As much as we all love Seinfeld, one question we should be asking ourselves at the start of the Lenten season is how do we practice or perceive the sacrament of reconciliation. Better yet, when was the last time I went to confession?
“Be courageous, go to confession.” These were the words spoken by Pope Francis in a homily given to the audience at St. Peter’s Square on February 19th, a couple weeks prior. He explains that the when he approaches confession, he sees it as an opportunity to heal the soul, to heal the heart. Yet he stress that forgiveness is not self-providing. Forgiveness is something that one has to ask for. “It is a gift, a gift of the Holy Spirit, who fills us with the washing of mercy and grace that flows from the opened heart of the crucified and risen Christ.”1 What was once practiced commonly has now been reserved as something private, which Pope Francis says is a loss of the sacrament’s ecclesial aspect.
I too fell into this chiasm of thought believing that going to confession was a terrifying, painful, and embarrassing experience. Some experiences may depend on the particular confessor one decides to go to. However, the gravity or this weight we feel within ourselves is what we are most scared of revealing to Christ. An article from March 2012’s issue of Commonweal, entitled "The Floating Sacrament: How We Confess Today," presents three perspectives in which confession has been approached. One perspective given by Thomas K. Kuhman, a clinical psychologist, says:
The way the sacrament of reconciliation is often practiced may be reinforcing bad habits, rather than curbing them. It may be encouraging people to treat confession as a devise for the easy relief of guilty feelings, rather than as an occasion for true reconciliation with God. When penances are mechanical and easy, going to confession can become what psychologists call a “neutralization technique” –that is, a way to defuse the negative emotions one experiences as a result of one’s action.2
The intent here is not to approach confession from a purely psychological standpoint, but since many individuals are less attentive to theological dimension of confession, they place more attention to their emotional and psychological well being. How often we fall into the habit of treating confession as a quick fix for our conscience or as an easy button to ease the burden that manifests within our spiritual lives? However, Pope Francis’s frequent preaching of mercy helps us to understand that while he works to rebuild the Church during his pontificate, he calls us to rebuild ourselves continually day in and day out. Pope Francis emphasizes that this internal and spiritual building up of ourselves is done as a community:
The Christian community is the place in which the Spirit is the place in which the Spirit is made present, who renews our hearts in the love of God and makes us all brothers in one thing, Jesus Christ.3
As we begin this Lenten season with intentions of spiritual conversion or renewal, we ask ourselves what is our intent in making our confession. Is this just a means of getting some guilt off my chest? Am I truly contrite of heart that I am willing to truly open myself up to God, to not hide things from Him who knows and sees everything? Do I realize that each time in confession I am receiving the grace from the Holy Spirit and the embrace from a merciful Father? One of the best encouragements I received was from my novice master. He taught me that we must not let our sin define who we are or let sin hold us back from living the life Christ calls for each one of us. We must leave the sin at the confessional and leave again renewed and recommitted to walking the path towards holiness.
For tips on making a better confession, check out:
By Thomas Richastatter, O.F.M., S.T.D