We use the word confession lightly these days it seems. We “confess” to various eccentricities of our personalities such as “I have too many shoes” or “I drink too much coffee” or “I spend too much time online.” But rarely are the lines for confession or the sacrament of reconciliation long in the Catholic Church these days. We may speak often of confession, but rarely do we avail of the sacrament by which it is freely available; the sacrament of reconciliation.
Recently I had tea with a friend who “confessed” that she hadn’t gone to confession in years, even though she attends Mass regularly. She said that she was scared to go because of deep feelings of shame and sadness for what had happened in the past and wondered what the priest would think of her. I gently reassured her that in my experience, our priests are delighted to see us in the sacrament of reconciliation and don’t keep a mental catalogue of the sins of others. “Besides,” I told her, “what have you got to lose? Wouldn’t you like to lose the dead weight of all the sadness and shame you feel and be at peace?” I asked. “When you put it like that,” she said, “I have lots to lose and everything to gain.” Most importantly, I reminded her, we don’t just meet Father in the confessional, but we meet Jesus there, too.
A couple of weeks later, I received a note from her indicating that she had sought out the sacrament of reconciliation and that it had touched her heart profoundly.
“Father helped me to identify patterns of sin in my life where I needed healing. As I left the confessional I could not stop the tears springing from my eyes, I felt freer than I had ever been and deeply grateful for a chance to change. I truly felt the presence of Jesus’ love,” she wrote.
This is the power of the sacrament of reconciliation. Pope Francis, from a 2013 interview, said that confession “is an encounter with Jesus … who waits for us just as we are.” Confession should not be viewed, according to Pope Francis, as a “torture session” but an opportunity “to praise God, because I, a sinner, have been saved by him.”
The sacrament of reconciliation contains three elements: conversion, confession and celebration. It is this sacrament which changes us, challenges us and equips us as disciples of our Jesus to reach out to others and to transform the world. We can forgive others because he first forgave us.
Conversion: Acknowledging our weaknesses and failings leads to a conversion of heart, mind and will. This is the first step in turning away from sin and turning to the Father who loves us and desires each one of us to be in intimate communion with him.
Confession: In confession we stand before Christ and, given an opportunity to amend for our weaknesses and struggles, take responsibility for our actions and our failings. Penance may consist of “prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1460).
Celebration: We acknowledge our shortcomings but also praise God for his gifts of mercy and abundant love in forgiving us. We leave the sacrament with a renewed sense of wholeness, intimacy and relief at what we have left behind us.
Who doesn’t struggle with things that have happened in the past? Who hasn’t spent a sleepless night worrying about something we said or did that grieves our heart? We all can lose the weight of past burdens that drag us down and prevent us from being joyful. There is no shame in making a mistake, only not seeking to do better, to be better and to set matters right.
We can have a fresh start in Jesus, through the sacrament of reconciliation, who offers us love, healing and abundant mercy. This Lent, will you accept Christ’s invitation to join him there? What have you got to lose by going?
Stanz is director of the diocesan Department of New Evangelization. She is the author of “Developing Disciples of Christ” and co-author of “The Catechist’s Backpack.”