by Father Matthew Long
“Confession is good for the soul,” all of us have heard this statement many times. I used to hear it before I became Catholic and did not understand the truth of the statement. When I became a lawyer I had misgivings about confessions, especially if I was representing a criminal defendant. As a member of the faithful however, confession has always been an integral part of my sacramental life. Many people only go to confession when they are “forced” to do so, namely, preceding their First Holy Communion and Confirmation. I, like so many others, planned to do this as well. As I approached the Easter Vigil in 2000, I knew I would be forced to go to confession before I could enter into full communion with the Church. I approached this sacrament with fear and trepidation. I had to confess everything from my baptism at the age of 11 to this moment 13 years later. I hate to admit it, but I was not a saint in high school and college. I made many poor choices and I had to tell a priest what they were. I resolved I would go this one time and then I would revert to my Baptist practice of asking God to forgive me. I knew and still know that God is not bound by the sacraments and he can forgive me anything if I only show Him that I am sorry, that I am contrite. Therefore this decision of mine made perfect sense.
I can still see the face of Msgr. Bergreen at St. Agnes in Baton Rouge as my face burned with embarrassment. I can still hear my words haltingly being forced out of my mouth. I was humiliated to have to tell this man of God what all I had done. When I paused for breath as my mind raced he said, “Today you begin with a clean slate.” I felt relieved that it was over and in my mind I knew I would never do it again. But that night at the Easter Vigil everything changed when I approached the priest who had heard my confession and he smiled at me. In that moment I felt God’s mercy and forgiveness in a tangible way. I knew that I was forgiven. From that moment on I became a confession junkie. I went as often as I could.
After this I felt it was incumbent upon me to better understand the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The best place to begin to better understand it is from Sacred Scripture. The most important passage regarding this sacrament is John 20:21-23:
“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”
It is clear from this passage that Christ gives authority to the Apostles to forgive sins.This authority rests with the Church, which is ruled by the successors to the Apostles: the pope and bishops in union with him.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-42) is one of the most beautiful expressions given by Jesus of how confession should work. The son sins through his desire to have all that he would inherit and he then goes and lives a life of dissipation, squandering his inheritance. After he has hit rock bottom, a Jewish boy feeding swine, he realizes his mistakes and desires to be reconciled to his father. He then begins to pray and prepare himself for confession. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” He then makes his way back to his father, preparing the whole way for his confession. When he reaches his destination he begins his confession and is immediately forgiven. Every time I avail myself of the Sacrament of Reconciliation I experience the same mercy and forgiveness Jesus describes in this parable.
The best confession ever recorded can also be found in scripture. In the crucifixion, as recounted by Luke (Luke 23:33-43), Jesus and the two thieves hang upon the three crosses. The Good Thief, as he is known, admits that he has sinned and asks the Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. Jesus responds, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” We have this same opportunity to receive God’s mercy and grace each time we make our way to the confessional.
During this Year of Mercy the Holy Father has encouraged all of us to make confession a greater part of our sacramental life. Confession is one of the few sacraments that we can avail ourselves of multiple times in our lives.
It is one of the sacraments of healing. It is the medical clinic of the Divine Physician. The forgiveness of sins is the most important part of this undervalued and underused sacrament, but the healing aspect of it is the most unappreciated part. We are reconciled to God, we are forgiven our sins, we are relieved of our guilt and shame and we are given the grace to sin no more. Our souls are also healed. When we speak the sins aloud to our priest, they lose their power over us. They are no longer our secret shame or our hidden guilt or our skeleton in the closet. In that moment they are brought forth to the light of Christ and we can see them for the first time clearly. We can see that in Christ’s light they lose their power and are vanquished.
This is why confession is good for the soul. It is good for the soul not only because it cleanses it, but because it frees it, too. Confession allows the soul to reach its full potential. It allows the soul the opportunity to shine forth like the noon day sun as it basks in the glory of the grace of God. I have experienced that moment so often in my own life when I hear those glorious words spoken by a priest. Those words that take my faith in God’s forgiveness to a concrete reality as I hear His duly appointed representative speak them aloud:
“God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
As a priest I am privileged in a unique way to not only be a penitent, but also a confessor. As a confessor I take the sacramental seal very seriously. If I break this seal, then I can only be reconciled to God and the Church by the Holy Father. This seal has given me the freedom I need to make a good confession as a penitent and it gives me the freedom to truly be a vessel of mercy for the Lord as a confessor. The seal requires me to forget everything I hear in confession and to never speak of what goes on, not even whether or not someone has made a confession. Every priest I know takes this sacred trust given to us by the grace of orders very seriously. By doing this we give every baptized Catholic the opportunity to experience what the Prodigal Son experienced, what the woman caught in adultery experienced and what the good thief experienced.
In a General Audience on February 19, 2014, the Holy Father spoke about the sacrament of reconciliation. He said, “It is not enough to ask for the Lord’s forgiveness in our own minds and hearts, but rather it is also necessary to humbly and trustfully confess our sins to a minister of the Church.” His reasoning for this beyond the authority given the Church by Christ was that the priest as a confessor represents God and the community as a whole. He reminded us that when we sin it is not only God that we hurt, but our brothers and sisters and the Church as well. Therefore it is necessary not only to confess to God, but ask our brothers and sisters and the Church for forgiveness as well. His words “Do not be afraid of Confession” should encourage us all.
I urge all of you to listen to the Holy Father’s encouragement, to heed the call of the Church and listen to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. This moment of grace is one the Church asks us to participate in at least once a year if we have mortal sins upon our soul in conjunction with our Easter Obligation. Most of us, however, go beyond our Easter Obligation and receive communion every time we attend Mass, which was the desire of St. Pope Pius X. If we receive communion more frequently, I think it would be wise and prudent as stewards of our immortal souls to avail ourselves upon the sacrament of reconciliation more often as well.