One week before Easter Vigil 2005, the RCIA class at my parish went through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Due to a pending annulment from a first marriage, I could not participate in the Sacrament. It was a difficult moment in my conversion to the
Catholic faith, because I longed to make this part of the journey with my class and be reconciled to the Lord. Even though the pending annulment meant I was not permitted to receive the Sacrament, my classmates asked me to join them in a show of love and support, and so I went along, somewhat reluctantly.
The idea of watching my friends enter the confessional and leave with clean hearts and souls (while I languished in sin and shame) weighed heavily on my mind.
Although I had a desire to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, at that point in my journey I still had lingering doubts about why I needed to seek forgiveness through a priest. While I sorted through the intellectual doubts, my spirit sensed the necessity of this act of humility and Sacrament of Reconciliation. My instincts were confirmed as I watched my new friends leave the confessional with radiant faces. The memory of it still blesses me in a profound way. After they made their confessions, some suggested that I go in to receive a blessing.
When I entered, the priest was already seated. He said something to me, and I realized that he was beginning the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I muddled through an explanation of my situation, and we talked briefly. Then, he blessed me.
It wasn’t a Sacrament; just spiritual guidance. But when I left that little room, I realized that my Protestant doubt in the confessional was gone. In fact, the experience turned my thinking around one-hundred-eighty degrees. Now, I had doubts in the validity of the Jesus-and-me style of private Protestant confession.
Somehow, I had been given the grace to recognize Jesus in His ordained one, the priest. Somehow, the Holy Spirit had helped me realize that the Sacrament of Reconciliation was not merely part of a sequence of events leading up to First Communion. The door to the confessional is the door to Jesus’ forgiveness. From that point on, I realized that the words of absolution may be spoken by a priest, but they are the words of Jesus.
In the weeks and months that followed, the desire to be made clean through this Sacrament consumed me. When I read verses from the Psalmist – verses like “Take pity on me, Lord, in your mercy; in your abundance of mercy wipe out my guilt” and “Wash me ever more from my guilt and cleanse me from my sin . . . for I know how guilty I am: my sin is always before me” – I was filled with an unquenchable desire to be reconciled to the Lord through this Sacrament.
I suppose one could contemplate the Sacrament of Reconciliation forever and never be able to grasp completely the fullness of the mystery, but I found myself trying to figure it out anyway. Why does the confessional trump individual prayers of confession? I think the question is answered in part by another verse in the Book of Psalm. “The true sacrifice is a broken spirit: a contrite and humble heart, O God, you will not refuse.”
The confessional requires humility. Pride is wrestled to the ground, giving way to a broken spirit. The net result is deep remorse and a profound desire to turn from sin and temptation (which is the definition of repentance). Private Jesus-and-Me confessions too easily segue into a mere appeasement of a guilty conscience and not true repentance. Without contrition and humility there is no forgiveness, the Psalmist says. The Lord has provided a way for me to know I am forgiven – the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I realize now that it is next to impossible to sit before a priest and speak of one’s darkest deeds without a profound sense of contrition and humility that leads to a serious desire to turn from sin.
|"As my Father has sent me, so I send you."|
And He breathed on them.
"Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven."
-Jesus to the Apostles (John 20)
If that wasn’t enough for me to embrace the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I only had to consider the Lord’s words to His Apostles, “Whatever you bind . . . whatever you loose.” Forgiveness is ours because of the Blood of Christ and His atoning work on the cross of
Calvary (something I’d always believed), but Jesus said that the one who has the authority to forgive in His name is the ordained one.
In Isaiah 61, the prophet says that we go in with ashes; we come out wearing a diadem – a crown – of forgiveness. Every priest can say what Isaiah says in the first verse of the same chapter. The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.
When my husband returned home after receiving his first Sacrament of Reconciliation, he was smiling. John doesn’t word things like I do. He sums up deep philosophical and spiritual things in user-friendly sound bites. All he said was, “Now that’s customer service at its best.”
I laughed and said, “Isn’t that the truth!”