In anticipation of a communal Reconciliation service to be held at Our Lady of Lourdes on Saturday, Fr. Dan Griffith, pastor at Lourdes, asked me to write a piece for this week’s bulletin on the sacrament. Here is the piece I wrote and that appears in this parish week’s bulletin, titled Why Confession Matters:
I went to Catholic grade school in the 1960s, a time when we were marched over to the church every two weeks to confess our sins. Every two weeks for eight years I confessed the same sins: I disobeyed my parents and I fought with my brothers and sisters. Quite honestly, I wasn’t sure what God or I got out of this biweekly exercise, since I knew I’d start committing the same sins over and over again as soon as I received my absolution and did my penance.
What I didn’t understand then is that the sacrament of Reconciliation (what we sometimes call Penance or Confession), is a grace-filled invitation is get in touch with the great love God has for us.
St. Augustine, after writing his Confessions, second-guessed having done so. He wondered: If I’ve come to regret my sinful past and believe God has forgiven me, why not simply put my past behind me. Why put all this bad stuff from my past down on paper? His answer to that question was that it was the recognition of his own sinfulness that had led him to recognize the love of God. It was only when he realized the depth and extent of the presence of sin in his life that he was able to see who God is and how God worked in his life.
The theologian Michael Himes similarly suggests that Reconciliation “is not about how wicked I have been but rather about how good God is.” The sacrament, he suggests, “is not primarily about my action, whether good or bad, but about God’s action.” Himes observes that this makes Reconciliation a source of joy as we acknowledge “that all have sinned and all are forgiven because all are embraced by the love of God….What is being celebrated is not the depth of our sin but the height of God’s love.”
Does this mean I need to recite my sins to a priest? That I need to have a priest say the words of reconciliation. This is what some of my friends who are not Catholic ask me. They say “Yes, I see the value of confession, but I don’t see why you need a priest to do this. Why not talk directly to God.”
My reply is that there is something about the formality of the sacramental rite that is extraordinarily meaningful. There is not only value in the examination of conscience the prepares us to approach the sacrament, but there is something about articulating out sins out loud, about having to find the words to speak to another person those things that weigh heavy on our hearts that is liberating. The reality is that we can’t move forward with God if we are weighed down by remorse over our sins. We can’t share our joy and love with the world if we are mired in our sin. We need to accept that we are forgiven. To accept that, we are restored to right relationship with God. And hearing the words of absolution is like having an enormous weight lifted from our shoulders.
Jesus often told people: Go your sins are forgiven. In hearing the words of absolution during the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are reminded that in our blindness, in our lapses from grace, in our sinfulness – we are fully embraced by God’s love. And it is that love and forgiveness of God and our confidence and knowledge of that love and forgiveness that allow us to be better than ourselves – to go and proclaim the Gospel to the world.