Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 17, 2003
Sins need to be confessed
Sacrament can be occasion for deep joy
By ARCHBISHOP THOMAS COLLINS
For many years "Confession" has been the common name for the sacrament through which Jesus allows us to experience anew the human encounters with divine mercy found in the Gospel. Like the prodigal son, we say: "Father, I have sinned."
When we confess our sins we experience many spiritual benefits. Confession invites us to engage in an honest assessment of our behaviour which can lead, even from a human point of view, to deeper self understanding and to improvement, as we reflect on how we can avoid in the future the sins we recognize in the past.
Confession is good psychologically. In our secular society people value the opportunity to unburden themselves to a counsellor of the secrets that weigh them down. As a familiar proverb states, "Confession is good for soul." If we are to deal with the things that burden us, we need to articulate what they are, so that we are not caught up in a fog of anxiety.
When we confess our sins we grow in humility. Pride makes it humanly difficult to confess our sins honestly, and we are always eager to minimize and excuse our failings. But when we let go, and admit the reality of our sinfulness, in the context of the greater reality of God's loving mercy, then we can truly be free.
When we regularly confess our sins we keep in touch with reality, and that is always spiritually healthy. It is dangerous when a person who feels a painful symptom says nothing about it to the doctor. It is better to bring to the light even the most deadly disease, for only then can it be cured. Sin flourishes in darkness, and shrivels in the light.
Confession of sins is also "confession" in another sense: the "confession," or acknowledgement, of God's greatness. In the famous book, The Confessions of St. Augustine, the author both honestly admits his sins (which is our usual sense of the word "confession") and proclaims, or "confesses," the wonders of God's grace.
There is nothing morbid about confessing our sins in the sacrament. As we confess, we marvel at God's mercy. The sacrament can be an occasion for deep joy.
We are so often critical of others, and can see their faults with withering accuracy. But when we regularly say "Bless me, father, for I have sinned," and then humbly confess our sins, we can grow in compassion for others, and be slower to judge. This is especially true when we are critical of a person who never seems to be able to improve.
When, in confession after confession, we sadly acknowledge our continuing struggle with some habitual sin, then we cannot be so quick to demand immediate perfection in those around us. We are all on a journey of purification, if we will humbly be open to God's grace. It is good to remember the saying: "Be patient; God isn't finished with me yet." Regular confession can help us to become more compassionate.
If, as is normal, we find that we do confess the same types of sins from one confession to the next, we should not be discouraged, and give up the sacrament. Each of us has a unique pattern of personal weakness, and over the course of life God gradually transforms us. Regular confession helps us to keep humble, and that is the doorway to repentance and salvation.
By confessing our sins we can help the priest to give us spiritual counsel and encouragement, and perhaps the advice we need to deal with some particularly troubling sin.
Confession is not absolutely essential to the sacrament. The fundamental reality of the sacrament is, after all, the divine gift of absolution. In situations such as a sinking ship, or a crashing airplane, or an imminent battle, a priest may give "general absolution" without individual confession. There are a few other emergency situations in which the local bishop can authorize general absolution, when he judges that individual confession cannot be expected.
But these are extreme cases. The confession of sins is so important that the normal way of celebrating the sacrament is to approach a priest for individual confession and absolution, or to participate in a communal celebration of the sacrament in which all join together in listening to the word of God, and singing hymns of repentance, and listening to a homily, and perhaps joining in a common expression of sorrow, followed by individual confession and absolution.
Regular confession can help us to become more compassionate.
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