Catholic New World: Newspaper for the Archdiocese of Chicago

Confession provides God’s healing

By Michelle Martin
Assistant editor

Confession, according to Father Dennis Lyle, is a lot like going to the dentist.

Few people look forward to it, and in many, it can cause a high degree of fear and anxiety. But the more often you go, Lyle said, the easier it gets— and not only because you know what to expect. Rather, it helps keep your spiritual health up, so that each visit is less of an ordeal.

“If you go to the dentist for a cleaning every six months, chances are they’ll catch any minor problems and fix them,” said Lyle, rector/president of University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary. “But if you wait 20 years, you’re going to be in for all the drilling and tooth-pulling and everything else that nobody likes.”

Pope Benedict XVI compared confession to regular housecleaning in a catechetical session with children in 2005. Without regular cleaning, he said, the dirt builds up, and we become lazy and learn not to see it.

For Catholics, the sacrament of reconciliation is a requirement of the faith, with the Catechism of the Catholic Church calling everyone to receive the sacrament before First Communion and at least once a year thereafter, and before receiving Communion any time he or she is aware of a mortal sin.

But somehow, at many parishes, it doesn’t work out that way. While no statistics exist about how many confessions priests hear, gone are the days when most parish churches would have people lined up every Saturday, eager to wipe the slate clean, as it were, before Sunday Eucharist.

In those days, many good Catholics would have been embarrassed if it became known they hadn’t confessed; now some are too embarrassed to be seen in the confessional line. They fear embarrassment and shame, and wonder what the priest will think of them. They would prefer to keep their sins between themselves and God, according to an informal survey of otherwise- practicing Catholics.

Father Robert Barron, a professor at University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein seminary and a key figure in the “Mission Chicago” evangelization effort, attributes the drop off to a shift in Catholic culture, where the love and mercy of God have been emphasized so much that many people have lost sight of the seriousness of sin.

In March 2006, Barron organized “24 Hours of Grace,” in which about 70 priests staffed confessionals in six parishes for 24 hours straight.

“In my mind, this evangelization effort, at least in its first phase, was not so much about reaching out to non-believers, but reaching out to Catholics, especially those that might not be practicing,” he said. “That was linked to a return to the sacraments, especially reconciliation.”

The pastors involved reported that they got more people than they expected— and that people did come around the clock, Barron said. A handful of parishes repeated the effort on their own during Lent 2007. A move toward the confessional by young people—especially those who attended the World Youth Days started by John Paul II—gives Barron hope that going to confession will once again become part of mainstream Catholic culture. That would be a blessing, said Lyle.

The sacrament of reconciliation offers today’s Catholics access to the same forgiveness, the same healing, that those touched directly by Jesus felt some 2,000 years ago. “In our sacramental ministry, we continue to do the work of Jesus,” Lyle said. “The Christian who lives today is not at a disadvantage to the Christian who lived 2,000 years ago.”

When Jesus told the apostles, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (Jn 20:23), he was instituting the sacramental person of the priest.

“It gives us a real encounter with the Lord,” Lyle said. “It reconciles us not only with God, but with a person as a representative of the community. It gives us areas to grow. We know we’re not happy when we put ourselves at the center of the universe, and it helps us put God there.”

Those who go to St. Peter’s in the Loop seem to be in on the secret. The Franciscan church offers confessions from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and from noon to 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

“It can get crowded during peak seasons, but most of the time, it’s pretty steady,” said Franciscan Father William Spencer, the pastor. Offering the sacrament of reconciliation is the main reason St. Peter’s exists where it does, said Spencer, noting that people see it as a convenience.

“They know we’re going to be here,” he said. “They can stop on their way to work or walk over when it’s convenient.” It has another advantage in the eyes of many penitents, Spencer acknowledged: anonymity.

“They know we’re not going to recognize them if we see them again,” he said. Lyle acknowledged that was one advantage of the traditional confessional box, where the priest never saw the penitent directly. Now most parishes offer a choice between the confessional and face-to-face reconciliation.

Lyle said there is nothing stopping Catholics, or anyone else, from telling their sins directly to God. But in doing so, they won’t receive the kind of direct response about how to make it better that they will from a priest.

“Penance is not a punishment,” Lyle said. “It’s meant to restore the balance that was disrupted by sin.” For example, if a child confesses disobedience to his parents, Lyle said, an appropriate penance might be to help with washing or drying the dishes that evening.

“What we’re doing is trying to get them on the right path,” he said.

People also don’t want to be judged by what they see as their worst moments. But for them, Lyle has a favorite citation from “The Confessor’s Handbook” by Benedictine Father Kurt Stasiak. “It says that in that moment of a confession, when parishioners are seeing themselves at their worst, we see them at their best,” Lyle said. “Jesus never condemns in the Gospel—especially not when somebody comes to him for forgiveness.” That’s because the parishioners, those who ask forgiveness, are seriously examining their consciences, finding their flaws and determining to improve their relationships with God and their neighbors.

“My sin is not just between me and God,” Lyle said. “Every sin I commit harms the Body of Christ. When I offend my neighbors—and that’s what most of the sins people confess are—we disrupt the charity that ought to characterize the Body of Christ.”

How to go to confession

Before you go:

Before going to confession, the penitent should prepare by praying and examining his or her conscience—that is, thinking about the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, Jesus’ life as related in the Scriptures, and comparing their own life to the ideal.

During confession

Both the priest and penitent begin by making the sign of the cross. Then the penitent can tell the priest how long since his or her last confession (“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned …”)

Then the priest or penitent may read a short Scripture passage, specially one having to do with forgiveness and healing.

Following the Scripture, the penitent confesses his or her sins, with the help of the priest if necessary, and expresses contrition, or sorrow, for his or her sins, and a resolve to avoid future occasions of sin.

The priest offers some words of advice, including ways to make restitution for the harm the penitent has caused, and imposes a “penance” that corresponds to the seriousness of the sins confessed. After this, the penitent makes an Act of Contrition, a prayer expressing sorrow for sins and resolving not to sin again.

One Act of Contrition is:

My God,
I am sorry for my sins with all my heart.
In choosing to do wrong
and failing to do good,
I have sinned against you
whom I should love above all things.
I firmly intend, with your help,
to do penance,
to sin no more,
and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.
Our Savior Jesus Christ
suffered and died for us.
In his name, my God, have mercy.

After the Act of Contrition, the priest extends his hands over the
head of the penitent and pronounces absolution in these words:

God, the Father of mercies,
through the death and resurrection of his Son
has reconciled the world to himself
and sent the Holy Spirit among us
for the forgiveness of sins;
through the ministry of the Church
may God give you pardon and peace,
and I absolve you from your sins
in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
The penitent answers, “Amen.”

After the absolution, the penitent praises the mercy of God and gives him thanks. Then the priest tells the penitent to go in peace.

Source: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops