Perhaps there are some who believe that once you've been "born again," you've got a ticket to heaven. Through Baptism, after all, we have been given the fullness of life in Christ. "By Baptism, all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1263). One who dies right after Baptism will surely be welcomed into the arms of God.
However, Baptism does not wipe out the human tendency to sin -- what the church calls concupiscence. It does not put an end to our weakness. So, Baptism is not the end of our journey, but the beginning. "For all the baptized, children or adults, faith must grow after Baptism" (no. 1254). In fact, the Catechism says "This second conversion is an uninterrupted task for the whole church" (no. 1428).
There are many means we can use to nurture the growth of divine life within us -- prayer, penance, works of mercy and frequent reception of the Eucharist are among them. But one means that is essential is a critical examination of our faults and a resolve to overcome them. We need to admit that we sin, we need to say specifically what those sins are and we need to take steps to ensure that we don't sin again. If we don't do that, it is virtually guaranteed that sin will slowly, but inexorably, take over our lives.
Our human, natural tendency is to rationalize our actions which we believe others see as immoral. "I wasn't rude to her; she was rude to me." "Sure, I was angry, but who wouldn't be in that situation?" "I know I could have helped but I was busy doing other things." Rationalizations eat away at the life of grace within us. They don't immediately destroy that life, but they do betray our baptismal commitment to make Jesus the Lord of every aspect of our lives.
One of the roots of sin is the separation of faith from life. We can, for example, be uncritical of what we do for entertainment. Entertainment can be a way to put aside our values and create a world in which our imaginations are opposed to the life we share with Christ. Then we tell ourselves little lies to rationalize the decay taking place in our hearts.
To make Jesus the Lord of every aspect of life, we have to identify those lies and bring them out of the darkness where they hide. This is not easy. It takes brutally honest self-examination which must fight against our tendency to keep those lies hidden.
These lies are personal, but they can also be collective. A whole society can be in denial about the evil it is perpetrating -- Germany during the Holocaust, Canada today about the holocaust of the unborn. The Pentagon Papers detailed the fabric of mendacity which helped keep the American public from seeing the evil the U.S. government was doing in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s.
It takes great courage to name the lie within oneself when one's whole being is trying to hide the truth. As well, those people who name the lie are persecuted and marginalized by society. People do not want to hear the truth.
As Christians, once we uncover our sins we can take them to Jesus and ask for his forgiveness. We can do that privately and seek forgiveness through personal prayer.
But Jesus and his church have provided a far better way. By telling our sins to a priest, who stands before us as the person of Jesus Christ, we can receive forgiveness directly from Jesus. This is very comforting -- we have spoken of the darkest part of our soul to another person and received the assurance of God's forgiveness.
But Confession is more than comforting and it is more than a counselling session. It is a sacrament. With the sacrament comes grace. There is a general grace which deepens the supernatural life which already exists in the soul and which perfects the contrition we have for our sins. And there is also a grace tailored to the penitent's unique needs. This grace strengthens the penitent in the battle against the sins he or she has just confessed. To the extent that one's Confession and resolve to amend one's life has gotten at the root of evil then, to that extent, this grace will help the penitent.
The best Confession is one where a person has been totally vulnerable, totally honest about how they've messed up. The sacrament can really move a person forward to Christ. And if one's use of the sacrament is not a one-shot deal, but used frequently to battle the sin in one's heart, it can lead to a radical reorientation of one's life.
Perhaps the saddest thing about our church today is how the sacrament of Confession has fallen into disuse. It shows that we don't take the power of sin seriously enough and that we are not active enough in trying to progress from the initial grace of Baptism to a life totally oriented toward Christ.
But the sacrament of Penance also holds the key for moving us forward towards holiness -- both as individuals and as a body. It can help us discipline ourselves to fight the battle of sin. And it can provide us with the grace to overcome the particular weaknesses which prevent us from living in the fullness of God's love. Frequent Confession can help us to bear much fruit.
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