by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
“Ironic that I would see your request to share a positive experience one has had regarding confession. It had been well over 20 years since I had been to confession, even though I had raised both children as Catholics, even attending parochial schools. I had been an on-again, off-again Catholic for the past 10 years oftentimes turning to my religion in times of trouble or religious holidays.
“A few weeks ago, before the Christmas holiday, I had driven by my parish church 10 minutes before noon Mass. Confession was going on prior to Mass. However, time was running out, as Mass was to begin. A parishioner announced that Father would hear confessions after Mass for those who wanted to go. I had decided that it would be good if I went to confession rather than assuming God forgave my many sins.
“Nervous is hardly adequate to describe how I was feeling, standing in line to make my confession. And many times over, I stopped from slipping out the front door of the church. It was my turn and I remember feeling sick to my stomach turning the doorknob of the confessional. ‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.’ I remembered those words from childhood — ‘Father, it has been many years since my last confession.’ Father wanted to know about how long it had been, and I told him, Well over 20 years,’ and during my 55 years of life, I had probably committed most of the seven deadly sins, which made Father laugh, immediately relaxing me. We talked and I cried and he was wonderful. I told him how unhappy I have been — about how scared I was at the thought of losing my parents or my children, and how I wanted to make sure I was going to go to heaven. I felt blessed, clean, renewed and assured and safe to take Communion finally.
“I feel confident that I am saved and proud of myself for just going to confession. I have encouraged others to try it.”
The preceding was one of the responses to the invitation in The Leaven to share a recent experience of receiving the sacrament of penance. Actually, several of the responses received were similar to this one, written by individuals who had not been to the sacrament for many years. All of them had similar experiences of relief and great interior peace following their reception of the sacrament.
Beginning March 16, the Wednesday during the first full week of Lent, from 6 to 7 p.m. — and on every Lenten Wednesday thereafter — priests throughout the Archdiocese will be in their confessionals for those desiring to receive the sacrament. The sacrament of penance will be available in all of the churches of the archdiocese at the same time, except in some cases where a single priest is pastor for multiple parishes. In those instances, the pastor will publicize at which church the sacrament will be available for each Wednesday of Lent. In essence, it will be possible to receive the sacrament of penance at any of our churches on Lenten Wednesdays.
I am grateful to our priests for their willingness to adjust parish schedules in order to make this common time for confession available in all of our churches. It is my earnest prayer that, because of this special initiative, many who have not been to confession for several years will have an experience similar to the one articulated at the beginning of this article.
Moreover, it is my hope that this initiative will motivate all of us to reflect upon how well and how frequently we take advantage of the gift of the sacrament of penance. Unfortunately, during recent years, in general Catholics have gone less frequently to confession. From all that I can observe, this decline in the frequency of confession does not correspond to a decline of sin.
I am convinced that, for the spiritual renewal of the church, we need to rediscover the importance and power of this sacrament. Going to confession is tough! It requires that we make a good examination of conscience, recognizing and acknowledging the presence of sin in our lives. It means saying our sins aloud in the presence of another human being.
Some object: “Why do I need to confess my sins to a priest? Why can’t I go directly to God?” Of course, we can and should confess our sins directly to God. There is no limitation on God’s grace and his power to forgive us.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus frequently forgave sins. It was his conferral of the forgiveness of sins that in large part precipitated the conflict with the Pharisees. Jesus empowered the apostles, on Easter night, to continue his ministry of mercy: “[Jesus] breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’” (Jn 20: 22-23).
Jesus gave the church the sacrament of penance not because he needs us to confess our sins, but because he understood so well our humanity. Jesus understood our need to confess aloud our sins and, even more importantly, to hear the words of forgiveness spoken by one whom he empowered to be his human instrument in continuing his ministry of mercy.
For the next several weeks, I will devote these columns to reflections on various aspects of the sacrament of penance. I urge every member of the Archdiocese to pray and reflect in the coming weeks on the beauty and the importance of this sacrament. There is no more powerful tool that Jesus has given to aid us in the ongoing conversion of our hearts and in our growth in holiness.