by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
I hope that many of you have heard the radio commercials and all of you have noticed the large posters encouraging every Catholic during this Lenten season to take advantage of the sacrament of reconciliation/pennance.
Again this Lent, thanks to the generosity of our priests, sacramental confession will be available essentially in all of our churches on the Wednesdays of Lent from 6 p.m. until at least 7 p.m. The most important single thing any of us can do this Lent is to receive the sacrament of reconciliation.
Why is this sacrament so important for us? To be able to celebrate truly the paschal mystery — the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus — we must understand why Jesus endured Calvary. The answer to that question is human sin. For us to appreciate Jesus and what he accomplished for us, we must believe that we need a redeemer, a savior. We can only need a redeemer if we are willing to admit that we are sinners in need of saving.
The most important ingredient in making a good confession is the examination of conscience. A good examination of conscience begins in prayer. The examination of our own life needs to be preceded by pondering the goodness of God. We need to allow ourselves to become aware of how good God is. Everything that is good in our lives has been ultimately given to us by God. Our life, our health, our talents and abilities, our educational and employment opportunities, our family and our friends, and whatever material comforts we enjoy, if we pursue honestly the source of all these blessings, it always will bring us to God.
It is only when fully conscious of how good God is that we are properly disposed to begin to examine our lives and our use of the many gifts that God has entrusted to each of us. There are many excellent tools to help us make a good review of our life in order to recognize and acknowledge our sins.
Of course, God himself gave us a very good tool with which to examine our conscience: namely, the Ten Commandments. If we ponder each com- mandment and how it applies to our life, we will begin to recognize many areas of sin.
Many sins are obvious to the sinner and others, but some of the most dangerous ones to our spiritual well-being are those that can be harder to detect. When you receive a dental exam, the most dangerous decay can be that which is hidden under the gum line or under a crown. If it goes undetected for too long, it can cause serious and sometimes irreparable damage.
The most violated of the Ten Commandments is the first, but it is also the most infrequently confessed. One could make a case that every seri- ous sin involves placing something or someone above our relationship with God — in other words, having a false God.
If we miss Mass on Sunday without a legitimate reason (health or the nonavailability of the Mass), it always involves placing something before God — e.g., golf, football, hunting, fishing, partying, sleeping, overtime pay, etc. If we fail to make time for daily prayer, it is not usually because we do not have the time, but rather because we chose to spend the time on something else — e.g., television, the Internet, reading, conversing with friends, etc. It is not that any of these activities are bad in themselves. They are occasions of sin for us when we allow them to assume more importance in our lives than God and time with God.
Most of us give ourselves a pass on the Fifth Commandment, since we have not committed murder. Yet, we can violate the broader application of this commandment when we destroy another person’s reputation or hurt or wound another with our words.
How often do we even think about the Ninth and Tenth Commandments in our preparation for confession? Yet, how many of us have envied another’s success or their material possessions? Underneath the sin of coveting is a lack of gratitude for the many blessings which God has already given us.
If an examination of conscience based on the Ten Commandments does not help you appreciate your need for a redeemer, then I suggest you read prayerfully the fifth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, where he challenges his disciples not only to keep the laws of the Old Testament, but to be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. In this chapter, Jesus challenges his disciples not to grow angry with their brothers and sisters, not to look upon others with lust (using them at least mentally for our sexual gratification), not to retaliate against the injustice of another, and even to love their enemies.
Once we have convinced ourselves that we truly do need a redeemer, then we are ready to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. When we go into the confessional, if we have prepared ourselves properly with a good examination of conscience, our focus should not be primarily on our sin, but on Jesus. Certainly, it is important in making our confession that we say clearly and concisely our sins. It is in saying our sins aloud that we begin to become free of them.
However, the key to confession and what makes it much more powerful and healing than a therapy session is that we are telling our sins not to the priest, but to Jesus. Our Lord is merely using the priest as a poor human instrument to make himself present to us. Jesus uses the priest to be the vehicle for Our Lord to speak to us the words of mercy and forgiveness that he spoke to so many in the Gospel.
If we are focused on Jesus — to whom we are confessing, surrendering our sins — then our confession will never be routine. If we are conscious that Jesus is present in the sacrament — the same Jesus who endured the cross on Calvary to gain for us libera- tion from our sin — then we will experience a true and authentic sorrow. Our sorrow will not be so much the result of our disappointment with ourselves and our failure to live up to a code of conduct. Our sorrow will come from the realization that we failed a person who has loved us so completely and deserved so much better from us.
If we keep our focus on Jesus, then we will know the words that the priest verbalizes are the expression of mercy that Christ has empowered the priest to speak on Our Lord’s behalf. If we keep our confession focused on Jesus, we will experience from the sacrament a joy that comes, not just from having our sins forgiven, but from having encountered the living Christ — the one who loves us beyond all human imagining.