritualistic, it still grounded my faith in a way that went beyond the ritual and spoke to my soul in a powerful way.
Over the years I’ve come to a much deeper understanding of what the sacrament is all about. Having spent years in ministry, I have even helped to shape the way others have experienced Reconciliation. It is truly a wonderful part of being in a relationship with the One who came to live among us as a man, who was tempted in every way as we were and yet never sinned. However, it seems that some of us have forgotten that Jesus went to the cross for us and longs to reconcile us to Himself when we sin. I would like to issue a call for us to rediscover what making a good Confession is really all about.
More Than Ritual and Routine
Confession is seldom easy. But that is never an excuse to turn it into a ceremonial, a spiritual hurdle we must clear before going to Communion. Yes, there is uneasiness and even pain in coming to Christ in the person of the priest and confessing our faults and failings. But there is freedom and joy in the assurance that we have been cleansed of our unrighteousness and reconciled to our Savior. The form of Confession is not meant to be a burden but a blessing.
Many Christians say that it isn’t necessary to come to the priest to confess our sins to Jesus. In one sense, that is true. 1 John 1:9 assures us that Christ is faithful to forgive those who confess their sins. But what people forget is that sin affects not just the individual, but the community as well. Coming before Christ’s representative is the sign that we are reconciling not only with our Lord but with His Church as well. We cannot separate our personal sin from the effect it has on the Body of believers to which we belong. Pope Benedict, responding to questions from inmates in Rome’s Rebbibia District Prison, put it this way:
I would say two things. The first: naturally, if you kneel down and with true love for God pray that God forgives you, he forgives you. It has always been the teaching of the Church that [when] one, with true repentance … asks for forgiveness, he is pardoned by God. This is the first part. … But there is a second element: sin is not only a “personal,” individual thing between myself and God. Sin always has a social dimension, a horizontal one … and the sacrament is the great gift in which through confession, we can free ourselves from this thing and we can really receive forgiveness in the sense of a full readmission to the community of the living Church, of the Body of Christ.
Making the Confession Experience Our Own
It is important to move beyond the ritual — or more accurately, to make the ritual of coming to Confession our own, whether we kneel behind a screen or sit face to face before the priest. This is a personal time where we express our faith as Catholics in a powerful way. In the dark of the Confessional, we can assume a posture of submission and surrender to God.
In face-to-face Confession, as we sit in a chair across from our brother we can celebrate the reconciliation that takes place within our faith community. The familiar Act of Contrition we recite can unite us to the long line of believers who have shared in the sacrament. Likewise, a heartfelt and spontaneous prayer of repentance can connect us to the Spirit who speaks from the depths of our souls in thanksgiving for our recovery from sin.
In whatever way we choose to make the experience Confession our own, we, like the tax collector in the synagogue or the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, are called to come spiritually naked before our Lord, willing to admit our unworthiness, but willing also to accept the perfect and eternal love that comes from the One who knows our pain. Rather than reciting a litany of sins and making a gesture of repentance, we must lay our failures before the Throne of Grace and call out for the mercy of God to overshadow us once more.
Spiritual Counsel, Not Counseling
I once attended a men’s conference where one of the speakers encouraged the men to go to Confession at some point during the event. He made references to soldiers reloading and rushing back into the battle, and to weary men being spiritually recharged. He also pointed out that it was not a time for counseling, that we were to “get in and get out” and get back to living our faith. As I listened to him speak, I understood the point he was trying to make, but I felt like something was missing.
Certainly, Confession is not a counseling session. In one sense it does recharge us so that we may come out ready to resume the day-to-day battles in a world opposed to our faith. However, there is also a relational aspect of Reconciliation. We are not simply plugging into a spiritual battery; we are coming to express our weakness before the Lord through His representative so that we may be reconciled with the person of Jesus Christ and with His Church.
As travelers on a journey toward heaven, we need affirmation of who we are in Christ, assurance of His love and forgiveness, and sound counsel from a wise, listening ear. The priest is there as a flesh and blood representative of the Savior to offer all this to us in Christ’s name. It is in this beautiful relational experience that we receive the grace of forgiveness and reconciliation.
A True Examination of Conscience, Ready to Reconcile
Making a good Confession is really about four things: 1) understanding our temptations and our weaknesses; 2) examining our conscience to come to terms with the truth of our rebellion against the law of God’s love; 3) finding forgiveness in the One who has the power to forgive sins; and 4) being reconciled and brought back into a right relationship with Christ and His Church. When I think back to my childhood and how I recited those same sins week after week, I realized that what was missing was a willingness on my part to examine my sinful nature in a truly honest way.
Sin happens because we allow the devil to get a foothold into our minds. It is something that keeps us from producing fruit in our lives — an open defiance of God’s will. It is turning away from Him and missing the mark. In order to be reconciled, we must allow God to address our sin head on. The heavenly Vinedresser must prune away the dead branches and lift up the fruitful branches towards the sun. Only when we come to honest terms with our sin can we be free of it and receive forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ.
When we feel our lives are not going well, often we look for someone or something to blame. We try harder to “be good” or to change the people and circumstances around us. But sin is a heart issue, and Reconciliation is a heart issue as well. We may spend considerable amounts of time and energy doing all we can to avoid getting real with our sin, our sorrow, and our need.
Instead, we should come into the sanctuary of our souls with nothing in our hands, ready to face the reality of the patterns of sin, ready to accept the misunderstandings of how we see ourselves, our world, and our God, and ready to receive the healing fire of Christ’s love and forgiveness. That can only take place when our Examination of Conscience is real, relational, and ready for Jesus. Only when we face ourselves as we are, surrender to the person of Christ, and present ourselves ready for His cleansing, do we make a true Confession in faith.
Coming Out of the Box
When we enter into the Reconciliation Room prepared to make a good Confession, we bring all that we are into that sacred space. As we share honestly and submit in humility, recognizing our weakness and asking for forgiveness, God’s peace and reconciliation come flooding into our souls. As we hear the priest’s words of counsel and prayers of absolution, we can know for sure that we have once again made right our relationship with our Savior.
As we rise from our place and go to the Table of the Lord, we know that we come reconciled and ready to receive. From there, we can be sent out into the world once more, members of the Church who take with us the grace of the sacrament and the strength of our loving Lord to guide us and sustain us on our journey.
Reconciliation is so much more than a trip to a dark little box to share our sins. It is a reconnecting with the God who loved us enough to give His life for the world, and with the Church He founded to make disciples in His name. May you find the strength, the surrender, the courage and the joy that comes when you make your next good Confession. God bless!