June 26, 2009

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Frequent confession keeps us on the pathway to peace

The second precept of the Church as presented in the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults reads: “You shall confess your sins at least once a year. This obliges in particular those who are conscious of serious sin. Regular reception of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation helps to prepare us not only to receive the Eucharist, but also to continue the conversion begun at Baptism” (p. 324).

The sacraments of the Church fortify us with hope when the journey home to the Kingdom gets turbulent. The Holy Spirit helps us to become truthful with God, and that sets us free.

As Pope John Paul II had said, we cannot be genuinely free unless we know and live our transcendence over the world—and if we know God as our friend.

God, our friend, invites us to seek his mercy when all seems bleak and lost because of sin. Such mercy is God’s glory; it leads us to want to make amends for sins against him and our neighbor. Peace comes from God’s merciful forgiveness of our sins.

While I find it humbling to confess my sins, I love this sacrament. After baptism, which gives us entry to the life of Christ in the Church, and after the holy Eucharist, which sustains our life in the Church, the sacrament of penance and reconciliation is a spiritual lifeline.

I can’t imagine being a good bishop without the grace of this sacrament. I need the grace for my continued spiritual growth. I also believe a priest cannot be a good confessor if he is not a good penitent.

Our mission as Church is to live and proclaim Our Lord Jesus Christ and his Gospel. As we proclaim redemption, we preach penance and reconciliation.

When we preach penance and reconciliation, we must preach the fact of sin. Yet we do so carefully for it is true that few people sin out of malice.

Most of us sin out of human weakness. There is a big difference between malice and weakness, but this does not explain sin away. Because of our human limitations, we sin.

Even a surface knowledge of history tells us that there have been periods of history when the human family lost its sense of sin, when the moral conscience of society was darkened by confusion and human weakness.

Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin once said, “When we lose altogether a sense of sinfulness in our lives, we become alienated from an important part of ourselves and can become further alienated from a forgiving God. Not to know sin is not to know salvation, reconciliation or forgiveness.”

If we lose our sense of sin, we lose the pathway to peace of mind and heart. As the late Holy Father reminded us, in our time as individuals and as a society we are in danger of losing our very soul.

When we lose our sense of sin, we lose our sense of God and we become victims of the power of dark secrets in our hearts, which are the enemy of truth and peace and freedom. Deep down, we know that we are weak and sinful. The sacrament of penance is the pathway out of the slavery of dark secrets.

St. Augustine described the Church’s mediation in terms of the Gospel story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

Jesus called Lazarus back to life from the tomb, but he asked his disciples to free Lazarus from the burial cloth binding his body. Christ forgives sin, while the Church through our priests is the agent for removing the bindings of sin.

In his apostolic exhortation Reconciliation and Penance, Pope John Paul II wrote: “According to the most ancient traditional idea, the sacrament is a kind of ‘judicial action;’ but this takes place before a tribunal of mercy rather than of strict and rigorous justice. ...”

He says that this “tribunal of mercy” is like human tribunals only by analogy. It is like a human tribunal “insofar as sinners reveal their sins and commit themselves to renouncing and combating sin; accept the punishment [sacramental penance] which the confessor imposes on them and receive absolution from him” (30).

The confessor is an agent of mercy because of his awareness of his own sin.

I have been confessing my sins for some 60 years, and my experience is still like that of a kid who wrote to me: “I am in the second grade. I’ve been to reconciliation. I’m not scared to go. Also, I think every one came out of reconciliation smiling.”

We “come out smiling” because we have the assurance of God’s mercy and the embrace of the Church from a spokesperson for Christ and the Church.

Frequent confession to a minister of mercy keeps us on the pathway to peace. †

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