by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Beginning next Wednesday, March 16, from 6-7 p.m., for all the Wednesdays of Lent, priests throughout the Archdiocese will be available in their confessionals to administer the sacrament of reconciliation/ penance.
This sacrament is truly one of the great gifts that the Lord has given to the church. Whatever our sin may be, if we confess it with genuine contrition and a firm purpose of amendment — a commitment to strive not to repeat this sin — then we can be assured by the authority Jesus gave to the apostles that we are forgiven (Jn 20: 19-23).
It is no accident that the risen Jesus gave to the apostles this power to continue his ministry of mercy during his first encounter with them after their abandonment of Our Lord on Good Friday. It is at this moral low point for the apostles, when they personally most needed the Lord’s forgiveness, that Jesus empowers them to be the human instruments for extending his gift of healing mercy through all time. Bishops, as the successors of the apostles, have had this authority passed on to them.
Bishops, in turn, share this ministry with their priests. Bishops and priests have not been entrusted with this power and responsibility because they are sinless. We are as weak as the apostles. Every confessor is first and foremost a penitent. It is from our own experience of God’s forgiveness in our lives that we are called to be the human conduit Jesus uses to bestow his mercy and grace upon others.
Another obstacle that can impede us from coming to confession is the repetitive nature of our sin. We can become discouraged by the seeming lack of progress in overcoming a sin or a constellation of sins. We may even question the sincerity of our “firm purpose of amendment” when we find ourselves repeating the same sins. Discouragement can lead to despair. There is no more sure sign of the devil’s presence than despair!
Certainly, we must challenge ourselves to be truly committed to doing our best in the future to avoid the sins we confess today. We must try to identify what are the occasions or the circumstances that make us vulnerable to this sin and strive to avoid them. With the help of our confessor, we should seek to identify the underlying vice that leaves us vulnerable to a particular sin (e.g., pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, lust) and pray for the grace to develop the corresponding virtue that is the antidote to this moral weakness.
Yet, most wars are not over after the first battle. We must persevere in striving to overcome our sins by persistently recognizing and acknowledging them through our regular examination of conscience and by bringing them to the sacrament of reconciliation.
I believe it was St. Augustine who observed: “We either quit the sin or we quit confessing.” In other words, if we quit confessing a particular sin or, even worse, quit going to confession all together so that we do not have to confess the same sin again and again, we are in essence giving ourselves permission to continue practicing this vice. We no longer hold ourselves accountable by forcing ourselves to recognize and acknowledge our sin.
On the other hand, if we persevere in confessing our sins with sincerity and implore God to give us the strength to overcome this persistent vice, eventually we will allow God’s grace to penetrate our hearts and liberate us from this enslavement.
I am convinced, besides the Eucharist, the greatest tool that Jesus has given to us to grow in holiness is the sacrament of reconciliation. The regular and proper reception of this sacrament challenges us to examine our conscience frequently and thoroughly. This forces us to face the grim reality of our sin but, more importantly, opens our hearts to experience the depth of God’s love for us.
Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God’s love. Jesus came to call sinners, not the self-righteous. We can never appreciate the depth of God’s love for us if we do not recognize our sin.
St. Paul, the former persecutor of Christians, marvels in his Letter to the Romans at the miracle of God’s merciful love revealed in his son, Jesus Christ: “While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man — though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation” (Rom 5: 6-11).
The beauty and power of God’s love for us is that he loves us — not because we deserve it, not because we are perfect. God loves us even in our weakness, sending Jesus into the world to liberate us from sin.
In the end, every sin is a violation of the First Commandment. It is valuing something or someone more than our relationship with God. Every sin involves giving our allegiance to an idol. When we sin, we are in essence asserting that we believe that something other than being in union with God will make us happy.
Every time we examine our conscience in our preparation for confession, we have the opportunity to recognize and set aside the idols in our life. Every time, after confessing and receiving the absolution of our sins, we are like the apostles on Easter night encountering the risen Jesus, who not only forgave them their betrayal but empowered them to be ambassadors of his love and reconciliation for others.
No matter the nature or level of seriousness of our sin, if we approach the Lord sincerely in the sacrament of reconciliation, we will not come out of the confessional the same person. Each time we receive this sacrament, we become liberated from the sadness of our sin and empowered to bring the love of Jesus to others.
Why would we deprive ourselves from receiving a sacrament that by its nature brings us greater peace and joy? Think about it!