Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Correction is hard to receive, and often even harder to give. Yet it is precisely correction that Jesus instructs His disciples to give in this Sunday’s Gospel. Those who follow Jesus are to face conflict, difficulty, and sin in their number in a very direct way. When one sins, tell him his fault, and if he will not listen, bring another person into the conversation, and if he will not listen to multiple people, bring the fault to the attention of the church, that is, of the community. Name the fault, not out of a desire to judge or to lord over someone else, but out of a desire to help them to conform their lives to the truth, to the commandments, to the heart of God Himself! Since this task is so challenging, it helps to begin close to home, in the interior of our own hearts.
The practice of sacramental confession brings this entire Gospel into our personal space and experience. To go to confession is to accuse myself of sin. I admit my own fault first, that is, I confront sin in my own life directly. Sometimes, that fault only comes to light when someone else tells me that I have done them some harm or offense, and here it is two witnesses now bringing my sin into the light. Going to confession brings the Church into the matter, again, not for judgement in the negative sense, but for true reconciliation. Sin has the effect of separating me from myself – I act contrary to what is good for me when I sin. Sin also has the effect of separating me from God – to sin is to step away, or even turn completely away from the God who created me out of love and for love. Sin finally has the effect of separating me from my community – my sin, even the most private and personal, sows seeds of division, resentment, anger, impatience, and more in the community. Thus, to go to confession is to seek reconciliation and healing in all three areas.
The sacrament of confession, because it involves me admitting and confronting my sin, is a healing step. By naming my sin and my fault aloud, I am able to both apologize and resolve to seek the remedy. In this way, I reconcile with myself. As my sin separates me from God, in confessing my sin, I turn back to God. Remember that God never turns away from us! I make my way back to the Lord who has always desired a relationship with my. The sacrament of confession is the moment in which I turn back to this God who loves, and in which I am reminded of my capacity to love God in return. Finally, every confession also reconciles me with the Church, the community, the world. I am able to see that my sin inflicts a wound on the Body of Christ, a member of which I became on the day of my baptism. Though the wound may not be visible, it is spiritual, and by asking mercy I can help in the healing of that wound.
To arrive at true reconciliation it is necessary to follow certain steps. Confession, apology, and atonement or penance lead us to reconciliation. First I admit the fault, sin, or offense. Then, I ask for mercy, I ask to be forgiven. I atone for the sin, pay my penance, demonstrating by word, prayer, and action that I am sincerely sorry for the sin and am resolved to avoid this sin in the future. It is then that reconciliation happens and I am returned to the community, to friendship, to a rightly ordered life. Sacramental confession brings this weekend’s Gospel to bear on my life. I accuse myself of sin, confess the fault, ask pardon, atone by the penance given, and receive the healing words of reconciliation. With absolution, I am reconciled to myself, to God, and to the community that is the Church.
Too often, the sacrament of confession is forgotten or downplayed. I might think that my sin isn’t that bad, or that it doesn’t impact anyone else. Or the sacrament is seen in a negative light. It makes me feel guilty or judged. Or the sacrament is misunderstood. I can tell God I’m sorry and that is enough. We do well to remember that in fact, our sin does impact others, even if not in a visible way. The spiritual fabric holding our family of faith together is frayed by sin, and by celebrating the sacrament of mercy, I contribute to the repair of that frayed material. When I feel guilty or judged and want to run from that feeling, I should actually run toward it and embrace it wholeheartedly. After all, the entire reason why human beings are capable of feeling guilt is so that they can reconcile. Guilt reminds me that I need to apologize; apologizing allows me to hear words of forgiveness; hearing words of forgiveness allows me to let go of guilt and shame. While I can, of course, go to God in my own private prayer to ask forgiveness, it is the act of celebrating a sacrament (an outward sign, instituted by Christ, that confers grace) that enables me to achieve all three areas of reconciliation that are necessary. The “public” nature of confession (it follows a sacramental form and involves a minister of the Church, though in absolute confidentiality) serves as a reminder that my sin damages the spiritual ties that bind the whole Christian community together.
Jesus makes clear to His disciples that they are not meant to seek the Kingdom of God alone. Rather, they form a community of believers who are called to unity of mind, heart, and action. They are to follow the teachings, commands, and will of Jesus who calls them together. In their humanity, they will do these things imperfectly. We also are called to this, and we also will do it in an imperfect manner. We are given the great sacrament of confession precisely so that, whenever it is necessary (and there is almost always a need!) we can find the reconciliation our hearts long for, we can receive the forgiveness we need, we can let go of the guilt we carry, we can bind ourselves more closely to our community, we can see ourselves not only with worldly eyes but also with spiritual eyes, and we can know ourselves to securely in the loving care of the God who never turns away from His children.