By: Michael Aquilina
“Daddy, Daddy, you’re not gonna believe this!” My seven-year-old, Michael, has never been renowned for his piety. So when, after CCD class, he bounded into our van shouting excitedly, I tried to imagine what goodies Mrs. Hart had given her class that week. M&Ms? Pretzels? Licorice? No, it was a treat of a different order. “Mrs. Hart told us,” Michael said breathlessly, “that after our first confession we can go EVERY WEEK if we want! Awesome!”
Awesome indeed. I was amazed at the difference between Mrs. Hart’s teaching on confession and just about everyone else’s I’ve encountered. Unlike most of us, Michael never suspected that he should be afraid of the confessional. To him it was a very good thing — forgiveness, perfectly free and readily available. As video games might be, in a perfect world. I wished, then and there, that all my kids could learn about confession from Mrs. Hart. On reflection, I wish more of us grownups could. What is it, after all, that makes this sacrament so truly awesome?
First of all, it is a sacrament: an outward sign, instituted by Jesus and entrusted to the Church, to dispense divine life to us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us five names by which the sacrament is known: the sacrament of conversion, the sacrament of Penance, the sacrament of confession, the sacrament of forgiveness and the sacrament of Reconciliation (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 1423-1424). Jesus gave us the sacrament when He breathed His Spirit on the Apostles (His first priests) and declared to them that “whose sins you forgive are forgiven them” (Jn 21:23).
That’s good news to all of us, because we’re all sinners. “If we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” the Bible says (1 Jn 1:8). We know we are in need of forgiveness — for the nasty things we’ve thought, said and done — yet we ourselves are not very good at forgiving. Jesus knew this, and so He gave us a way that we could be assured of perfect forgiveness — God’s forgiveness — even if our estranged cousin or business partner should refuse to return our phone calls. In the sacrament of Reconciliation, we confess our sins to God through His minister, the priest. The priest absolves us “on behalf of Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1442). Now, some people say they don’t go to confession because they’d rather “eliminate the middleman” and confess directly to God. But we must keep in mind that God himself willed that we take advantage of sacramental confession. And we can discern many reasons why this is a wise course for us.
Yes, but why confess?
First, because anyone who has ever gone to confession knows that there’s a world of difference between THINKING about a sin and SPEAKING about it — aloud — before another person. In confession, God helps us to confront our sins in a profound way, by speaking their name while another person listens. That’s humbling. But it’s also healing, because, in doing so, we reconcile ourselves, first of all, with God, who is all good and who desires our repentance. We also “make up” with the Church, in the person of the priest, because the Church too is wounded by our sins.
The Church, then, can dispense the healing of Christ when the priest pronounces the words of absolution. Sometimes, Father might also offer advice to help us overcome sinful habits and avoid temptations in the future. By the grace and good counsel of the sacrament, then, each of us can become a little bit more like the person God created us to be. We can grow in wholeness, happiness and holiness. And we’ll grow in ways that we that we just couldn’t before absolution, because sin is the most severe disability a person can know, and confession really heals us.
The healing that takes place when we confess is primarily spiritual, though it works in a way that’s similar to physical healing. When we get stitches or take an antibiotic, we might know that we’ve been cured — and tests can confirm the result — yet, perhaps for weeks afterward, we’ll still feel the effects of our illness or injury. In the same way, even after confession, we have to live with the effects of our sins and do what we can to remedy the situations we’ve messed up. And we have to stay faithful to a program of “rehab” – through prayer, sacraments and the cultivation of virtue — so that we’ll avoid committing the same sins in the future. Our confessor can be a big help in working out such a program, especially if we make it a point to see him regularly (once a month or so).
An important part of our healing is the “penance” the priest asks us to perform in reparation for our sins. It’s not that our work could ever make up for our breaches with God, who is all-good. It can’t. But, by offering some small prayer or work of mercy, we unite ourselves with Jesus Christ, whose work and prayer made perfect satisfaction for our sins. According to the catechism (no. 1460), “such penances help configure us to Christ.” They make us more like Him. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we could use a good dose of Christ’s life in our own everyday lives. By ourselves, we can really make a mess of things; and when we inevitably do, we ache for the forgiveness that only God can give. He gives it freely through the confessional. And just think: We can even go every week if we want. Awesome!
If you haven’t darkened the doorway of the confessional in years, don’t worry. Our faith is big on welcoming prodigal children home. But don’t delay any longer. Just go. You might even want to make an appointment with your parish priest, so you can spend a little more time, without worrying about holding up the line. And let Father know at the start that it’s been a while, and that maybe you’re not sure how to proceed. Also, if you’re nervous, say so. The point of the sacrament is mercy; and the more the priest can dispense in the name of God, the merrier the occasion should be.
4 Steps to a Good Confession
1. TELL ALL. Don’t leave any serious sins out. Start with the one that’s toughest to say.
2. BE CLEAR. Try not to be subtle or euphemistic.
3. BE SORRY. Remember, it’s God you’ve offended, His forgiveness you seek.
4. BE BRIEF. No need to go into detail. Often when we do, we’re just trying to excuse ourselves.
Try This, Too
If you want to grow in your appreciation of the sacrament, but in a fun way, rent Alfred Hitchcock’s “I Confess” on video. It’s a real thriller of a mystery — and a powerful testimony to the grace of the sacrament. The violence, steamy love scenes and general nastiness are probably a bit much for the kiddies, though. So watch this one when they’re out on the playground. (Bet you never thought you’d have to hide your catechism lessons from the children!)
The Big Exam: Some Questions to Ask Yourself, Before You Confess
If you’re in grade school . . .
Do I pray to God every day?
Do I pray for my family and friends?
Am I attentive at Mass?
Have I shared all that I should — my toys, my food and my friendship?
Have I said things that I knew would hurt someone?
Have I treated other people’s property with care and respect?
Have I treated animals kindly?
Have I taken anything — from school or friends or family members — that I had no right to take?
Have I respected and obeyed my parents and teachers as God wants me to?
Have I been angry or jealous when my friends or family members get things I wish I had?
If you’re a teen . . .
Do I think of God at regular times during my day?
Do I tell God I love Him?
Do I use God’s name in ways that show I believe He is there with me?
Do I receive Communion with care and attention?
In my thoughts or glances, have I invaded anyone’s privacy in a way that would make them hurt or uncomfortable if they knew?
Have I gossiped?
Am I two-faced with friends, family members or teachers?
Have I used well the time and talents God has given me?
Is there anyone I have made to feel unwelcome in my presence?
Have I shown love to my parents, brothers and sisters?
If you’re a parent . . .
Do I pray for each of my children every day?
Have I offered my kids a good example of Christian life?
Do I speak to them about God, and pray with them?
Have I spoken badly of other people, or of the Church, in my children’s presence?
Do I tell my own parents how much I appreciate them? (If they’ve passed away: Do I pray every day for their repose in heaven?)
Have I been dishonest — with my boss, the kids, the IRS or anyone else?
Have I hated anyone, at work, in the neighborhood or at home?
Do I try to leave my business behind when I go to Mass?
Do I forgive my children in my heart at the end of each day?
Do my words and my clothing convey the truth about Christian sexual morality?
Have I allowed the desire for a better home or car, clothing or vacation, appliances or other material goods to disturb my inner peace?
Have I used another person for my own pleasure or convenience?