The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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March 2, 2001 Issue
Foundations of Faith

Confession: God wants to welcome you back home

What we do in, after, confession shows our answer to God's love


By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor

When I learned to go to confession, we were in the midst of Vatican II.

The sisters drilled us in the proper formula: "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been two weeks since my last confession."

Things are a bit different now.

Even though revision of the sacrament of reconciliation was approved in 1963, it was 10 years before the new "Rite of Penance" (more often called the sacrament of reconciliation) was approved by Pope Paul VI. The Council had said that the revised rite should "more clearly express both the nature and the effect of the sacrament." The result was something a lot different from my childhood of "going into the box" and struggling to remember exactly how many times I had talked back to my parents.

Today, many people avoid this sacrament, for various reasons. One may be that they don't understand "the new style." Others may be not understand what really happens during this sacramental reunion with God and others.

Since, as the new Rite says, "Lent is the season most appropriate for celebrating the sacrament of penance," it might be good to look at the "steps" involved in going to confession today.

Preparation: When I was young, I sat in the pew waiting my turn in confession, trying to remember every sin. Something like a grocery list ran through my mind. That might still work for preparation, but better yet is reflecting on God's call. We heard that call Ash Wednesday: "Repent - turn your heart around - and believe in the Good News" (Mk 1:15).

Welcoming: Nothing better expresses the welcoming point in this sacrament than Luke's story of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32), the Gospel for the fourth Sunday of Lent. The son, fallen away from faith and family, arrives home with words of contrition. Yet, before he can speak, his father rushes to him. The story is really about the father, not the son, and about great, forgiving love.

"Whom must we recognize in this father?" Tertullian asked in the third century. "God, of course; no one is father as he is. This is why he will welcome you - you are his child, even if you have wasted what you had received from him... because you have come back, and he will rejoice over your return."

When we hear the priest's words of welcome, we should hear God's voice saying, "This child of mine was lost, and has been found."

Reading the Word of God: Scripture can either be read to prepare for confession or with the priest, but is always vital. "For through the word of God, Christians receive light to recognize their sins and are called to conversion and confidence in God's mercy" (Rite of Penance, no. 17). Again, we hear Jesus' words from the start of his ministry: "Repent and believe the Good News."

Reflection on the Word: Since we know God speaks to us through Scripture, this part of the sacrament can be very powerful. Usually, the priest asks what the reading we shared says to me at that moment. Almost always, something has struck a chord. It is in this sharing between priest and penitent, ("two or more gathered in my name") that the power of prayer linked with Scripture is fully realized. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that when prayer accompanies Scripture "a dialogue takes place between God and human being" (no. 2653). Your heart turns to God: you speak and God replies.

Confession: Since you and God are already speaking, how can the burden you carry in your heart not overflow into words? This is the point where I used to get confused - do I grab my grocery list? But the priest always helps. Having heard my reflections on the Scripture and, no doubt, prompted by the Spirit, he asks questions that help draw out what I want to say.

The whole point of confession is freedom - the freedom to be whole again. Sin separates us from God and each other, wounding us. In confession, we seek healing.

"Through (confession), people look squarely at the sins they are guilty of, take responsibility for them, and thereby open themselves again to God and to the communion of the church in order to make a new future possible" (CCC, no. 1455).

Sometimes words fail us. One of my big fears as a child was that I'd forget one sin. But God knows our hearts and true confession speaks from the heart. A beautiful model for confession is the tax collector in Luke (18:9-14). His only words are: "be merciful to me, a sinner."

Contrition: No other words, just admission of sin. And one important gesture. The tax collector strikes his breast, a sign of repentance. As Fr. Robert Karris, OFM, in reflecting on this reading, says the tax collector is justified because "he has recognized his need of God's mercy and has shown sorrow for his sins."

Penance: Sorrow means the heart is sad. I used to think penance meant punishment, but penance - done out of love - really means "doing what is possible to repair the harm" (CCC, no. 1459). It eases sorrow and opens us to healing.

Penance is justice, but it is also medicine. United with God's grace, penance heals the wounds we have caused others, and ourselves. It also becomes a tonic to strengthen us. As the Rite of Penance says, the act of penance "should serve not only as atonement for past sins, but also as an aid to a new life and an antidote for weakness" (no. 18).

Absolution: Through the ministry of the church - offered by the priest - God's healing is poured out on us in Christ through the working of the Spirit. The Catechism reminds us that, through confession and absolution, "Christ is at work. He is the physician tending each one of the sick who need him to cure them. He raises them up and reintegrates them in to fraternal communion" (no. 1484).

Praise: We are home. The ring is on our finger, the robe around our shoulders and the feast ready. How can we not rejoice? We have been healed, God has shown us mercy. There is still work ahead, but like the blind beggar, how can we not give glory to God as we follow Christ on the road to Jerusalem? (Lk 19:35-43).

Dismissal: The Gospel for the fifth Sunday of Lent, the story of the woman caught in adultery, echoes through our sending forth: "Go and from now on, do not sin anymore" (Jn 8:1-11). How did she feel? Freed from a death sentence, not condemned by the only one would have had a right to cast a stone, how did she feel? How did she go home that day? How will we go home? Set free, renewed in life, reunited with God and each other, "more and more steeped in the love of God?" (Rite of Penance, no. 20). How will we arrive home?


(Sources: The Rites of the Catholic Church; "Sacrosanctum Concilium"; The New Jerome Biblical Commentary; Catechism of the Catholic Church; Days of the Lord, the Liturgical Year)


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