Series on the Sacraments: Confession
The Sacrament of Confession is a main staple in any good Catholic’s spiritual diet. I am a “husky” guy, and so I make food analogies-go with it! What is Confession (let this be a review for all the Catholic all-stars)?
To understand the Sacrament of Confession, we first need to begin to understand a little bit more about who God is.
Yahweh the Deliverer, Savior of Israel
Throughout the course of salvation history, God has desired for His chosen people to live in FREEDOM. We see this Scripturally in the Garden, in the first words of God to Adam and Eve.
Following this, He commanded them to not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good an Evil because it would bring about death. As Blessed John Paul II tells us, authentic Freedom is not the ability to do whatever we like, be to be able to do what we ought. God offers Adam and Eve the option; to allow them to love Him freely and to live freely or to choose the slavery of sin and death.
Fast forward to the temptation of Adam and Eve, and what happens? They both fail. They begin distrusting God, and place their own wills above that of God’s will. Here we see the entrance of sin, death, and slavery. Humanity begins to be trapped in their own sinfulness not only through original sin, but by concupiscence (man’s inclination toward sin). A great example that quickly follows the Fall of Adam and Eve is Cain, who becomes so enthralled in his pride that he kills his own brother.
The inclination toward sin picks up pace and people begin to build empires and governments through the enslavement of others. Take for example the Israelites in Egypt. The chosen people are now enslaved to the Egyptian ruler Pharaoh. God calls Moses to speak as a representative for his chosen people and to demand freedom for the Israelites.
“Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.’ “ (Exodus 5:1)
Why does God even care about these people? It is simply because He loves them and wants them to love Him in return.
“Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, “Thus says the Lord: Let my people go, so that they may worship me”. (Exodus 8:1)
He says it again,
“Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, and say to him, “Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews: Let my people go, so that they may worship me“. (Exodus 9:1)
“So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, and said to him, “Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, “How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, so that they may worship me”. (Exodus 10:3)
God fulfills his promise to Moses, and by a series of supernatural miracles, is able to lead the Israelites out of the slavery of Egypt. Even when they stood before the sea, God does not allow them to be hindered but splits the sea apart so that they can make it through. He desires them to be free in order that they may love Him in freedom.
The Old Testament is filled with story after story of slavery and freedom. It always follows that God redeems and sets His people free.
What truly enslaves these people? SIN. What does God offer to men to help them to live freely. In the Scriptures, God provides to Moses the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai. These are not simple guidelines on how to live a good life, but are a blueprint to freedom. Many people miss the whole point by looking at the rules and regulations side of the commandments. I think the most thing that begins the commandments breaks this idea, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”. It is not simply a “Honey Do” list of morality. It is about freedom.
In Judaism, though the Mosaic Law is of paramount importance, it is not the Scripture that is recited the most by them. The prayer prayed the most is commonly known as the “Shema Yisrael” which includes these lines from Deuteronomy 6:4-5.
Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
LOVE is the centre of our relationship with God; God who loves us relentlessly and we who return.
Sin takes love and turns it from God to ourselves. This is where we become our own worst enemy. This is where we become Egypt. But God desires to set us free to love Him and to be truly happy. God has loved us so much that He has desired to set us free from the moment we fell.
Fast forward now to Jesus Christ. The Messiah was the one promised to save the people of Israel for all time. The Catholic Church understands that “Israel” was the foreshadowed representation of the Church, also known as a “type”. So Jesus came, not through military violence, but as the humble child-king, who was to redeem His people for time and eternity. We see that even before the birth of Jesus that the Holy Ghost inspired Zachariah, who was made made mute during a vision, after naming John his son (who would become John the Baptist) bursts out in a loud voice declaring his famous canticle that the Church prays across the globe every morning:
Blessed be the Lord, The God of Israel; He has come to His people and set them free. He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour, Born of the house of His servant David. Through His holy prophets He promised of old That He would save us from our enemies, From the hands of all who hate us. He promised to show mercy to our fathers And to remember His holy Covenant. This was the oath He swore to our father Abraham: To set us free from the hands of our enemies, Free to worship Him without fear, Holy and righteous in His sight All the days of our life. You, My child shall be called The prophet of the Most High, For you will go before the Lord to prepare His way, To give his people knowledge of salvation By the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our Lord The dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness And the shadow of death, And to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:68-79)
How many times is the idea of freedom mentioned in this Canticle? This is what Jesus came to do- To set us FREE. And so we see that from the beginning of His public ministry, the work of freedom was being performed. He would release people from the darkness of blindness, he would release those trapped by demonic possession. He would even save people from the bondage of death like he did with his friend Lazarus, “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:44). Not only did He call people from physical slavery, but He offers the freedom from sin, fear, anger, bitterness, shame. Jesus came to restore humanity to the freedom He once intended for them.
As Catholics, we see in the person of Jesus Christ the High Priest, the Victim, and the Altar of Sacrifice. Jesus became the Temple in which all will worship. Jesus has taken our sin and shame and nailed it to His Cross. Sin and death has been conquered by Jesus Christ. Through Baptism, as Mike told us previously, we are no longer slaves. But, to keep us from running back to Egypt, and to continually participate in the saving work of the Cross, Jesus gave us the Sacrament of Confession through His Apostles.
Jesus gave to us a means by which we can participate more fully in the redemption won for us by His death and resurrection. Can we confess to God directly and should we? YES! But, Jesus did not merely want this for His chosen people.
Jesus does not call for a simple prayer to be said to free someone from sin and concupiscence. This is a big difference between Catholics and evangelical Christians. However, let us look briefly at the story of Mary Magdalene. She was about to be stoned for her public sins. Jesus stands in the breach and turns those who were ready to stone her away. What does he say to her? “‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”‘ (john 8:10-11). Jesus demands conversion.
To understand confession, we have to better recognize how Jesus chose to work. Jesus used physical things to describe spiritual realities. We use the word “sacrament” and “sacramentals” to define this reality. Jesus personifies this reality in His Incarnation. He enters into the physical in order to raise its dignity. Jesus uses spit and dirt to heal people’s blindness. He turns water into wine, feeds 5000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. He breathes on the Apostles. He hides Himself under bread, and He stretches out His arms on a cross and dies for humanity. All of which He did not NEED to do, however, this is how God chooses to act.
THE WORD BECAME FLESH
This is why Jesus offers freedom to His people through His Apostles and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. God is unchanging and therefore His teaching and way of doing things does not change. Yes, He “makes all things new”, but he does not replace them or do away with them. He fulfills them. Jesus gave His Apostles and through them to the Bishops and priests who would follow in an unbroken line, the grace to bind and loose, to forgive and retain sins.
In Matthew chapter 9, we see, “6 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . .” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” 7 And the man got up and went home. 8 When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.” Emphasis needs to be placed here on the word “men”.
Although God can heal people by people simply turning to Him in prayer, Jesus chooses the Apostles to go and heal the sick and free people from spiritual bondage. If God Himself in the Person of Christ, chose the 12 to be mediators of grace and freedom, it only makes sense that He would continue this process of redemption through them for all time.
The Bible teaches that there exists a special class of clergy who have the authority to hear confessions and the power to forgive sin. John the Baptist did in fact baptize people, while they confessed their sins in Matthew 3:6. People came to St. Paul and confessed their sins to him in Acts 19:18. The Apostles who are ordained as Bishops by Christ tells them in Matthew 18:18 “Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven.” Again, Jesus tells His Apostles in John 20:23, “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” St. Paul also says to the Corinthians in 2 Cor 2:10 “And to whom you have pardoned any thing, I also. For, what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned any thing, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ”.
The Bible encourages us also to confess our sins also to one another, not simply to God alone (James 5:16). The Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, better formalized this Sacrament over time, however the process has always been in place since the time of Christ and we see this even in St. Peter’s confession on the beach to Christ, in reversing his three-fold denial with a three-fold declaration of faith (John 21:15-17).
In Apostolic Tradition, we see that the early church performed acts of public verbal confession of sin. We can see from the Didache, written approx. 50 AD that “In church thou shalt confess thy transgressions, and shalt not betake thyself to prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life.” 4:14.
This is where we as Catholics get the Penitential rite of the Mass today, where we say “I confess to Almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned…”
In the year 203 AD (keep in mind, before the Canon of the Scriptures was compiled), Tertullian of Carthage, an early church father states about confession, “Yet most men either shun this work, as being a public exposure of themselves, or else defer it from day to day. I presume (as being) more mindful of modesty than of salvation; just like men who, having contracted some malady in the more private parts of the body, avoid the privity of physicians, and so perish with their own bashfulness. “
As the Church grew, she continued encouraging the faithful to confess their sins in order to enter into greater Freedom. Over time it became more of a private affair, and private confession became the norm in the Church. Bound to secrecy, the priest is now bound to not disclose ANYTHING spoken about in the Sacrament of Confession to ANYONE. More priests will tell you that as soon as you are done confessing, they cannot remember your sins. They do not hold it against you, nor do they act upon it. And rightfully so. They may encourage you as part of your penance to own up to the sin, but they cannot, for example, go to the police to tell them that you were the one who stole the Samsung TV from Wal-Mart last week. As part of their agreement as a priest, they vow not to “break the seal of the confessional” for any reason. If they do, they forfeit their priesthood entirely. This is how seriously the Church views confession.
What is Confession?
1423 It is called the sacrament of conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus’ call to conversion, the first step in returning to the Father5 from whom one has strayed by sin.
It is called the sacrament of Penance, since it consecrates the Christian sinner’s personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance, and satisfaction.
1424 It is called the sacrament of confession, since the disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is an essential element of this sacrament. In a profound sense it is also a “confession” – acknowledgment and praise – of the holiness of God and of his mercy toward sinful man.
It is called the sacrament of forgiveness, since by the priest’s sacramental absolution God grants the penitent “pardon and peace.”6
It is called the sacrament of Reconciliation, because it imparts to the sinner the love of God who reconciles: “Be reconciled to God.”7 He who lives by God’s merciful love is ready to respond to the Lord’s call: “Go; first be reconciled to your brother.”8
Okay, so this Sacrament has a bunch of names. But what does it do? It does 5 things:
Confession makes us RECOGNIZE our sins and weaknesses, it calls us to CONFESS our sins and failings, and calls us to do PENANCE, it REUNITES us with Christ and the Church, and it imparts GRACE to overcome concupiscence and to become a Saint.
I have spoken in other blogs concerning the Biblical basis for the Sacrament Confession, which I have mentioned in brief here, but if you need more biblical foundation, it can be found here and here. My intent in this blog however, is to give a basic understanding of what confession is and how as Catholics, we can draw the most from the Sacrament of Confession.
The Catechism teaches:
1422 “Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from God’s mercy for the offense committed against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example, and by prayer labors for their conversion.”4
And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. (Nehemiah 9:2)
“When a man is guilty in any of these, he shall confess the sin he has committed” (Leviticus 5:5)
“But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery which they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, 41 so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies; if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity; 42 then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land”. (Leviticus 26:40-42)
Admission of sin and due penance is central to the spiritual life, and always has been. Look at the Temple. Night and Day sacrifices were offered unto God for the remission of sins in the Temple until 70 AD. The great feast of Passover was intense. The altars of sacrifice and the area in which the altars stood was completely flooded with blood. Another example is Yom Kippur in the Jewish Calendar. It is the most sacred day of the year and is called the “Day of Atonement”. This is the day that they believe that through their acts of penance which precede it, God releases them from their sin.
To get us back on track, let us make a quick review (in a Baltimore Catechism style):
WHAT is the Sacrament of Confession?
The Sacrament of Confession is the process by which the truly contrite Catholic comes before the priest, admits his/her sins and failings, agrees to do penance for the sins committed, and is the freed from sin through the absolution from the priest and receives the grace to live a holy life.
WHO do we confess to?
We confess our sins to a Catholic priest who stands in the very Person of Jesus Christ by means of His Priestly Ordination (In Persona Christi). So, we are confessing to Jesus THROUGH the priest. We also confess to a priest because he presents the Church because our sins also wound our relationship with her.
We who are confessing are Catholics, who have received Baptism and our first confession. We must be truly contrite for our sins and resolved to never sin again.
WHY do we confess?
We confess our sins because we are truly sorry for having wounded the heart of God and for damaging our relationship with Him. We confess because we are bound by sin, and need to be free. We confess because we know God is rich in mercy, and ardently longs for us to come to Him in the Sacrament of Confession.
WHEN do we confess?
The Church requires us to confess at least once a year, however it is encouraged that we confess more often than that. Most would recommend monthly confession.
WHERE does confession take place?
The Sacrament of Confession can occur anywhere. Typically, there are Confessionals or “Reconciliation Rooms” in Catholic parishes that are open to the faithful at least once a week. Most parishes also offer confession by appointment. It can be done anywhere from a Church to an airport. All that is required is that there be a repentant Catholic and a Catholic priest.
And now comes the big question of HOW.
How can we best participate in the freedom won for us by Christ through His Sacrament of Confession?
.5 Examine your conscience on a daily basis
It is important that one spends time each day analyzing even just for a few minutes how one has sinned that day. Daily examination of your conscience helps one to see patterns of sin, weaknesses, and strengths, and helps the penitent to be able to better prepare on the day of confession
Click this link for an Examination of Conscience
Click this link for information concerning Mortal and Venial Sins
*An official Preparation for Confession .PDF Booklet from Team Orthodoxy is forthcoming*
1. Prepare properly to examine your conscience on the day of your confession.
Ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten your mind, to see the ways in which you have fallen since your last confession. Do not be scrupulous. Be sure to remember if you have fallen into mortal sin that you recall the kind and number of times you have fallen. If venial, it is important only to name them.
2. After examining your conscience, spend time meditating on the affect that your sin has one the heart of God, on your own soul, and on the Church. Foster within your heart and mind a great remorse and penance for your sin. Though you may not be perfect in this, ask the Lord to give you a “humble and contrite heart”. Seek to be truly contrite.
3. Make a good and holy confession.
Ensure that your confession is solemn, humble, and as concise as possible. Do not spend excess time explaining the circumstance around your sins, unless those circumstances are sinful also. This is also not a time to confess others sins who may have helped you to fall into the sin. Own up to your sin. Be attentive to the counsel that the confessor speaks to you. Receive it humbly.
4. Complete your Penance adequately and resolve to never sin again.
Ensure that whatever penance you receive, you complete it humbly and with as much fervor and contrition as you can muster. A lazy penance can ruin a confession. Let your penance be a time of sorrow but also of thanksgiving for the Lord’s mercy. Do not let the devil pummel you with doubts and do not let yourself fall into self-hatred after confession. Be joyful, for the Lord has freed you.
A couple extra notes that may assist you in your walk with Christ is:
1. Find a regular confessor/spiritual director that you can go to, who can help you understand better your patterns of sin, and help you find ways to conquer them.
2. Find people in your life that can help hold you accountable, especially in the realm of mortal sin.
3. Go to confession at least once a month. Seriously it helps a lot.
In conclusion, always remember, God desires that you live in freedom and loves you so much that He desires that you come to Him in the Sacrament of Confession, no matter how big or small the sin may be. We are all in this battle against sin together. You are not alone. May God bless you in your conquering of sin, especially this Lent. Live in Freedom.
In the Immaculata,