Most of us at one time or another will have heard the expression ‘Confession is good for the soul’. It is actually an old Scottish proverb and has no Biblical roots. Of course, confession can have many different interpretations. E.g. someone can confess their love for another person and many a Soap cliff-hanger has involved a character confessing to their partner that they have been unfaithful with someone else. There is an inference that one is admitting to something wrong, or at the very least something one is ashamed of and thinks it would be better not to have done.
There is a two-fold dimension to the act of confession. On the one hand, there is the notion that you will feel better in yourself having brought what is troubling you out into the open; the other is the opportunity to make-up or atone for what you have done. I am remembering the example of Matt Talbot who having in his drinking days, stolen a fiddle from a poor blind musician, tried later to find the man. He was unsuccessful so he had masses offered up instead in an attempt at restitution.
In the Catholic Church, Penance or Confession is one of the seven sacraments. A sacrament is an outward sign of an inner grace or gift. Confession is one of two sacraments which are celebrated as a sign and instrument of God’s abiding healing power. The other is the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Reconciliation (another term), is for those whose bond with the Church, and ultimately with God and Christ, has been weakened or even broken by sin. Sin is defined at its most simple as being separation from God.
The text to which Catholic teaching has referred in asserting the sacramentality and divine origin of Penance is John 20:22-23, which records one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances: “Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.”
During his public ministry, Jesus also preached about the forgiveness of sins in the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Lost Sheep. He himself forgave sins as in the woman who was being stoned for adultery and the woman who washed his feet with her tears. Even more significantly he taught us to pray for forgiveness: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Also at the ascension, Jesus said to his apostles: “Thus it is written that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead on the third day. In his name, penance for the remission of sins is to be to be preached to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses to this.” It is clear that Jesus came to forgive sins and he wanted that reconciliation to continue.
I remember, as many will, during preparation for our first confession, being given a list of sins to tell the priest! In hindsight, there was an innocence about that but as time moved on there was no longer a necessity to make anything up! We were told to make a weekly confession and I remember doing so for quite a long time. In actual fact, the Canon Law of the Church only asks us to go once a year in preparation for Easter. However, we are encouraged to go more frequently and Saint Pope John Paul went to confession every week.
In the past many people were frightened of the priest and afraid especially of how he might react to their particular sins. Naturally, a priest’s own personality often came into play on these occasions so some had the reputation of being ‘easier’ than others! This not only referred to their reaction to the poor sinner in the confessional but also to what they might suggest you undertake as penance. For a hilarious account of a young boy’s first confession check out the short story ‘First Confession’ by Frank O’Connor.
Under the New Rite of Reconciliation in 1974 parishes were encouraged to hold regular “penitential celebrations” that could be attended by anyone from a handful to hundreds of people. There would be a number of priests in attendance and you could choose to whom you would go and have a conversation with. This method identifies the effect of the sacrament as reconciliation with God and with the Church. The priest functions more as a healer than a judge. The communal celebration of the sacrament is consoling as it indicates that we are all on the same journey home to God, living our lives as best we can but knowing we do fall many times along the way. In my own parish church we have visiting Franciscans every Christmas and Easter and personally, I have found it very helpful to talk to this lovely order of Priests for confession.
These days when more and more people attend psychotherapists and other professionals to help them look at their lives and the direction they are going in, we have in the sacrament of confession a very simple way to do just that. Examining our lives and deciding where we could do better is beneficial not only to us but to everyone we encounter along on the way. We have the added advantage of knowing that we have God’s sacramental grace to help us on the journey.