confessionI was in the seventh grade at my parochial school, attending the daily Mass that tortured us with off-key organ music while we muttered the Latin responses toward the back of the celebrant (we saw his face only during communion).

This particular day included monthly confession when we would parade up the center aisle in lines that snaked towards each side of the church towards the confessionals. We’d enter, confess our sins, and return to our seats, forgiven of the many (and there were many) transgressions committed by young boys.

On that day, as I was returning from the confessional, trying to remember if my penance was two Our Fathers and four Hail Marys, or four Our Fathers and two Hail Marys, I fell victim to the worst possible scenario that can befall a seventh grader. As I passed the girls in my class, I saw her. I’ll call her Susie-Q, and she was the most beautiful creature on earth, or at least in the town of Cheektowaga. Then it happened…. I had an impure thought.

Knowing that it was possible that an earthquake could bring the church down around me at any moment, and that I possibly had a mortal sin on my soul (I never really understood the difference between venial and mortal sins), I couldn’t take the chance of risking the eternal pain of hellfire.

So I walked passed my seat, got back in line, and re-entered the confessional.

“Bless me father, for I have sinned, my last confession was two minutes ago. This is my sin…”

I heard a sigh from the other side of the darkened screen. “Add a Hail Mary”. I remember musing that price didn’t seem too steep.

It’s Lent, the season that is dominated by a sense of repentance, renewal, and anticipation of the resurrection that for all Christians demonstrates the victory of Christ’s love and sacrifice over death.

It’s also my favorite time of year, in no small part, due to the fact that I make a point of confessing my sins in hope of receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation.

I went many, many years without going to confession, falling back on the same old excuses that many Catholics use, most of which involve a presumption that private confessions to God are sufficient, and other less honorable excuses that questioned the moral high ground of a clergy under scrutiny.

But I knew I was kidding myself. I knew that I was just plain lazy – too lazy to find the time, too lazy to think about my shortcomings, too lazy to exercise a modest expression of humility, and too lazy to even consider the consequences of my lethargy.

But that all changed a couple of years ago when I attended a retreat that offered me the opportunity for Reconciliation. I promptly got into line, even though Susie-Q was nowhere to be seen. I don’t exactly know why I paraded towards the confession area – but I understood, believed, and prayed that confessing my shortcomings was the good and right thing to do.

And I know I made the right choice.

Let’s consider some points about confession that I hope will be of value to my friends of all stages in their spiritual journey:

  • what is confession/reconciliation
  • isn’t talking to God good enough?
  • what right does a priest have to forgive my sins?

The Basics.
First of all, the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (or Confession) is one of seven sacraments which, by Catholic definition, are signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church. They are celebrated through liturgical rituals which, by the nature of their physicality, are believed to be most effective at imparting grace on the faithful. Sacraments are generally attached to the important stages of Christian life, with Reconciliation being one of the sacraments of healing.

Reconciliation itself involves three phases: the penitent must first accept true contrition or repentance (be really sorry for messing up). Secondly, there must be a disclosure of the sins committed – or confession. And finally, there must be an act of penance, or some deed to acknowledge the debt owed by one’s transgressions.

With the basics covered, why do it?

Isn’t talking to God good enough?
Generally speaking, I will always try to behave and act as my Church teaches. But after an initial ‘trial’ period, I find that I can sustain those behaviors only if my experience confirms the wisdom of that choice. In other words, if my experiences don’t line up with Church teaching, the lesson is at risk.

And while (God knows) I have had difficulties with a good deal of Vatican dogma, the teachings involving the importance of the sacraments, and Reconciliation in particular, were never in question for me.

I recently attended a funeral service for a co-worker, and recounted to one of my friends that I was Catholic – the discussion turned to Confession/Reconciliation.

“There is no way I would ever sit down to tell a man my personal failings, that’s between me and God alone,” she said.

Since it wasn’t the time or place to engage in any strident defense of the faith, I simply smiled and replied, “It isn’t really like that, you know.”

But I suspect that her opposition to the practice of recounting one’s failings to another is the linchpin of much of the avowed resistance to confession. “Talking to God is good enough” goes the argument.

The only way ‘talking to God is good enough’ is if my sins were only something I talked about – but my transgressions are most often directed at other people, what I say to them, or about them, how I short-change them in deed or show a lack of charity, how I use their shortcomings to advance my status, career, or own sense of ego. These sins offend God, but they first and foremost were directed at other people.

Our friends from the Jewish tradition practice a similar ritual, the Viduy Confession prayers, as described by torah.org:

“It [confession] is an amazing test of character that a person openly acknowledges his shortcomings…Confession is so pivotal, on a simple level, because it forces a man to confront the essence of his humanity.”

There is something about verbalizing, saying out loud, our shortcomings that far outweighs any half-hearted executive summary of wrong-doings that never make it beyond our thoughts. When we have to say something out loud, the experience becomes that ‘test of character’ in which we bring our wrongdoings out into the light of day. And it makes perfect sense to admit our flaws before a real live human being, just as most of our sins inflict pain on the real live human beings around us.

Why does a priest have to forgive my sins?
He doesn’t. Only God does any forgiving.

Catholics believe that Jesus allowed that authority of forgiveness to pass on to his apostles through our interpretation of Matthew 16:19, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”, and Jesus’ words to the apostles on Easter night: “Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven, whose sins you shall retain they are retained.” (Jn 20:19-23). The priest acts as a representative, an agent holding the authority to act as the apostles and to pass on forgiveness and reconcile the truly penitent to the church.

That’s the theological rationale. But since I’m not a theologian, I sometimes have to rely on a more worldly rationale.

As I mentioned before, there is something palpable in saying you’re sorry to another person. Our faith teaches us that all sins can be forgiven – but the sacrament of Reconciliation requires me to be truly sorry.

Sure, I can whisper to God that I’m sorry for messing up, and God will hear my whisper. But shouldn’t I be as public and personal in contrition as I was when I chose to sin?

(If you think confessing to a priest is awkward now, back in the days of the early Church, depending on the nature of the sin, the penitent could be required to admit their transgression before a panel of bishops. Penance could include a denial of all sacraments until absolution, which may be granted after a period of years. Some liturgies required sinners to gather together in groups that were organized according to their stage of penance completion. Ah, the good old days.)

For my part, asking forgiveness before the physical presence of one who represents Christ’s nature to heal is an act that reminds me of the true nature of sin and Reconciliation.

I do things that are wrong. I hurt people by what I say, think, and do. These sins move me away from God’s Truth. The least I can do is admit my failures, and look a priest in they eye to say “I’m sorry. I will do better next time”. My faith will take care of the rest.


References:

Catechism of the Catholic Church: http://www.usccb.org/catechism/text/pt2sect2chpt2.shtml

Sacraments of the Catholic Church: http://www.catholic.org/clife/prayers/sacrament.php

Background of the Torah – http://www.torah.org/learning/livinglaw/5768/yomkippur.html?print=1#

EWTN page on confession: http://www.ewtn.com/expert/answers/confession_of_sin_to_a_priest.htm

Notes on confession in the early Church: http://www.saintjamesrcc.org/faith-and-devotions/sacraments/penance/item/public-penance-in-the-early-church

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