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
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
"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
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
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
(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)