by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
While I was an auxiliary bishop in St. Louis, a few weeks after the traumatic events of Sept. 11, 2001, late one evening returning from a confirmation, I decided to reward myself for the day’s work and pulled into the drive-thru of one my favorite fast-food restaurants. When I arrived at the takeout window, the cashier — seeing my Roman collar — immediately said, “Father, I need to go to confession.”
At first, I thought he was joking. Quickly, I recognized that he was deadly serious. I began to wonder what he had done to my cheeseburger to provoke such contrition. The young man then said, “Father, Sept. 11 and all that has been going on got me thinking. I have to change my life. I have done some terrible things. Do you think God can forgive me?”
I tried to do as much evangelization as is permitted in a drive-thru lane of a fast-food restaurant. I assured him that I knew God would forgive him if he sincerely asked for mercy. I urged him to go to a nearby church to receive the sacrament of penance. I encouraged him with the truth that the whole reason Jesus came into our world was to bring mercy and forgiveness for our sins.
One of the great obstacles deterring some from going to confession is despair. They have come to realize the enormity of their sin and have true contrition. Yet, they also understand, humanly speaking, it may be impossible to repair the damage their sin has done to others. Some believe they have committed the “unforgivable sin.” They correctly realize they do not deserve the Lord’s mercy, so they despair of even asking for God’s forgiveness.
This reasoning, while understandable, completely misses the point of why Jesus came into the world. God did not assume our human condition because we deserved such an extraordinary act of love. Our redemption by Jesus is not about our worthiness; rather, it is about God’s goodness.
Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery; the criminal crucified next to him on Calvary; the soldiers who nailed him to the cross; Peter, for his triple denial; and the apostles, for abandoning him during his passion. He did so not because any of them deserved it. Jesus came to reveal to the world the mercy of his Father, which he described for us in his parable of the prodigal son.
Jesus entrusted to the apostles, despite their own weaknesses, the power to continue his ministry of mercy. Jesus gave the church the sacrament of penance so that the same mercy and grace he bestowed on so many during his earthly life could be extended throughout time.
What we need to bring to the sacrament of penance is not a perfect soul that really has no need of God’s mercy, but rather: 1) true sorrow for our sin; 2) a commitment to strive not to repeat our sin; and 3) faith in the goodness of God, who desires eternal happiness for each of us.
Jesus does speak about what has been termed the unforgivable sin. In St. Matthew’s Gospel Jesus stated: “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or the age to come” (Mt 12: 31-32).
Even in this passage it is important to note that Jesus first says that every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven. He specifically mentions that even those who speak against or oppose him can be forgiven. The one thing that cannot be forgiven is what Jesus identifies as “blasphemy against the Spirit.”
Immediately before this passage, Jesus had healed a possessed man who was both mute and blind. The Pharisees accuse Jesus of receiving his power through the “prince of demons.” Many believe it is the attitude and actions of the Pharisees that Jesus is referencing when he speaks about the “unforgivable sin.”
The Pharisees are so twisted by their hatred of Jesus that something as obviously good as the healing of the blind and mute man, they actually perceive as evil. The Pharisees were not able to be forgiven — not because they had done something beyond the capacity of God to forgive, but rather because their own obstinacy made them incapable of seeking forgiveness.
Similarly, our own preoccupation with the gravity of our sin rather than with the wideness of God’s mercy can prevent us from seeking God’s forgiveness. In other words, the only thing that makes a sin unforgivable is our own incapacity to seek God’s mercy.
If you have been prevented from going to confession because you mistakenly think your sin is too great for God’s mercy, I urge you to refocus your attention away from the gravity of your failures and onto the goodness of God’s love. Jesus never turned aside anyone who approached him with sincerity, humility, contrition and faith. In fact, it was those who sought and experienced his merciful love who became his most ardent disciples.
Next week, I will write about perhaps even more common obstacles to the use of the sacrament of penance: 1) embarrassment because of the repetition of our sins and 2) a notion that we do not need to go to confession because of a lack of awareness of the presence of sin in our lives. Stay tuned!