In St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on March 28, 2014, Pope Francis was presiding over a penance service, a gathering of many priests and lay faithful for the sacrament of reconciliation, confession.
After giving the sermon, the Holy Father was being led to the confessional where he, along with about 60 other priests, would hear people’s confession, give them words of comfort and advice, and, most importantly, absolve, forgive, their sins in the name of Jesus Christ. But as Pope Francis was being led to the confessional something happened. He walked to a different confessional, one with a priest already present, and he, the pope, went to confession.
It may be surprising to think that the pope had his sins forgiven. After all, how bad could he be? But what Pope Francis was demonstrating were two very important points.
1) That all of us, every one of us, makes poor choices, has sinned, chosen ourselves over the love of God.
2) That God’s love is so amazing that he forgives the wrong we have done and joyfully welcomes us back again and again.
We all know what it is like to sin, to choose ourselves over God and then find only unhappiness in that choice. Thankfully, when we turn our hearts back to God, instead of punishing us at this moment, instead of God telling us, “I told you so,” he welcomes us back. Hence, Jesus established the sacrament of reconciliation, a way of turning back to him when we are sorry. It’s been a cherished sacrament over the millennia, yet one that has fallen out of favor of late. Fewer and fewer people avail themselves of God’s mercy in this beautiful way. So, we are doing something about it. The Monday of Holy Week, April 11, is now in our diocese “Reconciliation Monday.” It’s a day when every church in the diocese will be open from 3-8 p.m. for confession. So, if you live in Seaford but work in Salisbury, you can go to reconciliation after work in Salisbury. It’s a wonderful gift, this gift of God’s merciful love, a love we so desperately desire and need.
Perhaps, you may be thinking, “I don’t need to go to confession. Yes, I’ve done bad things, but I’ve said I’m sorry to God. Surely, he forgives me.” Well, you’re right. Whenever we say we are sorry to the Lord, of course he forgives us. But God isn’t the only one we’ve offended with our sins. There is the vertical dimension, us and God, but the horizontal dimension, as well, us and others. Our sins harm others, harm the body of Christ. Hence, in reconciliation we re-council, we are welcomed, by Jesus, through the priest, to sit back down at his table that we had left by our wrongdoing.
Perhaps, though, we may be thinking, “But, my sins are too great.” Nice try. This is the church for big sinners to become big saints. I think of St. Olga of Kiev, who, when her husband, the king, was killed by a neighboring tribe she responded, not with mercy, but with swift vengeance. Some of that tribe she buried alive, others were locked in a bath house and set on fire, some had their throats cut, while the rest had their houses and city burned to the ground. Now, this is not why Olga is a saint. No, later in life, as an old woman, she had a conversion of heart, became a Christian, and sought to bring Christianity to her people. Perhaps you’ve committed some big sins of which you are ashamed. St. Olga teaches us that whatever we have done, God can and desires to forgive us.
So, if you are thinking about coming to confession on Reconciliation Monday but haven’t been in a while, here’s some help. Firstly, it’s a good idea to make an examination of conscience. That’s basically going through the commandments and seeing how we have fallen short. Secondly, show up to any church in the diocese on April 11 from 3-8 p.m. and begin quite simply, “Father, forgive me for I have sinned, it’s been x amount of time (approximate weeks/months/years) since my last confession, and this is what I’m sorry for.”
The priest will help walk you through it, don’t worry. He may give you some advice. Then he’ll give you a penance, usually some prayers to say, ask you to express your sorrow, an act of contrition, and then, and here’s the good part, he gives you absolution. Jesus, working through that priest, will forgive your sins. Really and truly, the wrong we have done is forgiven and forgotten by God. What a gift!
Pope Francis didn’t go to confession in 2014 for the sake of the cameras so people could see him pretending to be holy. He went because he needed to. In his own words, he goes often. Let us also avail ourselves of this great sacrament of mercy, this vehicle of God’s grace. We need it. What we receive in reconciliation isn’t God’s punishment; it isn’t God yelling at us. It’s his mercy and his love. And that’s nothing to be afraid of. Monday, April 11, from 3-8 p.m. Find a church, give God your worst and receive his best; true forgiveness, sanctifying grace, and the peace that only he can give. God bless.
Father Solomon is pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea parish in Ocean City, Md.