Winning hearts and souls for Christ begins with our own interior conversion. This requires regularly examining our consciences in light of the Gospel as the Church has taught us since Jesus Christ first instituted it over 2000 years ago; and making use of Sacramental Confession. Pope Benedict XVI said as much on March 9, 2012. From CNA:
Confession and true conversion of people’s hearts is the “motor” of all reform and an authentic “force for evangelization…"
In a novel speech, he connected the New Evangelization and confession, saying that the effort to spread the Gospel draws life from “the sanctity of the sons and daughters of the Church, from the daily process of individual and community conversion, conforming itself ever more profoundly to Christ.”
“Thus each confession, from which each Christian will emerge renewed, will represent a step forward for New Evangelization.”
Priests are also able to become collaborators in the New Evangelization by hearing confessions, the Pope said. They have as many possible “new beginnings” as sinners they encounter, he noted, because those who truly experience the mercy of Christ in confession will become “credible witnesses of sanctity.”
Pope Benedict also reflected on what happens spiritually during the sacrament of confession. The repentant sinner is “justified, forgiven and sanctified,” thanks to the divine mercy, which is the “only adequate response” to humankind’s need for the infinite, he said.
The forgiveness of sins has a direct impact on efforts to spread the Gospel, he explained, pointing out that only those “who allow themselves to be profoundly renewed by divine grace can internalize and therefore announce the novelty of the Gospel.”
Some feel they have no need to confess sins to a priest. Yet, no personal interpretation of the Scripture trumps 2000 years of constant, unchanging teaching, mindful of the authority given the Church (2 Peter 1:20, Matthew 16:18). There really is a Scriptural basis for the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Church Fathers spoke on the subject. Soon to be Saint Pope John Paul II, in his 1984 Apostolic Exhortation, Reconciliatio et Paenetentia writes in section 31-IV:
First of all, it must be emphasized that nothing is more personal and intimate that this sacrament, in which the sinner stands alone before God with his sin, repentance and trust. No one can repent in his place or ask forgiveness in his name. There is a certain solitude of the sinner in his sin, and this can be seen dramatically represented in Cain with sin "crouching at his door," as the Book of Genesis says so effectively, and with the distinctive mark on his forehead;(190) in David, admonished by the prophet Nathan;(191) or in the prodigal son when he realizes the condition to which he has reduced himself by staying away from his father and decides to return to him.(192) Everything takes place between the individual alone and God. But at the same time one cannot deny the social nature of this sacrament, in which the whole church-militant, suffering and glorious in heaven- comes to the aid of the penitent and welcomes him again into her bosom, especially as it was the whole church which had been offended and wounded by his sin. As the minister of penance, the priest by virtue of his sacred office appears as the witness and representative of this ecclesial nature of the sacrament.
Pope John Paul II then explains that God is not the only one we offend with our sins in paragraph V:
The forgiven penitent is reconciled with himself in his inmost being, where he regains his own true identity. He is reconciled with his brethren whom he has in some way attacked and wounded. He is reconciled with the church. He is reconciled with all creation.
We are emerging from a very troubling period where many have rarely heard a priest exhort them to go to Confession. Back in 2002, in his Apostolic Letter, Misericordia Dei, Pope John Paul II said to bishops and priests:
With these words, I intended, as I do now, to encourage my Brother Bishops and earnestly appeal to them – and, through them, to all priests – to undertake a vigorous revitalization of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This is a requirement of genuine charity and true pastoral justice,(5) and we should remember that the faithful, when they have the proper interior dispositions, have the right to receive personally the sacramental gift.
In that same letter, John Paul II also explained why communal penance services alone, cannot be a substitute for individual Confession. Those services are good for helping people to reflect, but if one finds grave sin, they ought to take advantage of the individual confessions that follow. If your parish priest is not offering individual confession, find a new parish, if possible.
More recently, Pope Francis directed the prelates of the Curia to hit the Confessionals, and on March 28th, he will lead a penitential service, then hear confessions himself.
If we want a resurgence in Confession, it needs to be more accessible. When I first got to Assumption Grotto in 2005, the sight of two or three confessionals running before Mass with a line of people from young to old waiting, stirred in me the desire to make more frequent use of this merciful sacrament. Of course, the Order of Canons Regular of the Holy Cross using Grotto as a home base, made this possible. Many parishes have just one priest, and he sometimes has more than one parish. Where possible, priests should consider having a period for Reconciliation for 30-45 minutes prior to Mass, leaving 10-15 minutes to vest. At Assumption Grotto, the priest who has the Mass, puts a note on his door that Confessions end 10 minutes prior to Mass time. One added benefit of the pre-Mass Confession line is that the Holy Spirit works through such visuals to draw others. I've found that wherever a priest was persistent, during periods when large groups would be in Church, to offer Reconciliation, people respond and even come to anticipate his presence in the confessional. Priests will sometimes use free time to sit in their box outside of posted hours at Assumption Grotto, when there is an event, like Adoration, or shortly ahead of daily Mass, until 5-10 minutes before. This is a merciful gesture since many will be prompted through interior reflection, to want to confess their sins and Saturday afternoons are often difficult.
Where there is more than one priest available, priests should consider having one confessional running before Mass, even into the early part of Mass. Redemptionis Sacramentum, in which Pope John Paul II reigned in many liturgical abuses back in 1984, explains in paragraph 76:
[76.] Furthermore, according to a most ancient tradition of the Roman Church, it is not permissible to unite the Sacrament of Penance to the Mass in such a way that they become a single liturgical celebration. This does not exclude, however, that Priests other than those celebrating or concelebrating the Mass might hear the confessions of the faithful who so desire, even in the same place where Mass is being celebrated, in order to meet the needs of those faithful. This should nevertheless be done in an appropriate manner.
Part of the problem is that discussion of sin has been absent from homilies where people are given an opportunity to reflect. When priests take time to explain why certain things are sinful, and how we understand this from Scripture and the Church Fathers, people soak it in. A few prideful souls will object (vocal minority), but it's all those quiet people who say nothing at all (silent majority), whose humble desire to do the right thing, which should be considered.
Another problem is the lack of Examination of Conscience sheets laying around at entrances. We should have these and they should come with instructions for those who have not gone in a while, with words of comfort to quell fear. Today, there are multiple generations of people who are convinced they are generally good, and without sin, even those who went to good Catholic schools many decades ago. So, empty confession lines tells us we either we have a lot of saints in the pews or we have a lot of people who deceive themselves by thinking they are without sin (1 John 1:8).
Pope Francis has especially been persistent about the need to make use of the sacrament, also referred to as Reconciliation, or Penance. Thankfully, I see priests in a number of quarters beginning to re-seed this barren field of Catholicism. Some people complain that Confessions have not increased since Pope Francis began hitting the subject frequently (i.e., "no 'Francis effect'"). I trust the anecdotal evidence offered by individual priests who say that more people are coming to use the sacrament. Maybe these folks were in a confessional when the phone rang looking for statistical proof of the 'Francis effect'!
Let's look back on only a few of the many things Pope Francis has said about confessing sins. From an April 29, 2013 Vatican Radio report, Pope Francis says that shame is a Christian virtue...
But Jesus in the confessional is not a dry cleaner: it is an encounter with Jesus, but with this Jesus who waits for us, who waits for us just as we are. “But, Lord, look ... this is how I am”, we are often ashamed to tell the truth: 'I did this, I thought this'. But shame is a true Christian virtue, and even human ... the ability to be ashamed: I do not know if there is a similar saying in Italian, but in our country to those who are never ashamed are called “sin vergüenza’: this means ‘the unashamed ', because they are people who do not have the ability to be ashamed and to be ashamed is a virtue of the humble, of the man and the woman who are humble."
"Humility and meekness are like the frame of a Christian life. A Christian must always be so, humble and meek. And Jesus waits for us to forgive us. We can ask Him a question: Is going to confession like to a torture session? No! It is going to praise God, because I, a sinner , have been saved by Him. And is He waiting for me to beat me? No, with tenderness to forgive me. And if tomorrow I do the same? Go again, and go and go and go .... He always waits for us. This tenderness of the Lord, this humility, this meekness .... "
In October of 2013 he wanted to ease people's fears and misconceptions:
“Confessing our sins is not going to a psychiatrist, or to a torture chamber: it’s saying to the Lord, 'Lord, I am a sinner,' but saying it through the brother, because this says it concretely. 'I am sinner because of this, that and the other thing.'”
From his General Audience on November 20, 2013, Pope Francis says:
God’s forgiveness is given to us in the Church, it is transmitted to us by means of the ministry of our brother, the priest; and he too is a man, who, like us in need of mercy, truly becomes the instrument of mercy, bestowing on us the boundless love of God the Father. Priests and bishops too have to go to confession: we are all sinners. Even the Pope confesses every 15 days, because the Pope is also a sinner. And the confessor hears what I tell him, he counsels me and forgives me, because we are all in need of this forgiveness. Sometimes you hear someone claiming to confess directly to God... Yes, as I said before, God is always listening, but in the Sacrament of Reconciliation he sends a brother to bestow his pardon, the certainty of forgiveness, in the name of the Church.
There are probably three times that many instances, or more, that the Holy Father brought up the subject of Confession in his short pontificate. So, do not be afraid, go to Confession!
Two parishes in metro-Detroit that I know offer generous Sacramental Confession times, with the help of additional priests, is Assumption Grotto, and Ss Cyril & Methodius in Sterling Heights. Not only can you find the usual Saturday options, but you have access on Sundays and most weekdays before daily Masses. Don't hesitate to knock on a sacristy door to ask for Confession if you are in need, during the week. You might have to wait until after Mass in such cases, if you come too close to Mass, but it's better than not going. Just abstain from Communion until after your confession is heard if you are aware or suspect grave sin. It is not good to go to Communion with a doubtful conscience.
Further Reading and Resources:
- Steps for a good Confession and Examination of Conscience (St. Charles Borromeo Seminary)
- Series of brief Lenten Podcasts by Father John Zuhlsdorf
- Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ on Confession (Real Presence)
- Quam Singulari (Decree explaining First Communion & Confession, 1910)
- Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II, 2002, discussing Confession.
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it is the disobedient who are held captive by the world!
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