THE BISHOP'S CROZIER: Finding God’s mercy in the sacrament of penance
By Bishop James R. Golka
Greetings brothers and sisters in Christ. In my last letter, I proposed that we might take time to better understand what happens at the Mass.
We do not simply “go” to Mass but rather we participate in an event of communion with our Lord. This event of communion has the power to change our very being. Today, I would like to look at how regular experience of the Sacrament of Penance (going to Confession) can help us better be prepared to receive our Lord and to let our Lord receive us.
When human beings encounter God in his majesty and glory, they become aware of their sinfulness. When Isaiah the prophet had his vision of God’s majestic presence in the Temple, his immediate reaction was, “Woe is me! I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is 6:5).
In Luke’s Gospel, when Simon Peter witnessed the power of the miraculous catch of fish, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” (Lk 5:8) In each case, God’s mercy bridged the gap.
This awareness of sin is one of the reasons why the Church begins the celebration of the Mass with a penitential act. We know that we are sinners, but we also know that with a simple word, Jesus can heal us.
What we do in that penitential act at the beginning of Mass is a reflection of what our whole lives as Christians is about. We are a people of conversion. We know that we are finite and limited in our being, that we can see only so far. We know that we often fall short of our ideals, sometimes through laziness, sometimes through malice. We are sinners and we stand in need of God’s forgiveness. This is why Christ gave us the sacrament of penance.
That sacrament is a blessing in its own right, but it is also a perfect preparation for the celebration of the Eucharist. Sadly, and for reasons that are unclear, it is not as commonly used to today as it was 50 years ago.
There could be many explanations for this. Some say that Catholics have a diminished sense of sin and of their own susceptibility to it. Others say that many Catholics have less a sense of the eternal consequences of sin. Still others say that at least some Catholics have too much spiritual pride to examine their consciences humbly or often. Having said this, in my short time here, I have experienced parishes in our diocese where more and more people are taking advantage of the power of a regular confession. I hope this movement continues to grow.
I would just like to share a few of my own reflections on the importance of this important sacrament. Where some might say that they confess their sins privately to God, the wisdom of our Catholic tradition insists that we take things more seriously when we externalize, when we say them out loud.
Sometimes we may not realize the extent of the damage that our sin has done until we say it out loud. Or sometimes we may be harder on ourselves than is necessary and need to be gently corrected by a compassionate confessor
Another thing that a regular confessor can help us with is accountability. He can help us remember our personal history and offer some perspective on issues that may be bothering us. Sometimes we may need to take something more seriously than we do, or sometimes we may need to lighten up in our self-accusations.
The most important thing we need to remember about the sacrament of penance is that it is an encounter with Christ and with his saving power. No human being would have the audacity to say, “I absolve you of your sins.” But when bishops and priests say those words, they know they do not do so of their own accord. Jesus is speaking those words in them, with their voice. Jesus is the primary agent in the sacrament.
And he does not simply forgive sin, wonderful as that mystery is. He actually gives us strength, grace, and moral power to grow in our life of virtue and holiness. In our day, the 12-step movement has given vivid testimony to what good things can happen for us if we surrender our weaknesses to God’s mercy. Our creator and redeemer is always there for us, always willing to forgive, always ready to help.
Catholics vary in the frequency with which they go to confession. We are obliged to go at least once a year. When I am asked, I suggest that monthly confession is a good practice.
It is a sacrament of reconciliation, peace, unity, harmony, and justice. Its healing extends not only to the penitent but to the whole Church, even to a whole broken world. Go to confession this week. Then come to Mass knowing that you have prepared to encounter our Lord of incredible mercy.