Tag Archives: Confession

Multiplying Mercy

14 Aug

Sermon on the MountThis summer I’ve pounded my head on the table more than once as I’ve tried to help my antsy, highly distractible fourth-grade son learn his times tables. He especially struggles with the 7s. And despite his athletic prowess, the fact that all he has to do is count touchdowns (7-14-21-28-etc.) doesn’t seem to help much.

Just my luck, in today’s Gospel Our Lord turns mercy into a math problem. How often are we to forgive our neighbor? Seven times? Try seventy-seven times (that would be 7 X 11). In other versions of this text, presumably for more advanced math students, Jesus tells us to forgive 7 X 70 times (that would be 490 times).

Is Our Lord really trying to quantify our forgiveness, such that at some point we can comfortably say in good conscience that we’re off the hook, that we don’t have to forgive anymore? Absolutely not. He wants us to understand that we should expect mercy in the measure that we’re willing to give it. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Just as we’re in constant need of mercy, it stands to reason that we’re in constant need of extending mercy.

I expect mercy every time I go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation to confess pretty much the same sins that I already told Our Lord through the priest that I was “firmly resolved” to not commit anymore. How can I then turn around and be miserly to others, and not cut them a similar break? That’s the question posed to each of us in today’s Gospel.

It’s not about math, and it’s not about being a doormat or naive. We don’t have to let others take unjust advantage of us. But we can and must forgive even if we think our spouse, child, friend, classmate, or colleague is not sufficiently “sorry” or committed to change his or her behavior. It’s on them to take our mercy and run with it.

Simply put, our job is to reflect God’s boundless mercy to all whom we meet.

Go and Sin No More

7 Apr

woman caught in adulteryIn today’s Gospel, we hear the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), an episode found only in St. John’s Gospel. If we go back a few verses, we read that Jesus spent the evening at the Mount of Olives (John 7:53-8:1), the site of the garden known as Gethsemane, where Jesus would undergo His agony after the Last Supper. This site had always been a place of prayer (see 2 Samuel 15:32; Ezekiel 43:1-4), and Scripture records that Jesus often went to the Mount of Olives to pray to His Heavenly Father (Luke 22:39).

Then, early in the morning, Jesus went to the Temple, where people came to hear Him teach. This was the scene when the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman who had just been caught in the act of adultery. As the scribes and Pharisees quickly pointed out, this offense was punishable by death pursuant to the Law of Moses. They asked Jesus what He had to say about this.

Clearly there was a mob mentality afoot, as the religious leaders clamored for the death penalty for this woman. But there was much more to it than that; they were setting a trap for Jesus. If Jesus called for the execution of the woman, He would be reported to the Romans, as the Jews were not authorized to administer capital punishment. If Jesus refused to call for her execution, He would be violating the Mosaic Law. He already was perceived as being overly indulgent toward sinners, and this would make Him appear to be a compromiser lacking any real moral authority.

Jesus did not choose either of these alternatives. Instead, He stood up and famously instructed the one who was without sin to cast the first stone.

Then Jesus did something very interesting: He bent down and began writing with His finger in the dirt. Saints and theologians through the centuries have speculated as to what Jesus was writing. At no other time in Scripture do we hear about Jesus’ writing down anything. It would be fascinating to know what He wrote on this occasion!

One tradition is that Jesus was writing down the sins of the scribes and Pharisees who were overly focused on the woman’s sin. Whatever Jesus was writing, the effect was that one-by-one they all walked away, beginning with the “oldest,” which in this context would mean the wisest. Perhaps the scribes and Pharisees were convicted by Jesus’ words and/or writings. Or maybe they believed that they were sufficiently righteous so as to execute the woman, but feared reprisal from the Romans. Regardless, from a “pr” standpoint, they were the ones who ultimately appeared weak and sinful in the face of Our Lord’s challenge.

This left Jesus alone with the woman. Jesus made explicit the fact that no one was going to condemn her, and neither was He, even though He was without sin (Hebrews 4:15) and could have “cast the first stone.” He saved this woman’s life. He showed her mercy. However, He did not condone the sin, but rather commanded the woman to decisively turn away from the sin in her life.

The Church reminds us that each of us is like that woman caught in adultery. In the Old Testament, God revealed that every sin is really an act of adultery, because it entails infidelity to God’s covenant of love. The prophets referred to Israel as His adulterous bride, and, in some ways, each of us by our sins has become that adulterous bride. Each of us merits to be stoned. But, Christ laid down His life to make His bride, the Church, holy and spotless (Ephesians 5:25-27).

He, the only one who is truly qualified to cast a stone, died out of love so that His bride wouldn’t have to.

All this should have three effects in us.

First, we should recognize the gravity of our sins and understand how deadly they are — not only do they kill us, but they killed the Lord, the one who loved us more (and more purely) than anyone ever will.

Second, we should seek out His mercy. He doesn’t want us to wait until others catch us in the act of a serious sin and drag us to Him, but rather we should come to Him on our own accord.

Third, we must stop judging others and begin to extend God’s merciful forgiveness to them, as Jesus clearly teaches us that the measure with which we measure will be measured back to us.

This week’s readings remind us of the inestimable value of the Sacrament of Penance. Just as Jesus cuts through the complexity of our sin to provide a just and merciful decision in today’s Gospel, so today in the confessional He is willing to do something “new” in our lives, as He applies the same wisdom and mercy as medicine so as to restore life and vitality to our immortal souls.

All of the elements found in today’s Gospel—such as sin, law, guilt, contrition, mercy, justice, and liberation—are at work in the confessional: a penitent who has broken God’s Law, a conscience troubled, sins confessed, a just penance assigned, an Act of Contrition recited, and above all, redemptive mercy received.

Why Confess Sins to a Priest?

13 Jun

ConfessionalI think that the best way to answer this question is by beginning with Baptism. Through the Sacrament of Baptism, a person is cleansed of original sin and receives the “grace of a new birth in God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Spirit” (St. Irenaeus, 2nd century bishop). Through this regeneration in water and the Spirit, a person becomes a Christian, born again as a son or daughter of God (Jn. 3:3-6; Rom. 8:14-17).

After becoming a child of God, one may freely damage or break off his relationship with God through sin. While venial sin damages our relationship with God, mortal sin actually severs the relationship through the loss of God’s supernatural life of grace within us (cf. 1 Jn. 5:16-17; Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1854-64).

When a person chooses to kill that life of grace through mortal sin, God, who is full of mercy, seeks to reconcile His prodigal son or daughter to Himself (cf. Lk. 15:11-32). God alone can forgive sins, yet He empowered the Apostles and their successors–bishops and priests–to carry out His ministry of reconciliation (cf. 2 Cor. 5:18-21). In fact, Christ instituted the Sacrament of Reconciliation as His first gift to the Church on Easter Sunday. As St. John writes:

[Jesus said,] “As the Father has sent Me [with all authority, Mt. 28:18], even so I send you.” And with this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn. 20:21-23; cf. Lk. 10:16; Mt. 16:19, 28:18-20).

The Church’s power to bind and loose (Mt. 16:19, 18:18) provides further scriptural evidence for this sacrament. As the Church has taught for 2,000 years, the priest exercises his ministry in persona Christi (that is, in the person of Christ). This means that in confessing one’s sins to a priest, one truly confesses one’s sins to Christ Himself and receives pardon from God. Because the priest acts in persona Christi, he is the spiritual head or “father” of the community (cf. 1 Cor. 4:14-15). Thus, Confession reconciles us with Christ and His Body, the Church, whom we have wounded by sin.

Sin is never a private matter, since it always disrupts the order of creation and the whole community (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-6). Through Christ, the priest forgives the sinner in the name of the whole community, the Body of Christ. “Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God” (Catechism, no. 1445). In his New Testament Epistle, St. James exhorts us, “[C]onfess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (Jas. 5:16).

The Sacrament of Confession is one of healing. It makes us aware of our sinfulness and our dependence on God; therefore everyone is encouraged to receive the sacrament frequently in order to grow closer to Lord and to one another.

So sin is not a solitary matter, nor does any Christian have a “God-and-me-alone” relationship with the Father (1 Cor. 12:12-26). Confessing our sins within the Body of Christ allows us to reconcile with God and strengthen the Church, providing a witness so that all may turn and repent (2 Pet. 3:9).

Going to Confession?

15 Oct

Have you been to Confession (aka the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation) lately? Would you like to go, or perhaps even feel that the Lord is asking you to go, but it’s been awhile? Well then, let’s review the basics so that you are fully equipped to respond to this godly inspiration.

Especially at this time of year, the most common form of the Sacrament of Penance is the Rite for the Reconciliation of Individual Penitents.

Many localities also offer communal penance services, typically before Christmas and Easter. These services streamline the process so as to accommodate a larger number of penitents, but they still involve individual confession of sins and individual absolution. And at any rate, Christmas is still more than two months away, so there is no reason to wait for the next round of communal services.

So what are the steps to going to Confession? Continue reading

More Than a Feeling

27 Jun

For some of us, our first encounter with conscience may have been the movie Pinocchio, where the wise Jiminy Cricket exhorts our hero to “let conscience be [his] guide.” For others, it may have been an elementary catechism class, where we learned that conscience is a “little voice” inside us helping us to sort out right from wrong. Whatever the source, animated by Disney or supernatural grace—or likely a combination of the two—we learned early on that it is a very good and even necessary thing to follow our conscience.

As we develop a more mature understanding of Christian morality, we still recognize our fundamental obligation to follow our conscience. The Church teaches that conscience is that privileged place within us where God speaks to us. Conscience gives us the framework for making good, loving choices and shunning evil impulses and temptations. Even on a natural level we encounter the workings of conscience, as pagans and Christians alike have experienced a sense “deep down” that something just is—or is not—the right thing to do.

For Christians, of course, conscience goes beyond those elements of the natural law that are accessible to every human heart (cf. Rom. 2:14-15): The more our conscience is formed by the teachings of Christ and his Church, the more our conscience becomes finely attuned to all that is true, good, and beautiful.

And conscience is not merely a window to the natural law, but a place where we actually encounter the living God. The Gospel warns us against professing belief in the Lord while failing to do what he says (Lk. 6:46). What good would it be, for example, for our conscience to tell us it is wrong to defraud our creditors if we have no intention to act upon such guidance? It would be like driving at night without using our headlights. Such a culpably reckless approach would inevitably lead to disaster.

Therefore, it is clear that we have a serious duty to do what we believe is right in God’s eyes, and this entails heeding our conscience. As the Church teaches, our dignity and even our eternal destiny lie in our obedience to God’s voice within us Continue reading

Time for Confession

21 Mar

Tonight the Sacrament of Reconciliation will be offered in all the parishes of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas from 6:00-7:00 p.m. as part of our Lenten Confession initiative. Whether it’s been a month or ten years since your last Confession, consider going over to the church this evening.

I’m frequently asked how often Catholics should go to Confession. Many people just want to know the minimum requirement. In that regard, the Church provides that all Catholics who have reached the age of discretion (approximately the age of seven) are required to confess their mortal sins once a year. In addition, if one has committed a mortal sin, he or she must go to Confession before receiving Holy Communion.

While that is the minimum requirement, the Church strongly recommends frequent reception of the sacrament–even when one has not committed a mortal sin since the previous Confession–as a means of growing in holiness (see Catechism, no. 1458). The Introduction to the Rite of Penance puts it this way:

“[T]he frequent and careful celebration of this sacrament is also very useful as a remedy for venial sins. This is not a mere ritual repetition or psychological exercise, but a serious striving to perfect the grace of baptism so that, as we bear in our body the death of Jesus Christ, his life may be seen in us ever more clearly. In confession of this kind, penitents who accuse themselves of venial faults should try to be more closely conformed to Christ and to follow the voice of the Spirit more attentively” (no. 7).

As for what might constitute “frequent” reception of the sacrament, monthly or even weekly Confession can make a significant difference in the spiritual lives of those who hunger and thirst for holiness.

After all, Christ’s first gift to His Church after rising from the dead was the gift of Reconciliation entrusted to His Apostles and their legitimate successors (Jn. 20:19-23), so that we may personally experience God’s mercy and peace.

How often should we go to Confession? Whenever we want to experience anew the mercy and peace of Christ. How about this evening?

Taking Our Medicine

8 Mar

All of us have had the experience of realizing that we have sinned. We understand that what we did was wrong, and we can readily discern the negative effects of our actions. We then sincerely ask the Lord for His mercy and we try to make things right with anyone we may have hurt.

As Catholics we appreciate the gift of divine mercy and peace that is ours through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which “offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1446). In other words, we realize we’re spiritually sick, and so we desire the appropriate remedy.

During this Lenten season all the parishes in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas are offering the Sacrament of Reconciliation from 6:00-7:00 p.m. on Wednesday evenings, in addition to the usual Confession times. We do well to take advantage of this archdiocesan initiative, and we may want to visit the archdiocesan website for a variety of resources on Confession.

As we make our Act of Contrition after confessing our sins, we “firmly resolve with the help of God’s grace to sin no more.” We’re banking on God’s help, but in this prayer we’re telling Our Lord that we are absolutely serious about avoiding sin in the future.

In other words, we’re committed to doing whatever we can to help reverse the cycle of sin in our life, to wipe it out at the source.

Given our commitment to “sin no more,” it would be extremely helpful to have some understanding of the underlying causes of our sins. I’m sure we all ask ourselves on occasion, “Where did I go wrong?” Surely we’re all prone to sin because of our fallen nature, but it’s also true that sin isn’t all that innovative or trendy. My sins and your sins are not all that original. Ask any confessor! It’s actually quite possible to trace most of our sins to some very basic moral errors.

That’s why paragraph no. 1792 is one of the most enlightening entries in the entire Catechism. It lists some of the main reasons why we go astray. Here’s what it says:

“Ignorance of Christ and His Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.”

Several of these items jump off the page to me. Doctrinal dissent has consequences in the moral life. My bad example (known as “scandal”) can lead others to sin. Ignorance is not “bliss” when it comes to the Gospel. And this Catechism quote makes abundantly clear that an erroneous approach to conscience leads to errors in moral judgment.

Conscience is vitally important. It’s God’s way of revealing His truth to us in concrete circumstances, so that we can choose the good He desires for us. So having a well-formed conscience is about doing what God wants, not what “I want.” There are many voices–internal (for example, our own preferences, memories, motivations, and disordered desires) and external (for example, family, friends, and the media)–competing for our attention. We need a certain interiority to be able to hear the Shepherd’s voice, to discern God’s law that is already on our hearts.

Too often we do whatever is expedient, agreeable, or enjoyable, and then we claim that we’re just following our conscience. All we’re doing then is adopting a relativistic–and ultimately atheistic–mindset and giving it the veneer of religiosity. The rejection of the objective moral law is not an exercise of authentic freedom, but rather is the submission to slavery. As the Catechism teaches, this is nothing other than the licentious assertion of one’s autonomy from God and from the moral order.

In number 1792, the Catechism, gives all of us a firm basis for examining our consciences. It leads us to ask these and similar questions of ourselves:

  • Am I ignorant of Christ and His Gospel?
  • Do I seek the Lord’s guidance through regular, humble prayer?
  • Do I assiduously study and internalize the Bible as well as other reliable sources of Catholic teaching and spiritual wisdom?
  • Do I gravitate toward people who aren’t good for me?
  • Do I too readily follow others rather than act as my own person?
  • Am I too concerned about what others think?
  • Is a shared belief in Jesus Christ and His Church the most important factor in choosing my friends and associates?
  • Am I a slave to my passions?
  • Am I mired in habitual sin?
  • Do I overindulge or pamper myself?
  • Do I try to justify conduct that Our Lord considers sinful?
  • Is there a part of my life that I haven’t turned over to God?
  • Are there Church teachings I refuse to accept?
  • Do I strive to form my conscience based on the firm foundation of Catholic truth, or do I look for teachers who will “tickle my ears” (2 Tim. 4:3)?
  • Do I strive to see Christ in those around me, especially the poor and the annoying?
  • Do I really take to heart the fact that all men and women have God-given dignity and value?
  • Do I treat others with basic kindness, patience, and respect?
  • Do I serve only myself?

The Divine Physician doesn’t expect us to overcome these perennial difficulties on our own. In fact, we can’t. However, if we can diagnose the sources of our particular sins, we can better seek out and apply the right spiritual medicine this Lenten season.

Handling the Truth

6 Feb

Many of us who uphold the Church’s teachings, especially in questions of morals, have been told we’re not “compassionate.” How dare we tell couples they shouldn’t live together before marriage, or that they shouldn’t contracept, let alone abort their children, once they’re married? How dare we tell those with same-sex attractions to avoid acting upon these urges? How dare we bring up uncomfortable truths on a whole range of issues, from capital punishment and just wars to honesty, the rights of workers, and the Sunday obligation?

In other words, for many, truth is a hindrance to their conception of compassion and love. Yet truth and love are opposite sides of the same coin!

I’ve been to Confession many, many times in my life (good thing, too!). I have had confessors mechanically mete out an absolution and penance, perhaps in the process reminding me just how evil the sins I committed were. I’ve had other confessors tell me that nothing I mentioned was a sin, that I was a “good man,” and that for my penance I should “lighten up” and “do something just for me.”

The first type of confessor tried to communicate the truth about sin, while the second type tried to communicate “compassion.” While the grace of the sacrament is always present, my most fruitful experiences of Confession have brought together both elements. The priest affirmed the truth about sin, but also in a tangible way communicated the peace, healing, and mercy of Christ. Continue reading

Temperance Matters

27 Oct

Temperance not only is undervalued but also misunderstood today. It does mean moderation, but not in a quantitative, mathematical sense. I could probably eat a dozen donuts, but that would be excessive. Yet not having any donuts would be excessive in the other direction, so I decide to eat only a half dozen. That’s a compromise, but not a temperate one!

Temperance is not pleasure avoidance, even though Prohibition was brought about by the “temperance movement.” And temperance is not merely “sin avoidance,” namely the mere absence of serious sins of gluttony or lust.

Temperance is all about living the good life. Here’s a textbook definition: Temperance moderates the attraction of sensual pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods.

Let’s simplify that: Passions (also known as desires or emotions) are a “given.” They are not good or evil in themselves, but must be harnessed by the intellect and will lest they run amok.

When emotions such as fear keep us from pursuing the good, we need the virtue of fortitude or courage to press on.

Other times our desires pull or even seduce us to seek what isn’t good for us. In those instances, temperance is the virtue that moderates these desires and directs them in a good and healthy way.

Temperance involves staying strong during a storm of passion. We know those storms: “munchies,” sugar cravings, a cold beer or two, sexual urges, anger, the thrill of a gamble or athletic competition, or an exhibition of speed.

Let’s face it, our sins tend to be rooted in disordered desires, so we need the virtue of temperance lest our desires take control of our lives. The various vices of intemperance will lead to addiction and enslavement—spiritual and at times physical and psychological as well.

The virtue of temperance when specifically applied to the area of sexuality is called chastity.

Everyone is called to chastity. It’s a manly thing, and it’s a difficult thing. Continue reading