The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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February 23, 2001 Issue
Foundations of Faith

This Lent, consider getting a spiritual physical

Confession admits that we need healing


By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor

Have you had a physical lately? Well, now that we're entering Lent, maybe it's time.

What does a physical have to do with Lent? Nothing, unless you see a connection between sin and healing. Jesus obviously did. For example, all three gospel accounts of one of Jesus' first healings - the paralytic in Capernaum - tell us that Jesus healed the man by first forgiving his sins. (Mk 2:5-12; Mt 9:2-8; Lk 5:20-26). While we may not believe sin causes physical illness, we do know sin can cause suffering - both for us and others.

So how long has it been since you've been to confession? How long has it been since you've sought the healing grace of God's forgiveness?

For many of us, going to confession is not something we do frequently. And, since we know the formula for "going to confession" has changed since the time of Vatican II, we might be unfamiliar with what goes on in this sacrament. (We now call confession "the sacrament of reconciliation" since that better reflects both the process and the end result - reconciliation. Confession is one step in the process.)

Since it's always easier to understand the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar, we could compare the sacrament of reconciliation to a trip to the doctor, in this case, the divine Healer.

"The Lord Jesus Christ, physician of our souls and bodies, who forgave the sins of the paralytic and restored him to bodily health, has willed that his Church continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, his work of healing and salvation." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1422).

Christ wishes to heal us. Sin wounds us. It damages our relationship with God and each other. It's like having a cold - not only do we feel rotten, but other people keep their distance, isolating us in our misery. The word "reconciliation" means "to reunite or make one again."

Sometimes people are confused by the words "confession" "penance" and "reconciliation," but they are different parts of what happens in one sacrament. Confession is admitting we need healing. Penance is what we do to change our lives in response to God's healing grace. Reconciliation is that healing which brings reunion between God and us and between us and each other.

According to The Rites of the Catholic Church, the sacrament of penance has four parts:

Contrition: Contrition recognizes that we aren't well. Using our trip to the doctor analogy, contrition is like the time we realize our lifestyle - smoking or not exercising - is unhealthy. Maybe we have chest pains or labored breathing. We know we have to change our lifestyle if we want to be better. We realize that, if we don't change, we'll die.

Contrition is when we recognize that our soul's lifestyle isn't healthy - to us or others. We need a change of heart - sometimes called metanoia, or conversion. We know we need to change our ways. We know, as the catechism tells us, "the human heart is heavy and hardened, God must give us a new heart" (no. 1432). God's grace and forgiveness help us to make that change, to receive that new heart.

Confession: Confession is basically an inner examination of the self and an outer expression of what we're doing wrong. Like going to the doctor, we have to be honest about our unhealthy habits. We have to admit to eating donuts or having too many martinis. We do this so the doctor gets a clear picture and can tell us exactly what needs to be changed. As the Council of Trent reminded us, "if the sick person is too ashamed to show his wound to the doctor, the medicine cannot heal what it does not know" (CCC, n. 1456).

In confession, we also have to admit freely and openly that we have done wrong - we have to get it off our chest. Like Peter in Luke's gospel for Feb. 4, we have to admit that we are sinful (Lk 5:1-11). And, like Peter, we have to be unafraid, trust Christ, acting through his minister, to tell us what we need to do to get better.

Act of Penance: The doctor, after listening to how we live - and running a few tests - suggests lifestyle changes. Maybe more exercise, no smoking, a low-fat diet, stress management. It's the same with reconciliation: we need to change how we live and rectify the wrongs we've done. The minister of the sacrament is charged with prescribing a penance to "penitents so that they may restore the order that they have upset and through the corresponding remedy be cured of the sickness from which they suffer. Therefore, it is necessary that the act of penance really be a remedy for sin and a help to renewal of life" (Rite of Penance, 6c).

This need for a healthy remedy explains why penance is no longer just a simple list of prayers, but may also include specific actions, such as apologies or special kindnesses to those we have wronged. They may also include specific things to do daily - such as reading Scripture - to help reinforce the change of heart we have experienced. We have to make ourselves strong in the Spirit.

"Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin" is how the catechism explains penance (no. 1459).

Absolution: When we go to the doctor, we expect that we'll be made well. We'd like it to happen overnight, but it doesn't. We have to take the course of antibiotics, or exercise regularly. Sometimes we just need a shot - but that still takes some time to work.

Absolution makes us well immediately. We still have to do penance - to show our change of heart and commitment to a new life - but we are made whole at once. The priest absolves our sins "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." And with that, God heals us.

As the Rite of Penance says, "the Father receives the repentant child who comes back to him, Christ places the lost sheep on his shoulders and brings them back to the sheepfold, and the Holy Spirit resanctifies those who are the temple of God or dwells more fully in them" (6d).


(Sources: The Rites of the Catholic Church, Vol. 1; Catechism of the Catholic Church)

Next: "Bless me, Father." The how-to of the sacrament.



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