Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
In the last two weeks, this space has been dedicated to the first sacrament we received, Baptism. On the day of our spiritual rebirth, we were washed in the waters of Baptism. This sacrament freed us from original sin and brought us into the life of grace. Unfortunately, we live in a fallen world. As such, we find ourselves after baptism still fighting against sin and temptation, still, it seems at times, irresistibly drawn to sin and its consequences. This human condition, inclined to sin, is called “concupiscence.” We find ourselves plagued by feelings of guilt, the gnawing awareness that we have fallen short. Our response to these realities can be extreme. On one end of the extreme, we can deny that any of our actions are sinful or that we should feel any kind of guilt at all. This avoidance, we think, will help us feel more positive about ourselves. But the real effect is that guilt denied becomes a repressed wound, a conscience ignored becomes an insistent voice, and a person avoiding guilt and conscience becomes a skilled actor, presenting one face in the world’s light while interiorly agonizing in darkness. On the other extreme, we can become obsessed with the idea of our own guilt and unworthiness and convince ourselves that everything about us is blameworthy and we are undeserving of the Father’s love and mercy. Fortunately for us, there is a middle way! Our Catholic faith reminds us that the gift given to us in Baptism cannot be lost, though it can be damaged by our actions. Jesus reminds us in the Gospel that concupiscence has been conquered and the remedy for sin and guilt given.
This brings us to the sacrament of Confession. Known technically by three different, interchangeable names, this is the remedy given to us through the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. When called “Confession” we are reminded that the first step prescribed by our Lord is repentance. Jonah went through Ninevah, we hear this weekend, calling on the citizens of that vast city to repent of their sin. Jesus begins His public ministry with a call to repentance. And so in the confession of our sins, we acknowledge our fault and express our contrition. Concupiscence robs us of the innocence that Baptism restored. The confession of our sins brings us back to the Lord’s path. When this sacrament is called “Penance,” we are reminded that sin has consequences and leaves us with a debt to pay. To do penance is to, in some small way, atone for the sin we have committed and to learn better how to keep to the path of virtue. When this sacrament is called “Reconciliation” we are reminded that the grace the sacrament effects is to bring us back into a right relationship with our heavenly Father. To be reconciled means that we are restored to our former place, to a living, trusting, loving relationship with our God. Further, we are reconciled also with the whole Church, and when we are reconciled and rightly ordered in our lives, the Body of Christ on earth is strengthened.
We live in a world that does not always acknowledge the existence of sin. Instead, our world and society tell us that any and all behaviors are acceptable, that we should do what makes us feel good, and that we should accept ourselves exactly as we are. There is no room in the secular world for guilt, and anyone who feels guilty about something is pitied and viewed as a somewhat backwards throwback to a bygone era. Unfortunately, this same attitude can often be found within the Church. In the years after the Second Vatican Council, many Catholics were actively discouraged from the regular practice of Confession (even, all too often, by priests, Lord have mercy!). Adopting the sentiments of society-at-large, many in the Church taught people that feelings of guilt were unnecessary, and that sin was not something with which modern man needed to be concerned. “Catholic guilt” became a joke at best and a slur at worst. The regular practice of confession came to be viewed as a somewhat odd idea, something that modern Christians no longer needed.
We Catholics can bring much-needed perspective to this fallen world. Yes, there should be a sense of guilt for sin. But guilt ought to always drive us to repentance! To repent, to apologize, is to seek reconciliation, atonement, and healing. Thus guilt, ordered correctly, serves a healing purpose. Guilt, improperly ordered, is an overwhelming emotion that wracks our minds and wreaks havoc on our emotions. Real Catholic guilt sends us running to God’s merciful love when we fall and inspires a resolve of heart that leads to our lives being transformed. In a world that so often denies the existence of sin, we Catholics can confidently say that sin is real and we are really guilty of it. And we can say that in spite of that guilt, we need not be gloomy sad sacks who judge everyone negatively. Why? Because God in His mercy has given us a remedy for what ails us: the sacrament of Confession.
Confession is the sacrament by which Catholics seek divine forgiveness for their sins, reconciliation with the community of believers, and restorative medicine for their wounded souls. In Confession, we acknowledge that we have sinned, naming our sins specifically in number and in kind. We can speak without euphemism or embarrassment of the faults of our lives, and this because it is to Jesus Himself that we confess. The priest in confession acts in persona Christi – in the person of Christ – on our behalf, such that it is really Jesus who is present to offer mercy during this sacrament. Sometimes, confession can be a moment to receive a word of spiritual counsel and an encouragement to virtue. But primarily, the purpose of the sacrament is for us to prayerfully speak our sins and express our contrition to the Lord who in turn offers us the gift of forgiveness. There is always enough mercy. We learn from the experience of confession to bring our guilt to Jesus, and experience the reality of His mercy each time.
Perhaps it has been a while since your last confession. Perhaps you struggle with guilt in one way or another. Wherever you are, please find in this note a very simple word of encouragement. Go to confession. Take some time to make a good examination of conscience. Do not be afraid of your past, whether distant or recent. Guides for confession are readily available here at St. Pius and online. Having prepared, come and encounter the merciful love of Jesus poured out again and again in this great sacrament. For the wounds our Baptismal dignity receives through our sin, Jesus provides a remedy, a healing, a true path back to His love.