Most people know that Catholics have a sacrament which involves experiencing God’s forgiveness for the unloving choices they’ve made in life. People usually call this sacrament of reconciliation “confession” because it involves confession sins to a priest. Lots of people wonder, “Why can’t I just tell God my sins?” And of course they can and should.
No child has to “say sorry” for being rude to grandma. No couple has to kiss and make up after a quarrel. No friends have to ask each other for forgiveness when a trust has been betrayed. But the experience of forgiving and being forgiven is so much better when there is interaction with others. The sacrament of forgiveness is more about forgiveness than about confessing.
People confess their sins to others all the time. One of my college friends who is a financial advisor once told me that he probably hears more confessions of bad behavior than I do as a priest. Hairdressers and bartenders hear confessions on a daily basis too. My friend said that after he hears someone tell him of something bad they did to cheat a colleague or family member, he wishes he could make things right by absolving them of their past and helping them to start over again by making things right. He feels bad that he can’t.
I feel good that I can. When people come to the sacrament of reconciliation and unburden themselves of the bad unloving choices they’ve made, it’s a wonderfully healing opportunity for me to offer them a real experience of God’s forgiveness. Of course that forgiveness is there whether they come to confess or not. So too is grandma’s forgiveness for her rude grandchild. But forgiveness needs to be experienced for it to be really real.
Another aspect of confessing sins in church is that a priest is morally bound never to reveal to anyone else what is confessed. (He can’t even bring it up in future conversations to the person who confessed the sins.) Sometimes people carry a guilt with them that weighs so heavily upon them, but if they told just anyone, it would ruin their reputation or a relationship. That’s not going to happen in this sacrament of God’s forgiveness. A sin confessed is forgiven and forgotten.
Confession is technically named “The Sacrament of Penance” because one of the best parts of the experience is the opportunity to do something to get back on the right path. Penance is not punishment for sins. God forgives without condition. A penance (which could be prayers and/or acts of kindness and help to others) is more like what a doctor tells a patient about living a healthier life. Do something that makes you healthier; do something that makes your relationship with God and others healthier. The priest offers the person a penance after they confess their sins. If you’re not sure what the penance is about, just ask the priest.
On Monday, March 26th in every Catholic Church on Long Island, priests will be available in church from 3pm to 8pm to celebrate this sacrament with anyone who comes by. If it has been a while since a person celebrated this sacrament (or even if it is the first time) there is no need to be worried. Priests are kind and helpful and will guide people through this healing moment. To prepare, consider these two things: (a) Are there any really “big” choices or actions that you’ve regretted and want to experience God’s forgiveness for? (b) Are there any smaller things that seem to come up over and over again that you would like to be forgiven for and would like to change? Make a list of both these things so you can quickly share these things with the priest and then come to know the forgiving love that God wants you to have.
Finally, Catholics might remember having to say a prayer called “An Act of Contrition” as part of the forgiveness ritual. If they remember a prayer from their childhood, they can pray that prayer. Or if they’ve forgotten or if they never learned this kind of prayer, I’m printing a current version here. You can bring it with you.
An Act of Contrition. “My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In his name, my God, have mercy.”