While recent studies have shown a significant decline in the number of people who regularly celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, there is another side to the story. Church leaders are trying to address these results, and it appears that something is beginning to change for the better.
In Lent of 2007, the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, initiated a program called “The Light Is on for You.” Through billboards on busy streets, posters in buses and subways, and notices in parish bulletins, the archdiocese announced that every church would be open for Confession for at least an hour and a half every Wednesday in Lent.
It was a bit of a risk. What if nobody came? What if all the priests ended up sitting in empty confessionals all evening long? What if only one or two “regular penitents” came, but no one else?
Fortunately, the program was a success. People who had been away from Confession for many years—as well as people who had been away from the Lord—found a warm welcome as they came back and unburdened themselves. Parents whose weekends were taken up with errands, housework, and youth sporting events, took turns going to Confession—and taking their children with them. Many appreciated the chance to slow down in the middle of the week and reconnect with the Lord. For some, it was an experience of deep conversion. For others, it was a chance to get clean again. But for everyone, it was an opportunity to experience firsthand the miracle of being reconciled with God. program was so successful, in fact, the diocese offered it again this past Lent and is looking into continuing the practice in the future. “Hundreds or thousands of people experienced the joy of returning to the Sacrament of Reconciliation,” the archbishop said, “many of whom had not been to Confession for decades.”
Through programs like this one, it is becoming clear that more people want to go to Confession than the statistics might indicate. For some, all they needed was a warm invitation. For others, the advertisements served as a daily reminder and encouragement to move beyond the hesitancy and even fear and step into a church once again.
A Sacrament of Forgiveness. So what exactly happens in Confession? What does God do that causes people to feel a sense of relief, freedom, and comfort after they confess? What is it that draws people to the confessional . . . even if they don’t recognize it themselves?
The first and most important thing God does in Confession is that he washes away all our sins and restores our innocence. As we mentioned in our first article, it is as if he throws our sins “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). As far as God is concerned, the sins no longer exist, and so no judgment or condemnation remains. We are completely free!
When you go to Confession, keep this truth in your mind, and believe with all of your heart that you are no longer guilty. Believe, too, that Jesus sees so much more of you than the sins you have committed or the weaknesses you might have. Remember that whenever he looks at you—and this is especially true in Confession—he sees you both as you are right now and according to his glorious vision for your life. He sees you both in the present and according to his future plans for you.
A Sacrament with Vision. Look at the apostle Peter as an example. He was supposed to be the head of all Jesus’ disciples, but when the time came to stand up for his Master, Peter denied that he even knew him. The guilt and shame caused by his failure must have stayed on his conscience even after the joy of Easter Sunday. He may have even repented to God in prayer for having abandoned Jesus. But Jesus knew Peter needed something else.
Taking him aside one day, Jesus asked, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord,” Peter answered. “You know that I love you.” But that wasn’t enough. Jesus asked him the same question again, and Peter responded the same way. Then Jesus asked again, and Peter—this time a little hurt—again reaffirmed his love. Jesus intended each of these questions as a way to show Peter that he had forgiven him for the three times that Peter denied knowing the Lord. How merciful of Jesus! He spent time with Peter, reminding him of his good qualities and removing his guilt over his failure.
But that’s not all Jesus did. Each time that Peter told Jesus that he loved him, Jesus replied, “Feed my lambs. . . . Tend my sheep. . . . Feed my sheep” (John 21:15,16,17). He didn’t bother to say, “I forgive you.” He didn’t bother to dredge up Peter’s past and tell him where he had gone wrong. Instead, Jesus simply brushed past Peter’s sins and focused instead on the work he had for him to do. He raised Peter’s vision, filling him with a sense of mission and purpose. And he did it so that Peter would not feel bound by his past but would be energized and filled with hope for his future.
This is what Jesus wants to do for us every time we go to Confession. He wants to convince us that our lives can change and that we really can become holy. He wants us to move beyond our sins to focus instead on being his instruments in this world. Yes, even with our sins and failings, we are still destined for sanctity, for service to the church, and ultimately for heaven itself! All we have to do is try our best to avoid sin, to serve the Lord with our lives, and to keep moving forward in faith and trust. He will always be with us to help us, to forgive us, and to commission us once again.
A Sacrament of Healing and Transformation. Brothers and sisters, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is about so much more than having our past sins forgiven. That is an important part of the sacrament, but there is so much more that God wants us to experience. If Confession were limited to dealing with the past, we might find ourselves trapped in patterns of sin and never able to get out of them. Of course, we could be forgiven, but there would be no power for change or transformation in our lives.
But God has so much more in store for us than a simple pardon for past offenses. In its section on the sacraments, the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists Reconciliation as one of the “Sacraments of Healing,” along with the Anointing of the Sick. Where one sacrament—Anointing—opens us up to physical healing, the other—Confession—opens us up to interior, spiritual healing. Through regular Confession, we can do more than just bring our sinful actions to the Lord for forgiveness. We can also bring our sinful motives, our sinful patterns of thinking, and our sinful lusts and desires to the Lord so that he can put them to death and help us develop more godly dispositions and goals.
This is one reason why the church encourages us to go to Confession not just for mortal sins but for all our sins. It is so that through regular, heartfelt encounters with Jesus we can begin to see healing and restoration in the areas in our lives that are out of God’s order. It is so that we can monitor our progress and see ourselves transformed over time. But most important, it is so that we can receive the heavenly grace that we all need to make these changes. Through the power that is part and parcel of this sacrament, we can see spiritual strongholds come tumbling down (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). We can see long-standing patterns of anger, lust, hatred, envy, and many others melt away as Jesus brings his forgiving, healing touch to our lives.
The Goal of Confession. Clearly, Confession is not just about getting cleansed of our sins. In this sacrament, we also receive the grace to “sin no more” (John 8:11). And with the barriers of sin removed, Confession gives us a greater hope of being united more and more deeply with Jesus. Confession is also a key way that we can see our minds transformed and renewed, as it gives us the grace to deal with inner drives such as envy, fear, selfishness, and anger. And finally, Confession is one way that our vision can be expanded, convincing us that God wants to give us “a future full of hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
Healing, vision, transformation, and forgiveness: This great sacrament is a precious gift from God. May we all take advantage of this gift, so that we can know the joy of being united deeply with Jesus and reconciled with one another!