If anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure…to you all.
—2 CORINTHIANS 2:5
Who do my sins hurt? Who do your sins hurt? Only you? A popular misconception is that our sins hurt only us. It’s common for me to hear someone say, “What’s the big deal with (blank)? I’m only hurting myself.” OK, I’ll say this as lovingly as I can: “That’s a crock!” Sin runs deeper than that.
You know, at the beginning of Mass we say, as a community, “I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned.” Ever notice that we’re admitting wrongdoing not only to God but also to the community of believers assembled with us?
Did you know that the sacrament of reconciliation didn’t always take place in a safe little confessional box? No, it was far more public and far more embarrassing, but people admitted their sins, anyway. Why you may ask? What the people back then realized—that we don’t realize now or don’t want to admit that we realize—is that sin hurts everyone. When I sin, it doesn’t just hurt me; it hurts others, some whom I know about and some whom I don’t.
Have you ever sat in the nonsmoking section near the smoking section? Sin can be like secondhand smoke. The sinner might not realize or admit that his or her smoke is having an effect on others. Those inhaling the smoke may or may not realize it, but the smoke does have an unhealthy effect. You see, once the smoke (sin) is out there, there’s no way to control its effects or its harm to other people.
I have had a number of friends who think that if they smoked out, or drank, or whatever, those decisions and their consequences stopped with them. That’s not the case. We are all one body, those who realize it and those who don’t. Our actions, good or bad, affect other people.
All of our actions matter. I took a hard look at my own life recently to see if any of my own secondhand sin might be making others’ faith walks more difficult. The answer was yes, and I’ve had to make some tough changes. But by the grace of God and prayers from fellow Christians, like you, I continue to get better.
How about you? Any changes needed? Know this, at the very least: I am praying for you. That I promise.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Why do Catholics have to go to a priest to be forgiven? Have you ever been asked that? Why can’t we just think about what we did wrong and say we’re sorry in our minds, by ourselves?
Think about confession for a second. Why would God want to humble us so badly by making us share our faults and sins with another person? Now read the above verse again. Do you see how Jesus gives his apostles, the first members of Christ’s sacramental priesthood, the power to forgive or not to forgive? This is vital for understanding reconciliation.
Say that you work at a remote gas station and a car (without GPS) pulls in to ask for directions. Now, when the driver gets out, how do you know what directions to give? How do you know whether to tell him he’s on the right road or the wrong road? Do you just guess where he wants to go based on looking at the guy, or do you listen to him first?
It’s the same way with a priest during the sacrament of reconciliation. By necessity, a priest can know whether to forgive sins or retain them (as this verse from St. John affirms) only once he has heard them. Hearing the sins is essential.
But we still have the question of why go to a priest in the first place. Some of you might say that a priest can’t forgive sins anyway; only God can do that.
Well, we need to understand the role of the priest in during this sacrament. We aren’t confessing our sins to the priest, but to God. The priest is acting in persona Christi, which is a big way of saying, “in the person of Christ.” At that moment in this sacrament, through the sacramental grace and power of the priest’s ordination, the priest is standing in the physical place of Jesus. That’s why the priest says, “I absolve you,” and not, “Jesus absolves you.” (It’s the same during the consecration at Mass, when the priest says, “This is my body,” not, “This is his body,” or, “This is Jesus’s body.”)
Reconciliation is offered at about 90 percent of all Catholic churches on Saturday afternoons. Consider this a gentle reminder from your big brother, Mark. I say it because I love you, but not at much as he does.