Have you ever felt just a little bit jealous of the people who met Jesus while he walked the earth? Don’t you wish you had the chance to see him, just as Mary Magdalene, Peter, and all the others did? Wouldn’t it be marvelous to actually hear Jesus’ voice and experience his touch? Of all the people who encountered Jesus, it must have been the ones who experienced his mercy who were touched the most deeply. Think of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11).
Imagine what it must have felt like when Jesus looked into her eyes and said, “Neither do I condemn you” (8:11). Or what about the woman with a sinful reputation, who wept over Jesus and anointed his feet with perfume (Luke 7:36-50)? Imagine how comforting—even transforming—it must have been to hear him say, “Your sins are forgiven. . . . Go in peace” (7:48,50). The list goes on—the paralyzed man whose friends lowered him through the roof (Mark 2:1-12), the thief on the cross next to Jesus (Luke 23:39-42), and even the great St. Peter (John 21:14-17).
It would be understandable if we were somewhat envious of these people. But at the same time, God hasn’t left us alone. We all have the opportunity to hear him say the very same things to us. We all have the opportunity to know his mercy in an intimate, personal way. And it happens in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
A Lost Sacrament? It’s no secret that Confession, as this sacrament is popularly called, has fallen on hard times recently. According to a 2005 survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, only 26 percent of adult Catholics in the United States go to Confession at least once a year. A similar survey conducted by Notre Dame University in the early 1980s found that 76 percent confessed at least once a year.
What happened? Sociologists, bishops, psychologists, and other professionals have offered so many reasons for this rapid decline that it’s hard to point to one clear answer. Some think we have lost our sense of sin. Others attribute it to the growing shortage of priests. Still others blame the liturgical changes of Vatican II. Whatever the case, it seems that many people have left Confession behind because they don’t consider it necessary to take part in a “ritual” to have their sins forgiven. “Why go talk to a priest”, they ask, “when I can go to Jesus directly in prayer?”
There is merit to this way of thinking. After all, it is true that we can meet the Lord in personal, private prayer and confess our sins to him. But there are limitations to this approach as well, the most important being the lack of personal contact that is so vital to our ability to experience God’s mercy. This is especially true when it comes to very serious sins, which can haunt our consciences and memories no matter how many times we pray privately. In truth, there is a real grace in hearing words of assurance from another person. But there is another reason why sacramental confession is so important—and it has to do with the nature of sacraments themselves.
An Amazing Transformation. As Catholics, we believe that each sacrament takes ordinary matter and transforms it into something spiritual and infused with divine grace. The highest example of this is the Eucharist, in which bread—mere flour and water—is transformed into the very body of Jesus, and wine—fermented grapes—actually becomes his saving blood. It is why we believe that water and oil in the sacrament of baptism really and actually wash away our sin and empower us to become prophetic voices in the world.
In the same way, in Confession, another marvelous—and even more amazing—transformation takes place. It’s not just a wafer of bread or a cup of water that is changed. It is a living, breathing, thinking, loving—yes, even sinful—human being who is transformed. With the first words of a sacramental confession, Jesus is present through the “matter” of the priest, similar to the way he is present through the “matter” of bread and wine. It is Jesus who is listening as we pour out our hearts. It is Jesus looking on us with compassion and understanding. And it is Jesus who tells us that our sins have been forgiven and that we can now “go in peace.”
How amazing! When a priest hears our confession, he is not just “standing in” for Jesus or representing him in some kind of symbolic way. Rather, he is acting in the person of Christ, just as he does when he is celebrating Mass. He becomes the vessel for Jesus to act on so intimate a level. His becomes the voice of Christ as he absolves us of sins. His are the hands of Christ as he blesses and embraces us. It is as if we have crossed a portal into heaven—or to first-century Galilee—and are face-to-face with Jesus himself!
The “Seal” of Confession. This teaching about meeting Jesus in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is also what stands behind the practice called the “seal of Confession.” Essentially, the seal holds that no priest is ever allowed to reveal what anyone has confessed to him. This is considered an absolute law of the church, and any priest who does break the seal is immediately excommunicated.
The reason behind the seal seems obvious. First, a guarantee of confidentiality encourages us to bring everything to the Lord. There is no need to hide our sins, whether out of shame or embarrassment, if we know that they will never be repeated. Rather, we can let it all go and have no fear.
But there is another reason for the seal that is more fundamental and more spiritual. Confessors are forbidden to reveal people’s sins precisely because they are acting in the person of Jesus and not on their own behalf. And whenever Jesus forgave people’s sins, the forgiveness was absolute. Scripture tells us that God removes our transgressions from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). Similarly, many saints have described God’s mercy as an ocean, vast and deep. When our sins are cast into this ocean, they are overwhelmed by its waters and never seen or heard from again.
This is the depths of God’s mercy! When he spoke to the woman caught in adultery, Jesus asked, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She looked around and found that they had all gone. Jesus went on. “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (John 8:10,11). Through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, not only is our sin washed away but there is now no opportunity for anyone else to accuse or condemn us. Our confessor cannot, and no one else needs ever to hear about it. Of course, we can choose to share it, perhaps so that we can reconcile with someone we have hurt or so that we can make restitution for our offense. But that decision is completely up to us.
Go in Peace. Did you ever notice that when we talk about participating in any sacrament, we use the same word: celebration. We know what it means to celebrate the Mass, to celebrate a baptism, or to celebrate a wedding. In the same way, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is meant to be a celebration as well. It may not seem so at first. After all, it’s never enjoyable to look your weaknesses and failings in the eye and own up to them.
But while we may go into Confession feeling burdened, guilty, hesitant, or embarrassed, we should never have to leave the same way. Every Confession should be a conversion experience—a time when we move from darkness to light, from sin to forgiveness, from guilt to freedom and redemption. Every time we come face-to-face with Jesus in this sacrament, he takes away our sins, lifts our burdens, and assures us once again of his deep, joyful, and unconditional love for us. “Come to me,” he invites us, “all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
So don’t let your sins or failings hold you back. Instead, come to the Lord and lay them at his feet. Let him forgive you, strengthen you, and refresh you. Let him draw you into his passionate embrace of love and acceptance. That’s how the celebration begins! All of heaven rejoices whenever a sinner repents, and we—sinful but repentant—are invited to join in the fun! Just as the father of the prodigal son called for a feast when his boy returned home, your heavenly Father sings, dances, and exults over you when you repent. And just as Jesus told those who came to him, he wants to tell you: “Go in peace.” He wants you to be cleansed, set free—and just plain happy.
Now that’s a great reason to celebrate, isn’t it?