Over the past year I’ve published here in our Parish Bulletin a series of little articles on the first two Sacraments of Initiation, that is, Baptism and Confirmation (plus other things from time to time). These are reworked from columns I penned here back in 1997-2002.
What next? While ordinarily you might expect a new series on the third Sacrament of Initiation, the Eucharist. But no. First of all, with the revision of the English translation of the Mass coming up later this year, I think I’ll wait until after its introduction at the end of November to begin an in-depth consideration of the Mass and its parts.
Instead, let’s deal with the Sacrament which most Catholics first receive just before their First Holy Communion: the Sacrament of Penance. It is the privileged moment of prayer in which the forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism takes place (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1486).
Maybe you know this special Catholic worship-moment by one of its other names, as “confession” or “reconciliation,” for instance. The Catechism also notes that it’s called the Sacrament of “conversion” and also of “forgiveness” at times (see nos. 1423 and 1424, too). No matter what you call it, it’s surely a topic about which Catholics and non-Catholics alike often have strong feelings.
That’s actually a good thing. You know, the reason I think so many people dislike confession – and probably stay away from it! – is the fact that they’re really uncomfortable with the whole idea of admitting their faults. Great! That awareness is the first giant step on the way to appreciating the sacrament!
We’re not supposed to enjoy it when we realize we’re sinners. The mere fact that we’re selfish, prejudiced, uncharitable, and immoral in so many other ways makes us ashamed. We do wrong things a lot, and some of them are very, very wrong!
What is more, in confession we have to tell someone else about our faults. Knowing of our wrongdoing is bad enough, but to admit it is really hard! This is a basic human weakness. We would rather that others think we’re better than we really are – and we certainly don’t want others to know the secret depths of our sinfulness.
So right there we can take a small measure of consolation, I guess. I like to tell people, especially young people, that if deep down you are really uncomfortable with the whole idea of confession this is a sign of normalcy! It’s good to know you’re a sinner. But there’s a world of difference – maybe an eternity of difference! – between a sinner who admits it and one who doesn’t. As we continue to explore in the articles ahead the great opportunity we have in the Sacrament of Penance, we’ll let this be our starting point: going to confession is hard, but it’s far smarter than thinking we don’t need to confess.