I threw-up on the night of my first confession. I was eight-years-old.
What sins could I have possibly committed to cause such a reaction? Surely being “mean” to my brother and disobeying my parents were forgivable sins, right?
I chuckle when I look back on that time – that first encounter with the sacrament of reconciliation. And I am grateful to God that my first experience of confession was not my last.
For many, though, it is. After being forced to celebrate the sacrament in elementary school, many Catholics just seem to drift away in time. They believe that when it comes to confessing sin, they can go directly to God. Cut-out the middle-man priest, the darkened box, and the urge to vomit. Quite frankly, who can blame them?
But in staying away from the sacrament as adults – or in believing that confessing sorrow privately in one’s heart is enough – they are missing out on the power of healing grace that flows from this living encounter with Christ.
He himself told his apostles, the very successors who would continue the ministry of healing love and redemption that Christ began in Galilee and consummated on the cross at Calvary: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:21-23).
Thus, Christ’s priests to this very day continue our Lord’s mission to forgive sins. Even a passing glance through the Gospels show how much our loving God longed to heal those whose lives were torn apart by sin: the Samaritan woman at the well; St. Peter after his three-fold denial of Christ; the woman caught in adultery; and Zacchaeus hanging-out in the tree. The list is endless.
But notice that in nearly every encounter, the one seeking true and lasting healing (whether they realized it or not) first had to bring to God’s healing mercy the ways in which he or she was missing the mark. Before the living God, they spoke-out their pain, their heartache, and the times that they purposely and intentionally chose darkness over light, hatred over mercy and selfishness over compassion.
And only then – only when the hurts and pains and moments of our lesser selves are humbly revealed and spoken aloud to Christ through his presence in the priest – can the grace of forgiveness enter in and begin to transform us.
For at the end of the day, that is what this sacrament of reconciliation is: the gift of a radically transforming love.
Throughout two millennia of the church’s history, it has been practiced and celebrated in a number of ways, some of which, quite frankly, would still make many nauseous with the thoughts of having to confess as our Catholic ancestors once did.
The early church often required that publicly known sins (such as apostasy) of one who was already baptized needed to be confessed openly in church, though private confession to a priest was always an option for privately committed mortal sins. As early as A.D. 70, the Didache – a brief early Christian treatise that captured all the church held to be true — offered this advice: “Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience … so that your sacrifice (Eucharist celebration) may be pure.”
St. Ignatius of Antioch in 110 A.D. wrote to the Philadelphians (not of the Pennsylvania variety) and told his sinning-flock: “In the exercise of your confession and penance, return to the unity of the church and belong to God, so that you may belong fully to Jesus Christ.”
By the 7th century, however, the church became convinced that it was useful for the salvation of the faithful when the diocesan bishop – with help of his priests and monks – would prescribe penance to a sinner as many times as he or she would fall into serious sin. Often times, these penances were severe in nature, and many of the faithful stopped celebrating the sacrament.
Thus, the Lateran Council in the 1200s and the Council of Trent during the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s required that every Catholic Christian celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a year (what we often refer to as the “Easter duty”), and the confession of sin evolved into the format that most of us are familiar with to this day: a listing of sin in kind and number (“I cheated on tests twice; I stole money once …”) followed by a penance that would fit the crimes, so to speak.
While this is still certainly an acceptable way to open one’s life to the power of Christ’s healing grace, what many priests are witnessing today among penitents seeking the sacrament is a desire to move beyond the listing of sins in order to let the Spirit truly move a person to seek lasting transformation that can only be found by bringing to the light all that we wrestle with.
I once heard a priest say this when it comes to the sacrament of reconciliation, no matter how it has been celebrated throughout the church’s journey on earth: “Jesus on the cross has already done the work for us; all we have to do is be humble enough to stand before his love on Calvary and, by confessing, let him heal us with his love.”
Time and time again, our Lord tells us as his disciples to be not afraid. Through the sacrament of reconciliation, give yourself the beautiful gift of allowing your heart and soul – your very life – to be set free from the chains that keep you from experiencing lasting freedom and authentic love found only in God.
Take it from one who once threw up at his first confession: there is nothing God won’t forgive and nothing so terrible that his love can’t heal. May fear and pride – and nervous stomachs – never keep us from the freedom and mercy poured out from the cross into every sacramental moment of reconciliation.
(Father Richard Jasper is associate pastor of St. Ann Parish, Wilmington).