Let’s be honest. Receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation is often uncomfortable. No one likes to admit their deepest, darkest failings to another person. Going to Confession can be embarrassing and awkward. I’ve been going to Confession on and off for 55 years (mostly off). Even now, when I enter the confessional, I am often transformed into that bewildered seven-year-old who made his First Confession in 1964.
I can remember getting prepared for my First Confession. The nuns who ran our parish catechism class tried get us to examine our consciences. They asked us a series of questions: “Were you mean to your brothers and sisters?” Yes, but they deserved it.
“Did you ever steal anything?” Yes, but I deserved it.
“Did you ever lie to anyone?” Nope. Oh wait, that’s a lie.
Early on the morning of my First Confession, I came up with a short list of sins. But as soon as I finished saying, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” the stress of being in that confessional with a nine-foot tall priest (well, he seemed that imposing to me) caused my mind to go blank. I stammered and stumbled for a few moments, then finally squeaked out a couple of bad behaviors the nuns had mentioned during catechism class. The only problem was, I hadn’t done any of those things. As the priest absolved me of someone else’s sins, I finally remembered my list of sins. At that point, however, I was not about to interrupt him. So, to my unused list of sins I added a new one: lying to a priest during First Confession. My Second Confession was sure to be a doozy.
I left the confessional and one of the nuns smiled at me and whispered, “Don’t you feel better now that your sins are forgiven?” I nodded yes, but inside I was thinking, “Not really, since I just lied to a priest.”
Making my way to the altar rail, I knelt down and promptly forgot what prayers the priest told to me to say as penance. I silently recited the only two prayers that came to mind: “Bless us, O Lord, for these thy gifts…” and, “Now I lay me down to sleep…”
For many people, emotional baggage from childhood still haunts us when it comes to Confession. That is so unfortunate because it makes us avoid one of the most joyful and wonderful gifts the Lord ever gave to us: the Sacrament of forgiveness.
The purpose of sacraments is to infuse us with supernatural grace. The Sacrament of Reconciliation gives us the grace of divine forgiveness in a way we cannot experience outside of the sacrament.
Many people say, “Well, I can confess my sins to God in prayer without a priest, and God will forgive me.”
This may be true, but when we confess our sins to God privately in prayer outside the confessional, the problem is not that God won’t forgive us, the problem is that we won’t forgive ourselves.
You see, there is something unique about confessing our failings out loud to another human being. We really “get it off our chest” and “out of our system” in a way that rarely happens in private prayer. When you hear the words of absolution spoken by an ordained priest—at that moment a human conduit for the power of Christ—you know in the depths of your soul that you have truly been washed clean. Asking for God’s forgiveness in private prayer is not nearly as convincing.
Despite many scandals over the centuries—especially in recent years—the Catholic Church is still the only institution in the history of the world that offers answers to the two deepest longings of the human heart: true forgiveness of sin and eternal life in Heaven once our time on earth is over. Both of these awesome gifts are available because of the power and love of Jesus, but the Church established by the Lord is the vehicle He chose to make these gifts available to us.
Confession (or Reconciliation) is one of the most joyful and liberating things a person can do. Don’t be afraid of this wonderful sacrament. Please force yourself to go and receive God’s forgiveness and grace. And take it from me, it works much better if you don’t lie to the priest.