When I was a parish priest, I often heard confessions of the elementary and religious education students. The first confessions of second-graders, in particular, called to mind the words of Christ: “Unless you become like little children you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” There is an openness and trust among the very young that enable them to truly “celebrate” the forgiveness that is Christ’s gift in the confessional.
With fewer adults going to confession, it is often said that people are afraid to go to the sacrament of reconciliation, or that they simply don’t believe that it is necessary. There is a lot of truth to that assessment, but I think there is also another reason.
As we grow older, we find ourselves confessing the same things, and we begin to think that somehow we have failed or that the sacrament of penance has failed. We begin to feel embarrassed at having to repeat the same things, or we think we have nothing to confess. So we stop going.
I think that there are two approaches that we should keep in mind to remedy this problem.
The first is the need to develop a more mature examination of conscience. If we are growing spiritually, we realize that our sins in grade school are augmented by new temptations in high school and college. These, in turn, change as we grow older. Spiritual maturity is also marked by the realization that sin is not just a transgression against a moral law. Rather, sin means “missing the mark” by what I do or fail to do when it comes to the supreme law that we are to “love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves.”
I often quote the saying that “the only tragedy in life is not to become a saint.” We cannot fulfill the purpose for which we were created unless we become saints (either here and/or in purgatory). Sainthood is to be found not in some unreal perfection, but in our constant struggle against sin, with the help of confession, until our dying day. Holiness is the standard by which our eternal destiny will be measured. It must also be the guiding standard of our examination of conscience.
A second way of approaching an aversion to confession is to reflect more deeply on what it means to be a sinner. The truth is that every single person remains a sinner to his or her dying day. That is why Christ alone is the Savior, and that is why we need him. Only he can save us. Furthermore the personality, temptations and sins of one person are not those of another. Whatever our particular infirmities, Christ says: “Healthy people do not need a doctor; sick people do. I have come, not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
All the great saints have had a profound sense of their wretchedness and weakness, their inability to save themselves, and they all went to confession frequently.
This Lent, I hope many more people in our archdiocese will to go to the sacrament of reconciliation and start to go regularly. Confessions are being heard in all of our parishes every Monday during this season. Don’t be put off because it has been a very long time since your last confession and you have forgotten what to do or say. The priest is there to help you. What is important is that you come. We will take care of the rest.
Neglecting confession is to our spiritual impoverishment and peril, because it was divinely instituted by Christ for our healing, peace and, above all, growth in holiness. Lent is a perfect time to focus on this sacrament of conversion, penance, forgiveness and reconciliation.
In conclusion, I want to echo the words of St. Paul: “We are ambassadors for Christ, God as it were appealing through us. We implore you, in Christ’s name: be reconciled to God! ... Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor 5:20; 6:2) I hope that you will make a special effort to go to confession this Lent, especially if you have not been for a long time. I know that you will be happy if you do.