Confession is a profound gift where God does not condemn us
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Articles 1423-1442 recognize confession as a process in the church where Christians confess sins committed after baptism and have them absolved by God through the administration of a Priest. In the words of Pope Francis, “Confessional is a place where people can find forgiveness and mercy, not threats and condemnation”. It is good to note that official Church publications usually refer to the sacrament as “Penance”, “Reconciliation” or “Penance and Reconciliation”, the laity continues to use the term “Confession” to refer to the Sacrament.
What the Sacrament of Penance offers
For the Catholic Church, this sacrament intends to provide healing for the soul as well as to regain the grace of God, lost by sin. A perfect act of contrition, where penitence expresses sorrow for having offended God and not out of fear of eternal punishment, even outside of confession removes the eternal punishment associated with mortal sin, but a Catholic is obliged to confess his or her mortal sins at the earliest opportunity.
In theological terms, the priest acts in persona Christi (person Christ) and receives from the Church the power of jurisdiction over the penitent. Several theologians have quoted John. 20:22-23 as the primary scriptural proof for the doctrine concerning this sacrament, but Catholics also consider Mathew 9:2-8, 1 Corinthians 11:27, and Mathew 16:17-20 to be among the scriptural bases for the sacrament.
The Catholic Church teaches that sacramental confession requires three “acts” on the part of the penitent: contrition (sorrow of the soul for the sins committed), the disclosure of the sins (the confession), and satisfaction (the penance, that is., doing something to make amends for the sins). The basic form of confession has not changed for centuries, although at one time confessions were made publicly.
Usually, the penitent begins sacramental confession by saying: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been [state time period] since my last confession”. The penitent must then confess what he/she believes to be grave and mortal sins, in both kind and number, to be reconciled with God and the Church. The sinner may also confess venial sins; this is especially recommended if the penitent has no mortal sins to confess.
There is an old joke about a carpenter who went to confession after he had been stealing timber from his job site. He confessed, and the priest said, “For your penance, make a novena.” The carpenter replied, “I am not quite sure what a novena is, Father, but if you have the blueprints, I have the timber!”
The story is good for a laugh, but it makes a good point. It raises the question of whether in the Sacrament of Penance anything good can come from our guilt and our sins. Notice the use of the term penance rather than confession. Confession is just one moment in the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance. Confession probably gets the most attention because it is the scariest part no one likes to have his or her sins brought into the light even if it is in the darkness of a confessional.
I agree with these sentiments of Pope Francis that through the sacrament of reconciliation, Jesus Christ does not threaten but rather calls us with kindness, having confidence in us, which allows people seeking forgiveness to take a step forward on the path of conversion. As a confessor I have often reminded the penitents that a confessional is a place where one can go to seek forgiveness humbly; it is not a dry cleaner where one goes to remove the occasional stain but a place we repair our relationship with God and neighbor.
Like the merciful father in the parable of the prodigal son, God is eager to forgive; each time we go to confession, God embraces us. God rejoices (cf. Luke 15:11-32). The Holy Father stresses that forgiveness of our sins is not something that we can give ourselves. In confession, we ask for forgiveness from Jesus.
“Forgiveness is not the fruit of our efforts but rather a gift; it is a gift of the Holy Spirit who fills us with the wellspring of mercy and of grace that flows unceasingly from the open heart of the Crucified and Risen Christ.” (Cf. General Audience February 2014). However, it is not enough to only ask the Lord.
The shame we feel speaking our sins to a priest makes us more humble, as we unburden ourselves before God. When one is in line to go to Confession, one feels all these things, even shame, but then when one finishes confession one leaves free, grand, beautiful, forgiven, candid and happy. This is the beauty of confession.
Since childhood, I have approached the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation with some fear and uncertainty. As a young boy I never saw the beauty of confession, hence understanding the struggle that penitents experience when accepting and participating in this sacrament, then one needs to be courageous and go to confess one’s sins. I remember before my first confession, I used to ask myself some questions: “what if my sins were not the same as the other children? What if my sins were far worse and the priest refused to forgive me?”
To receive the First Holy Communion, I knew I had to confess first, so I composed myself and earnestly prepared for it. When I was finally ready,
I went to the confessional box, and others were also waiting. As I looked at the box, all my fears started resurfacing. To make matters worse, I started worrying that the people waiting in the queue might hear what I was saying to the priest. What if they heard all the sins I confessed? What would they think of me?
From a distance, seeing penitents go to confession did not look like a big deal at all, but now that I was faced with it, I realized this was much more of an emotional experience than I had previously understood. I wondered if it would get more comfortable with time. Finally, it was my turn. I entered the confessional box, knelt down, made the sign of the cross, and my mind went completely blank. I could not remember a thing of what I was supposed to do. My fears had come true! I knew I was supposed to say something to the priest before I started stating my sins, but I could not remember what I was supposed to say. I just knelt there in silence, but no matter how long I waited, I could not remember what to say.
Then I remembered that I was talking to Jesus, not a priest. I knew Jesus would understand, so I found the courage to honestly tell the priest that I had forgotten what to say. I hoped he would take pity on me and guide me through the process. I was sure that is what Jesus would have done.
At first, I thought he was going to help me. He asked me what I came to do in the confessional box. I told him that I desired to receive the First Holy Communion with a clean heart, but I could not remember which things to say in the confessional. I begged him to lead me through the confession process and help me make a good confession. Instead, he told me that I was old enough and I did not need guidance.
I knew I was older than most kids when they made their first confession, but I thought he would understand. I was wrong. He never took pity on me. Instead, he took on a very condescending tone and said, “You are old enough, and yet you do not even know how to confess?” I honestly said, “Yes, because it was my first experience, and I had just forgotten how it is done.”
I got confused because he was not willing to help me out and I asked him for permission to come out of the confessional for more preparation; he immediately dismissed me. Though embarrassed and hurt, I could not believe how I was dismissed; I still gathered the courage to prepare and faced him once again.
Luckily, I met a Catechist who was kind enough to remind me of what I was supposed to have done. I returned back to the confessional. This time I would remember everything. I entered the confessional box again and told the priest that I was now well prepared to confess my sins. I was confident he would be pleased to hear I had prepared myself so quickly.
Again, I was wrong! He laughed, and, in the same condescending voice, he said to me, “You think you are prepared now?” I resolved to stay calm. I said, “I think so,” and, after that, I confessed the sins I could remember.
When I finished, he immediately started asking me whether or not a normal person would do such things. He shouted names at me. He said he would not absolve me from my sins and that I should go and look for another priest to confess. I could not believe it! My worst fears had come true. I came out of that box downcast. I felt rejected, discouraged, and torn apart.
As I went out of the box, I realized that everyone waiting in the queue to make their confession had heard the priest yelling at me. Was this all a bad dream? It could not be happening to me, could it? Everyone waiting there was laughing, and I felt humiliated. I was sure they were all laughing at me, making me a laughing stock? What was I to do now? I went straight to the only one who I knew would truly understand and knelt in front of the Blessed Sacrament and narrated to Him my dark experience.
I prayed for a very long time. At first, I was filled with pain and humiliation. I wept for all the pain that was inside me, but the more I prayed, the better I began to feel. I knew in my heart that what I had experienced with that priest was not something that Jesus wanted any human being to experience.
He did not come to this earth to humiliate us for our sins. He came to bring us hope and love. He died for our sins that we might live. At some point during that prayer, my childhood ambition to become a teacher faded away. I realized that, even though that priest had tried to humiliate me, what he did, changed my life. He could bring me down, but he could not keep me there.
It was through his humiliation that I genuinely understood Jesus’ love. At some point during that prayer, I resolved to become a priest. I understood what it meant to be a sinner, and how it felt to be humiliated, rejected, and to be told my sins would not be forgiven. I knew I may be a compassionate priest who would lead people to Jesus.
I made a firm resolution to become a priest which was such a difficult decision for me because I knew not everyone in my family would accept this decision. I thank God today I am a priest, dedicating most of my time to listen to confessions because I would not want penitents to go through the experience I went through. As a confessor, my role is to help penitents to leave the confessional with happiness in their hearts.
Therefore, I urge you to focus on the Sacrament of Reconciliation as an important dimension of experiencing God’s mercy. Through this experience we will be rediscovering a path taking us back to the Lord, living a moment of intense prayer and finding meaning in our lives. Let us place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the center of our spiritual journey where we can touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands.
Consequently, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a profound gift that strengthens our relationship with Christ, heals us, and renews our baptism when we were first incorporated into the community of faith.
The writer is an Assistant Priest at, HFMB