by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Once again during Lent, our priests are making themselves available for the sacrament of reconciliation/penance every Wednesday night from 6-7 p.m.
In part, Lent is a preparation to renew our baptismal vows at Easter. The sacrament of penance restores our baptismal purity. Confessing and surrendering our sin to Jesus through the sacrament of reconciliation is the single, most important “thing” we can do to experience a fruitful Lenten season.
At the Rite of Election liturgy in which the church accepts and prays for those preparing for baptism or reception into full communion with the Catholic Church at Easter, I spoke about the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation. Those who are already baptized as Christians will make their first confession during the Lenten season.
In my homily, I acknowledged that it is normal and even spiritually healthy to be nervous about receiving this sacrament for the first time. I admitted that many cradle Catholics are often nervous and even dread going to confession.
Non-Catholic Christians will sometimes question: Why go to another human being to receive God’s forgiveness? Why not cut out the middle man and go directly to God?
First of all, not only can you go directly to God to ask for his mercy and forgiveness, Catholics should acknowledge daily their sins to the Lord and seek his mercy. It is a recommended spiritual practice at the end of the day to make an examination of conscience, recognizing the sins one has committed during the course of the day and seeking Our Lord’s forgiveness.
Still, the church requires her members, if we have committed a mortal sin to go to confession as soon as possible. Moreover, we should not receive the Lord in the Eucharist again until we have received his forgiveness through the sacrament of reconciliation.
It is important to note that it is impossible to commit a mortal sin by accident. For a sin to be “mortal,” we have to understand the gravity of the sin at the time we commit it. Mortal sin by its nature
is always a serious offense against God and most often perpetrates a grave injustice upon another — e.g., murder, abortion, adultery, destroying another’s reputation, etc. Moreover, for a sin to be mortal, we must be aware of a sin’s gravity and still freely choose to do it.
However, the sacrament of reconciliation is not just for those times in our lives when we must go to confession. The church encourages, urges, and exhorts Catholics to receive the sacrament of reconciliation frequently — on a regular basis — in order to be transformed by acknowledging our sin and personally encountering God’s mercy. Each experience of this sacrament has the potential to be life-changing.
Why does the church put so much emphasis on the sacrament of penance? Essentially, because Jesus himself thought this ministry was so important According to St. John’s Gospel, the very first action that Jesus undertakes, after his resurrection, was on Easter night to breathe the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and then declare, “Whose sins you shall forgive, shall be forgiving them and whose sins you shall retain shall be retained.” During his public ministry, there was nothing that Jesus did more frequently than forgive sins. By empowering the apostles to forgive sins, Our Lord desired to extend this essential ministry through all time.
It is no coincidence that Jesus entrusted to the apostles the authority to forgive sins at precisely the moment when they were most vulnerable and themselves most in need of his mercy. After all, Peter had denied even knowing Jesus and all of the other apostles, with the exception of John, had abandoned Jesus during his passion and death. It is precisely, when the apostles most keenly needed Our Lord’s mercy, he gives them the ability to forgive sins in his name.
The most dangerous of all sins is pride. Pride makes it very difficult to admit our sin to ourselves, much less to anyone else. If we cannot acknowledge our own sin, then we have no need for Jesus, because we have no need for a savior or redeemer.
On the other hand, when with honesty and humility we acknowledge and confess our sins, we actually remove the barriers between ourselves and God, allowing God’s mercy and grace to penetrate the depths of our heart. It is through this sacrament that we experience most directly the unconditional nature of Our Lord’s love for us. He does not love us because of our perfection. Jesus loves us fully aware of our weakness and frailty.
Jesus knew our humanity from the inside. He knew our need to confess our sins to another person. He understood our need to say our sins out loud to become free from them. Jesus also understood that we needed to hear the words of mercy and forgiveness.
Frequent confession helps us to be conscious of the presence of sin in our lives. Prayerfully and sincerely examining our conscience before going to confession allows us to recognize the idols in our lives — the things, the activities, the pleasures, the people that we have made more important than God.
Moreover, sin is never just between us and God. Our sin always wounds others. It does this either directly by harming them or indirectly when we are so self-absorbed or weakened by our sin that we are impaired from being able to love others. Our sin hurts the church, the body of Christ. Thus, we need to seek the church’s forgiveness as well.
The priest, a penitent himself, as a co-worker with the successor of the apostles, namely the bishop, has been given the authority through Jesus himself to be a minister of his mercy. The church
has designated the priest to represent Jesus and his church by being the human vessel in communicating forgiveness.
A sincere confession will inevitably make one more forgiving and merciful. You cannot accept God’s mercy and fail to forgive those who have hurt or offended you. During Lent, ask the Lord to help you to recognize those whom you have offended by your sin and to do what you can to repair the harm you have done. You also should ask the Lord in prayer to reveal to you those that you need to forgive.
Harboring resentment and anger against those who have treated us badly poisons our own hearts and diminishes our capacity to love. Lent is a time to ask for the grace to forgive — to liberate ourselves from grudges and resentments. After all, Jesus challenges his disciples to pray for enemies and persecutors.
I encourage every member of the Archdiocese to take advantage during this Lenten season of the great gift of the sacrament of reconciliation. Permit the Lord to penetrate your heart with his merciful love. Hear the words of forgiveness and receive the power to forgive those who have treated you unjustly. Allow yourself to experience the peace and joy that comes from encountering Our Lord’s mercy and unconditional love.