In a couple of hours I will celebrate the Vigil Mass for the Fourth Sunday of the season of Advent. Since last Tuesday evening when we priests of the diocese of Christchurch gathered with Bishop Barry for our annual Advent celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation together, I have been reflecting a lot on the centrality of this sacrament in my own life. It was good to know that as I sinner, and a priest, I am part of a team with other priest sinners. However the beauty of our situation is only realised when we realise that our sin, when acknowledged, becomes our capacity for God’s mercy and healing. The dinner together that follows our celebration of the sacrament takes on a new dimension since we know that are not simply sinners, but forgiven and loved sinners.
There is something quite remarkable about gathering to confess our sins. Here we are, priests of the diocese, so often acting in the person of Christ by forgiving the sins of others, now confessing our own sins. A healthy priest is deeply aware of his own need for the mercy of God as experienced in this sacrament This is why priests, including the pope, need to celebrate the sacrament regularly. Pope Francis has told us that he goes to confession every two weeks.
Pope Francis’ popularity continues. Media seem to relish the opportunity to have positive copy about the church. However some of the most powerful and passionate encouragements from Pope Francis fail to get any media coverage. One example is his frequent stress on our human need for the mercy of God as experienced in the sacrament of reconciliation. Here are a few of his confession comments:
- Confession helps people feel shame for the wrong they have done and embraces them with God’s love so that they know they are forgiven and can go out strengthened in the battle to avoid sin in the future.
- “But if a person, whether a layperson, priest or sister, goes to confession and converts, the Lord forgives. And when the Lord forgives, he forgets. This is important,” Pope Francis told reporters on July 28.
- The confessional is not a dry cleaners, a business of sorts that’s just washes out the stain of sin, the pope said to members of the Vatican’s investment agency April 29.
- “…when the door starts closing a bit because of our weakness and sins, confession reopens it.”
- “I can’t be baptized two or three or four times, but I can go to confession, and when I go to confession, I renew that grace of baptism,” the pope said at his general audience Nov. 13.
- It’s not a torture chamber where you’ll be raked over the coals.
- Confession is an encounter with Jesus whose “mercy motivates us to do better.”
- It’s not a psychiatric session that neglects the question of sin or a mental email to God that avoids the face-to-face encounter with the Lord through the priest.
- The sincere and humble admission of one’s weaknesses, of having “a sliver of Satan in my flesh,” shows that the power of salvation comes from God, not oneself,” Pope Francis said in a morning homily June 14.
- Confession “is going to praise God, because I — the sinner — have been saved by him,” who always waits and always forgives “with tenderness.”
Over the next few days in every Catholic parish there are opportunities to receive this sacrament of God’s mercy. In our own parish of the Good Shepherd, Hurunui, a number of our children are receiving this sacrament for the first time.
In many parishes over the last couple of decades we have noticed that the majority of teenagers presenting themselves for the Sacrament of Confirmation have only ever received the Sacrament of Reconciliation once, and that was before their first communion. Since the Sacrament is intended to be a regular part of the life of a Catholic, this suggests that something is lacking in the preparation or family and parish support for our young people. While it is important that young children receive this sacrament before their first communion, the sacrament of reconciliation really comes into its meaningful place when an adult comes forward to confess their sin and to seek a personal experience of God’s mercy.
Children will come to confess their sins because the elders they respect tell them that this is important. Well-intentioned adults may also tell the children that this sacrament is where they confess what they have done wrong. This might be a useful starting-point, but the beauty of the sacrament is most fully realised when an adult is internally aware that they do not feel at peace or in harmony with God. Many of the things we “do wrong” are not sins. But many of the attitudes, fears, patterns of behaviour, motivations and actions that are considered acceptable in society are deeply sinful and in our deepest selves we know this tension and stress.
If you have not been to confession for a year or thirty, no problem, just do it! If you haven’t been to Mass for years, but want to feel again the connection with God that sense God may be calling you to, no problem, just turn up. If you have no idea what to say to the priest, no problem, just turn up and tell him that you haven’t been for years and you have no idea what to say. The priest will guide you through – that is what he is there for!