We are about to enter the last days of Lent. I pray that all of us are continuing to make good use of this grace-filled time. The message of Lent is the same every year. It is the invitation to conversion.
As ashes are placed on our heads at the very beginning of Lent we hear the words: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” That is the call to conversion.
Conversion is a two-fold reality. First, we must turn away from sin. This was the message of John the Baptist as he readied the way for the Master: “Reform your lives! The reign of God is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). Jesus himself repeated the call at the beginning of His earthly ministry: “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Reform your lives and believe in the gospel!” (Mark 1:15).
Second, we must turn back to the Lord, to the life of God. In other words, we must grow in holiness. Putting sin out of our lives is but the first and necessary step to growth in holiness. God wants nothing less than for each of us to become a saint. That’s what holiness is all about. It’s about becoming like God — who alone is the Holy One — by the increase of God’s grace in us.
The work of conversion, while appearing to be accomplished through our own good efforts, is, in fact, the work of God. It is God who makes us holy. For that matter, it is the actual grace of God that moves us to renounce sin in the first place and seek to live his life once again. For our part, we must prepare ourselves to hear and answer God’s call to conversion. The penitential acts of prayer, fasting and almsgiving to which we give ourselves in Lent are especially effective in opening our hearts to genuine conversion.
Indispensable to this dynamic of turning from sin and returning to the Lord is the Sacrament of Penance (Reconciliation). It is in this sacrament that Christ himself accepts our act of contrition and extends that forgiveness of sins which comes from God alone. Through the ministry of the priest, Christ bestows upon us sinners the new life of grace and reconciles us once again to the Father and to the Church. No one who is serious about the Christian life can ignore the Sacrament of Penance. To do so would suggest that we can forgive our own sins and save ourselves. This is nothing but an exercise in pride and futility.
Why, then, do some Catholics not receive the Sacrament of Penance with any regularity? The excuses are many, but here a few:
I’m embarrassed to tell my sins to a priest. Every Catholic should know that there is no sin that a priest has not heard. Yes, it can be disquieting to confront our sinfulness and name our wrongdoing out loud. But it is only in naming our sins and confessing them together with our sincere sorrow that we are relieved of the terrible burden of sin. The purpose of confession is not embarrassment. It is the joy and peace that comes from forgiveness. Recall the parable of the prodigal son. The son was humiliated by the choices he had made — choices that had caused him to leave his father’s house. The father, on the other hand, was overjoyed that his son had returned home. That’s how it is with God. He can’t wait for us to come back to Him.
I’m afraid. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone to confession. Again, every Catholic should know that the priest is ready and very willing to help them make a good confession. Don’t worry that you forgot the prayers. The priest will help you. The important thing is not that you get every prayer correct. It is rather that you be absolved of your sins. Once you are inside the confessional, I know that you will find that you will be able to talk easily with the priest.
I don’t need the sacrament. I just tell God privately that I’m sorry. Of course God knows our sins as well as our sorrow before we ever approach the Sacrament of Penance. But that doesn’t make the sacrament unnecessary. Remember, it was Jesus himself who gave the Church this sacrament on the occasion of his Easter appearance to his apostles (cf. John 20:19-23). It is the express will of Christ that we sinners find the forgiveness of our sins precisely in this sacramental form. For this reason the Church has always taught that every mortal sin must be confessed to a priest.
We can always find excuses to rationalize our not going to confession. But they are just that — excuses. The Sacrament of Penance is the ordinary way in which Christ continues his ministry of mercy. No Catholic can afford to excuse himself from the mercy of God.
I repeat the words of the apostle Paul which are read each year in the Mass of Ash Wednesday: “We implore you in Christ’s name: be reconciled to God!” (2 Cor. 5:20). I pray that no Catholic will allow this holy season of Lent to end without making a good confession. Only in this way can we approach the Easter sacraments with the pure hearts that God seeks in us.