"A lay Catholic perspective"

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The Sacrament of Reconciliation

by Mark Fetherston


? MONG THE MOST PRECIOUS MOMENTS in my life is hearing a priest pronounce the words of absolution. The assurance that God has moved through the sacramental action of his Church to reconcile me to himself and to my brothers and sisters in Christ is so consoling as to be almost indescribable in its beauty.

There is a lot of misunderstanding about this sacrament; both our need for it and the great blessing that it is. And that is a real shame. The most important things about being on earth is to live reconciled with God and to help others come into salvation. The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is wonderfully effective at this. It brings us into God's forgiveness and peace, uniting us in an intimate friendship with him, strengthens virtue within us, and breaks down walls of enmity between us so that we might effectively love and support one another in Jesus Christ.

A second conversion

Conversion is not a one-time event in our lives. There is, of course, an initial conversion leading to Baptism, a sacrament that implants God's life in us and washes us clean of sin. But, there is also an ongoing or second conversion, that continues throughout our lives. This second conversion occurs as we are convinced by the Holy Spirit about sin, about who is in the right and about judgement (cf. Jn 16:8 ff), and moved to respond to God's merciful love with repentant hearts. As we discover the depths of God's love for us we cannot help but be moved by a deep sorrow for our sins. By meditating on the greatest act of love, the passion of our Lord Jesus, we come to be repulsed by our sins and long to respond with love to the God who first loved us.

Our Faith is exciting, dynamic and important. Just coming to discover the truth of what we believe changes our lives. Many have little awareness of the power of the sacrament of Penance to transform us. Our ignorance is not the fault of the Church, who has been faithfully administering this vehicle of grace, and teaching about it in rich and varied ways. However, Penance is such a powerful tool for dispensing the grace of God and destroying the works of darkness that Satan cannot stand it, and so he tries to rob us of this sacrament by an intense attack of mockery upon it. The first plank of his platform is to deny the reality of sin. The enemy cannot decrease the power of the Sacrament of Penance, so he tries to discourage us from receiving it.

The reality of sin

Although modern society revels in sin, ironically, it tries to deal with sin's more overt consequences by denial. The radical nature of this denial has led our Pope to say that the greatest sin of our age is the loss of a sense of sin. Contemporary humanity has such a deadened conscience that we have lost even the ability to know we are sinning.

This deplorable condition is sought by many in our society, but it is not the liberating panacea its proponents imagine. A parallel to the loss of the sense of sin might be a human body losing its ability to discern physical pain. This would certainly take the sting out of injuries and perhaps even allow one to participate in activities that would be impossible otherwise. However, only an insane person would knowingly embrace this condition. The same condition that gives us the illusion of freedom would destroy us. Without pain we would have no way of knowing if we were injured, or dying. Losing a sense of sin is like that. Illusory "freedom" gives us licence to destroy our souls for all eternity.

The fallen world invests tremendous amounts of time, energy and money trying to find ways to eradicate guilt and other psycho/spiritual difficulties it experiences from sin. Some people make entire careers, and sometimes amass great fortunes, from helping others construct and destroy walls of denial, self-justification, or ego-enhancement. Modern mass media anaesthetizes a whole generation to the voice of conscience, all the while leaving us less able to cope with the emptiness and agony that result from a life based on sensory stimulation; instead they promote the demons of greed, lust and violence.

The greatest evil of all sin is that it is an offense against God. When we sin, we fracture our relationship with God; we also break faith with the Church, and so we need reconciliation with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

If you are in serious sin now

If you find yourself caught up in serious sin, the thing to do is to stop. Right now. Do not put the decision off. Whatever it is, just quit. God's grace is present in the Church, and his mercy is for you. God's grace is powerful, and no matter how hopeless a situation looks, if you turn to Jesus you can be forgiven and restored to the life of God. Nothing is more important than this. Please, stop whatever it is that is destroying you. That is the first step. Then go to the sacrament of Reconciliation. God does not want to destroy you. He wants to set you free, and bring you to heaven. Give him a chance.

What is the priest going to think of you?

This can be a stumbling block. It is kind of ludicrous: we are considering our eternal destination and we worry about what someone will think of us. On the other hand, it is pretty normal. There can be a lot of "free-floating" fear involved when we bring darkness within us to the light. A sense of perspective helps. Consider this. Priests devote their entire lives to helping people come to Jesus Christ. The greater the darkness, the more joy there is in the victory of Jesus! (The 15th chapter of Luke has some wonderful insights into this.)

I spoke with one priest who offered a refreshing perspective when I asked him how he would feel if a close friend confessed an embarrassing sin to him. He said, "I am only human. I already have my opinions of my friends. When someone I care for confesses a serious sin, I think, 'Man, if he is such a good person carrying all that garbage around inside, imagine how wonderful he will be now that he has dumped it off.'"

Our priests are remarkable men.

Why not go straight to God?

When we start talking about the sacrament of Penance, one thing that often comes up is the old Protestant sentiment, "Why should I go through a priest when I can confess my sins directly to God?" This is an understandable position. Who really enjoys the thought of sitting down with a priest and accusing themselves of all manner of unholy thoughts, words and actions? Especially if the sins are more serious.

However, the "I-go-directly-to-God" position is simply not honest. Those who maintain they only confess directly to God, are in fact avoiding confessing to anyone. This is running from the reality of sin. The very nature of sin is deception. There is always a natural tendency to minimize our own responsibility for sin, and to provide ourselves with every benefit of the doubt... even when there is no room for doubt. In other words, we lie to ourselves. It is very, very difficult for us to appreciate the magnitude of the evil of sin.

Saint John wrote, A man who does not love the brother he can see cannot love God, whom he has never seen (1 Jn 4:20). Could this apply to the confession of sins? If we are not willing to confess our sin to the brother we can see, how can we possibly think we are confessing to the God we cannot see?

Jesus exercised the power to forgive sins in his life on earth. Immediately upon appearing to his apostles after his resurrection, Jesus commissioned his Church to carry on his work, saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained" (Jn 20:23). Thus Jesus instituted the sacrament of Penance. The going-straight-to-God approach is not the way Jesus set things up. Only God can forgive sin. Therefore, we should approach reconciliation with God in the way that Jesus left us.


The Second Book of Kings (chapter 5) gives us a fascinating account of Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army. Naaman's victories on the battlefield caused him to be held in great esteem by the king of Syria. Tragically, Naaman came down with leprosy.

Naaman's wife heard from a slave that there was a prophet in Israel who could cure Naaman's leprosy. When Naaman related this to the king, he sent Naaman to the king of Israel with a letter asking the king to cure his disease. The Israelite king was greatly distressed because he thought the Syrian king, who had already been conducting raids into Israel, was just creating an excuse to launch a full-scale invasion. The prophet Elisha heard about this, and sent for Naaman with the promise, "I'll show him that there is a prophet in Israel!"

When Naaman arrived, Elisha did not even go out to meet him, but instead, sent instructions that the Lord would heal Naaman when he bathed seven times in the Jordan River. Amazingly Naaman was reluctant to obey Elisha. He was incensed that he had not been told to wash in the one of the rivers of Damascus; reasoning that those two rivers were better than the rivers of Israel. Fortunately for him, his servant prevailed upon Naaman to follow Elisha's instructions, pointing out that he would have gladly embraced a difficult task in order to be healed. Why not do the easy thing?

Reflecting on this passage I wonder, was Naaman a complete idiot? Was he absolutely out of his mind? He was suffering from a disease that would disfigure and eventually kill him. A holy prophet intervened with a simple instruction that would save him. And Naaman was so proud he almost did not obey him! What could he have been thinking?

The more things change...

On the other hand, maybe Naaman was not so abnormal. In our own day people struggle with all kinds of fears and anxieties, addictions, and self-destructive urges. Marriages are breaking down in numbers that are unprecedented. Young people are growing up with a sense of hopelessness, emptiness and rebellion. We clearly suffer from leprosy of the soul. Jesus, someone far greater than Elisha of Naaman's day, has instituted a sacrament whereby we can be healed, cleansed, restored, forgiven and reconciled with God.

The Church is a sign and a means though which the mercy of God comes into our world, and the sacramental ministry of God's mercy belongs to those to whom this is entrusted by Jesus. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us:

Christ willed that in her prayer and life and action his whole Church should be the sign and instrument of the forgiveness and reconciliation that he acquired for us at the price of his blood. But he entrusted the exercise of the power of absolution to the apostolic ministry which he charged with the "ministry of reconciliation"... (1442).

"Be reconciled to God"

Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians, We implore you, in Christ's name: be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:20). This is one of the most profound descriptions of the ministry of the Church. The Church has the mission of calling the world to be reconciled with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Acting with the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church also provides the means by which this call is fulfilled. Jesus himself has commissioned and empowered her to do this.

For me, the essential experience of being a Catholic is that of continuing conversion. It seems the more I discover the greatness of the mystery of our Faith, the love relationship between God and man, the more my sinful attitudes and actions become exposed, along with my need to enter into reconciliation with God. The sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation was instituted by Jesus for just this purpose, and is a tremendous help. It provides an opportunity to confront sins and imperfections in the context of God's merciful love. It offers the assurance of reconciliation with God and with our brothers and sisters in the Church.

The sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation has tremendous power to help us draw near to God and live in his peace. As we come before the merciful judgement of the Father we are formed in mercy and become instruments of mercy and peace.