It’s almost time for Christmas, and the Dogs are taking a few weeks off. In the meantime, please enjoy this little encouragement to take full advantage of the gifts that are available to us all through the Incarnation of the Son of God:
In his short story, “First Confession”, Frank O’Connor vividly recalls the woman who was in charge of his preparation for the Sacrament of Reconciliation:
“She was well-to-do, lived in a big house on Montenotte, wore a black cloak and bonnet, and came every day to school at three o’clock when we should have been going home, and talked to us of hell. She may have mentioned the other place as well, but that could only have been by accident, for hell had the first place in her heart.”
The days of ladies in black cloaks and bonnets telling small children harrowing tales of hell and the haunted souls who went there because they failed to confess even “one small sin” are long behind us. Still, though, there is a certain apprehension among the average Catholic about the Sacrament of Penance. Excuses and justifications abound – “I haven’t done anything really bad. I’m basically a good person,” “Why do I have to confess my sins to a priest? God knows that I’m sorry for my sins,” “All this Catholic guilt is old-fashioned; God loves me.”
There is truth in all of these statements: you are a basically good person, God knows you’re sorry for your sins, and He does love you. But even though they are true, these are not reasons to stay away from confession. The truth is that sin is real, and it really hurts us. No matter what we tell ourselves, we cannot avoid the deep feeling that something in our lives needs to be set right, and we can’t do it ourselves. No one in their right mind would say, “I know I’ve got appendicitis, but I don’t need a doctor. I’m basically a healthy person!”
The simple fact is this: Christ did not give the Church the Sacrament of Penance to make us feel bad about ourselves. Jesus did not die on the cross so that we would always feel guilty for nailing him up there. He gave us the gift of salvation so that we could be free. He wants us to be healed and restored, so that, by having our sins nailed to the cross, every one of us may experience the new life that was poured into the world on Easter morning.
This is what confession is for. God always gives us a second chance. He is not a prudish lady in a black cloak looking for excuses to send us to hell. He is a loving Father who chases after us even when we turn and run from His unconditional love. Confession is the moment when we turn again and accept God’s offer of love and resolve not to turn away again. Reconciliation is a “second baptism”, when God once more washes away our sins and restores us to our status as his beloved sons and daughters.
And it doesn’t matter if you’ve been away from confession for a year or for 50 years. It doesn’t matter if your sins are so numerous and grave that even the sacrifice of God’s only Son seems not to be enough to wash them away. It doesn’t matter if your sins are so mundane and unremarkable that you think God couldn’t possibly care. He does care. In the Sacrament of Penance, all our sins, no matter how grave or pitiful, are overwhelmed and swallowed up in the vast and shoreless ocean of God’s love.
Frank O’Connor ends his childhood tale with an account of his first confession, the matter of which he is sure will lead him straight into the fires of hell. He confesses wanting to kill his grandmother, an unrefined old lady who walks around barefoot and drinks porter from a jug, and worst of all, always takes the side of his older sister. He receives a penance of three Hail Mary’s, and afterwards he recalls walking in the chapel yard:
“Outside, after the shadow of the church, the sunlight was like the roaring of waves on a beach; it dazzled me; and when the frozen silence melted and I heard the screech of trams on the road my heart soared.”
This is what God wants. He wants our hearts to soar, unchained from guilt and regret. He wants to give us His joy. And He waits for us in confession.
Merry Christmas, and God bless you in the new year!