One of my greatest joys as a priest is to be an instrument of God’s mercy to people in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Some people tell me they leave freer and with a lighter heart after hearing, “Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” I’m surprised more people don’t use the opportunity for forgiveness and grace.I hope they don’t stay away because of memories of harsh confessors or dark, scary confessionals. Reconciliation rooms I know today have priests who are welcoming and kind.
Pope Francis once told those gathered in St. Peter’s Square not to be afraid or ashamed to go to confession. You will not “encounter a severe judge there, but the immensely merciful Father. When we go to confession, we feel a bit ashamed. That happens to all of us, but we must remember this shame is a grace that prepares us for the embrace of the Father, who always forgives and always forgives everything.”
We know that confession is not the only way our sins are forgiven. When we are truly contrite and ask, God is ready to forgive. Every Mass begins with the whole community asking for forgiveness.
Why go to confession? I can list five reasons why I go.
1. I meet Jesus there. In the words of Pope Francis, again, “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth….” After his resurrection and ascension, the risen Jesus works through the Church. In the Sacrament of Penance, Jesus acts through the visible priest who is empowered to forgive sins in his name.
2. My examination of conscience serves as a reality check on whether I am being honest with myself and with God, and taking responsibility for my actions.
3. I profit from the objectivity and advice of the priest.
4. The Seal of Confession gives me the absolute assurance that what I say will not be repeated to anyone else.
5. “The forgiven penitent is reconciled with himself in his inmost being,” Pope Saint John Paul II said. As a priest, I have been hearing confessions for over 50 years. Before I was ordained, I remember a priest-teacher telling me, “You will realize many people are much holier than you are.” I find that is very true. Only mortal sins need to be confessed, but the Church recommends confessing “everyday faults” (venial sins) like envy, pride, or impatience. Doing so helps form our conscience and alerts us to harmful tendencies. Both saints and sinners profit from the sacrament.
As a confessor, I respect the conscience of those confessing. Even if people are struggling with sin, I tell them that God sees their good will and walks with them in their struggle.
Saint Augustine of Hippo said, “Whoever confesses his sin is already working with God.” The penitents’ focus is their sins. My focus is God’s love and mercy. To use the metaphor of Pope Francis, the Church is like a field hospital. Spiritual wounds are cared for—for those willing to come.