Confession: The Sacrament of Reconciliation

Few people would claim to be perfect, and most of us are aware at times of needing to be forgiven. On the ordinary human level, there are times when we know that we have hurt or betrayed someone, and that only that person’s willingness to forgive can restore the relationship. It is just the same in our relationship with God.

Even in a so-called non-judgemental society, to people with little narrow minds, the law breaker (or sinner) always has to be punished. There is no understanding of repentance and forgiveness. Fortunately the mind of God is neither small nor narrow. The word of Jesus always combines a great gentleness with the challenge to the sinner to repent.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation has a lot to do with recognising the truth and accepting it. To begin with there is the truth about myself, good and bad; the kind of person I am; the fact that I am not all that God has called me to be; the aspects of my life in which there is room for growth and change. This kind of self-understanding comes more easily if a person can get into the habit of reflecting regularly on her life in the light of the Gospel. Reflection is a very different thing from anxious worrying. It is simply a question of taking time and making space to reconsider, in a calm quiet way, events and activities which may have taken place in a more rushed atmosphere or in an un-thought-out way. Reflection can make a person more sensitive to ways of living and attitudes which are good as well as to those which are not so good.

But far more significant than either me or my sins is the truth about God; that, even in my sins, he has not stopped loving me. If our hearts are open to the words of Jesus, and not just to the parts of it that we find easy to accept, then we will understand both of these truths and, while a sense of guilt on its own can do nothing for us, the awareness of God’s love, together with the sense of our own sinfulness, is what encourages us to turn back to God and literally sets us free.

“What’s the point in telling your sins to a priest?”, people sometimes ask. “I just tell God I’m sorry, surely that’s enough” And true enough, God can forgive sins whenever and however he wants to. Yet its interesting to see that, while there has been a decline in the practise of sacramental Confession in recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of people making use of opportunities such as co-counselling in the course of which they tell another person in confidence about their hopes and fears, their failures and their progress in overcoming difficulties. This would seem to suggest that ‘confession’ in some form responds to a genuine human need.

Jesus never actually said that we should always confess our sins in detail. There are other times when we ask God for forgiveness, like at the beginning of Mass, or perhaps if we pray about the successes and failures of the day before going to sleep at night. But at the same time, if we look at what happens in the Gospels, it seems that Jesus understood the human need of people to be reconciled on a very personal level. Zacchaeus came to Jesus and admitted that he had dealt unjustly in the collection of taxes, and he was forgiven and welcomed into the company of Christ’s friends. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus paints the picture of a repentant son coming back and apologising to his father for the way in which he has wasted his inheritance, and shows us the father standing on the doorstep, watching out for his son to return. Franco Zeffirelli, in his epic film “Jesus of Nazareth” has a scene in which Jesus uses this parable both to encourage the repentance of Zacchaeus, and to encourage his own disciples to accept the sincerity of his conversion and be reconciled to the man who had probably ripped off half of the people in Galilee

So the forgiveness of God, as it is portrayed in the Gospels comes about as the result of a very personal encounter between Jesus and the one who is being forgiven. In entrusting the ministry of forgiveness to his apostles and to those who came after them, Jesus indicated his wish that this opportunity of a personal encounter with a forgiving Saviour should be available to those who believed in him in future generations also. The two aspects of the Sacrament of Reconciliation which make it a genuine encounter with Jesus Christ (a Sacrament) the honest confession of sin with faith in Jesus, and the reception of His forgiveness through the ministry of the church, represented by the priest.

“We priests have received the gift of the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins, and we are responsible for this. None of us wields power over this Sacrament; rather, we are faithful servants of God’s mercy through it. Every confessor must accept the faithful as the father in the parable of the prodigal son: a father who runs out to meet his son despite the fact that he has squandered away his inheritance. Confessors are called to embrace the repentant son who comes back home and to express the joy of having him back again. Let us never tire of also going out to the other son who stands outside, incapable of rejoicing, in order to explain to him that his judgement is severe and unjust and meaningless in light of the father’s boundless mercy.” (Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, 17)