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In Reconciliation, we find that God loves us unconditionally and is waiting for us to know forgiveness — Effie Caldarola

Effie Caldarola

A young relative is making his first Holy Communion this year.

But “First Reconciliation” came before that. There were too many kids in his class for everyone to use the confessional. Instead, chairs and priests were placed around the church and little eight-year-olds took turns sitting down in front of a priest for their first confession.

This little guy sat down and promptly threw up all over the priest’s shoes. He’ll never live that one down. I can already imagine the best man at his wedding writing that into his toast.

Nerves? Well, a nasty stomach bug is going around, but later that day this guy successfully played a hockey game.

But nerves? I think so.

Most of us can identify. This sacrament can be intimidating, not just to a sensitive kid. Maybe that’s why a Jesuit friend of mine rewards every child who makes their first confession to him with a bag of candy.

In this 2007 file photo, Father Joseph Mary, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal, administers the sacrament of reconciliation to Jasmine Torres, 16, of the Bronx, N.Y. (CNS photos/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

What? Rewarding someone for admitting they sinned?

If that’s your response, you’ve missed the point of this sacrament. It’s all about mercy, about experiencing the abundant love of God. It’s about facing the truth of yourself: acknowledging that you sometimes do things that are wrong. But then facing the overwhelming truth of our faith: God loves you unconditionally and is waiting to let you know forgiveness long before you’ve found your empty chair.

A bag of candy? Maybe instead there should be a marching band and a ticker tape parade! That’s what the prodigal’s father wanted, a fatted calf and a celebration. And the prodigal father is the image Jesus gave us of God.

In his book “Breathing Under Water,” Franciscan Father Richard Rohr quotes his friend, the late Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen as speaking of “our endless capacity for self-loathing.”

It takes a long time, Rohr suggests, to learn to accept ourselves, to understand and accept our mistakes, our past. Even, perhaps, to love that face we meet in the mirror each morning.
Maybe that’s why this sacrament is underutilized.

Maybe we need better catechesis in our church. Or maybe we need to take more time with both preparation for reconciliation and with the actual sacrament. The old “grocery list of sins” has been replaced with a realization that sin has rootedness.

“I lost my temper at my kids five times” beggars the question, “Why?” What is the rootedness of this behavior? What is the more subtle sin behind the sin? How is God loving me into this understanding?

During Lent, I read the book “Forgive Everyone Everything” by Jesuit Father Gregory Boyle. Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang rehabilitation and prison reentry program in the world.

The book is compiled from excerpts from his other three books, including the wildly funny and deeply moving “Tattoos on the Heart,” about his experiences with the “homies” in his Los Angeles program.

“Forgive Everyone Everything” provides a one-page meditation each day. Accompanied by artwork by Fabian Debora, the book did one important thing for me. On every page, it affirmed God’s love for me. It’s something I need to hear and receive each day, because like my young relative, I need to always be growing away from an image of an angry God, or an angry church, and sit in the presence of a God infinitely in love with me. No self-loathing here.

“Turns out,” writes Boyle, “the Tender One whom we long for longs for us.”

Effie Caldarola is a wife, mom and grandmother who received her master’s in pastoral ministry from Seattle University.