This is the latest in a series in which I
rip-off reprint the pastoral message of Fr. John McCartney of St. Matthew’s in Dix Hills NY. I feel guilty about continually stealing borrowing his work, but it is too good not to share. I guess I will have to go to confession now.
Last week we looked at the Second Precept of the Church as enumerated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: You shall confess your sins at least once a year. Consequently, to consider oneself a “practicing Catholic,” one should go to Confession at least once a year. In fact, this is considered the bare minimum, and most people should go more often. In my personal opinion, I think that every Catholic should go at least twice a year; once in Advent and again in Lent. However, those who are serious about advancing in the spiritual life will make use of Confession even more frequently, because of the tremendous graces this sacrament brings.
For many years now, the Sacrament of Confession has undergone a crisis in our Church. It is a crisis of fear, prompted by a lack of understanding. Sometimes, the confusion has been on the part of the clergy more than the laity. I have often heard people say they felt many priests in recent years discouraged the use of the Sacrament. This is shocking, but in my experience, it is also true. Today, it is common to meet Catholics who come to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day, yet have not been to Confession in twenty years.
However, the situation is improving. I am happy to be able to say that the Sacrament of Penance is undergoing a resurrection in the Church. People are returning to Confession, and are relearning how to properly make use of this most valuable sacrament. This is happening because of the revolution that Pope John Paul led for a quarter of a century in order to restore the Catholic Faith after a painful period of neglect. Our late, great, Holy Father constantly encouraged the practice of Confession, and led by example, hearing Confessions of the faithful even as Pope.
People are returning to the practice of Confession because they need it. After a while, the sins build up, and a person begins to feel distant from God. Where does this feeling come from? With an immortal soul comes a knowledge, an understanding of the difference between right and wrong. This knowledge placed by God in each person’s soul we call conscience. Our conscience is at work always, even when we overlook it or ignore it. It comes to us as a feeling, though it is much more than a feeling.
When we are presented with a moral choice, God’s law inside us prompts our conscience to make a decision as to whether the choice is good or bad. We may experience a struggle between what we know we should do, and what it is we want to do. This is temptation. When we obey our conscience we get a feeling of confirmation and a sense that we have done what is right. We have exercised virtue. When we disobey our conscience, we get a feeling of guilt because we have committed sin. The sensation of guilt is actually a good thing, because it means that our conscience is working properly and is prompting us to go to Confession.
When we experience feelings of guilt, it is our soul’s way of telling us that we have sinned and are in need of the Sacrament of Confession. As with physical illness, masking the feeling or ignoring it just makes things worse. Over time, ignoring conscience and sinning without sacramental absolution can deform a person’s conscience or even deaden it. This is a terminal spiritual malady: the refusal to admit that we sin. It is, in fact, the “unforgivable sin” that Jesus speaks of in the Gospel of St. Matthew (12:31). It is the sin of the Pharisees, who refused to seek forgiveness because they had convinced themselves that they were sinless and perfect.
Often you will hear people say, “I don’t need to confess my sins to a priest; I just tell them to God directly.” This is not a theological statement they are making as much as it is a statement of fear. People who stay away from Confession for years do not have a theological problem with Confession: They are afraid of it. They mask their fear with intellectual and theological arguments against the Sacrament. But fundamentally they are simply frightened children.
So why do we have to go to Confession to a priest? The simple reason is that Our Savior told us to do so. In the Gospel of St. John, Jesus appeared to His apostles in the Upper Room on the evening of the Resurrection, Easter Sunday. Breathing upon them, He said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained” (John 20:22-23). In this moment Our Blessed Lord gave to His Apostles, and therefore to His Church and to all His future priests, the power to forgive all human sins. Every sacrament is an “outward sign, instituted by Christ to give grace.” Therefore, when we understand that it was our Lord Himself who designed, created, and instituted the sacrament, weshould immediately recognize that we must make use of it in the way He intended. The Sacrament of Confession is not a creation of men, but of God. Everything God gives us is for our good, because if used properly, it will draw us closer to Him.
This Lent, return to the Sacrament of Confession, especially if you have been away for a long time. You will not regret it.—Fr. McCartney