Rediscovering the Sacrament of Reconciliation

If we say, “We are without sin,” we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1:8)

One might wonder why we raise the topic of Confession in mid-January, since the period of Advent came to a close some time ago, and the Lenten time of renewal is still a ways off in February. When I see the door leading into the Confessional, and beautiful festive adornments in the parish church, I associate them with the words spoken by a priest –  “You never know if that was the last Christmas of your life”.

Even if you have so many things on your bucket list yet to do, such as taking a trip to Cape Town or visiting the Himeji Castle, there is something else, perhaps less exciting. A vast majority of Aussies try not to broach the subject of death with close family members, finding it terribly uncomfortable or not wanting to upset their loved ones. Arranging rituals including a funeral or memorial service can fulfill important functions, but definitely the most important thing, before passing away, is to make a good confession, which is like weeding the garden of the soul.

Unfortunately, many people are seeking different outlets for confession. In the Land Down Under, psychologists and therapists are currently stretched more than ever. According to the recent National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing, in the reference period 2020-2021, over two in five Australians aged 16-85 years (8.6 million people) went through a mental disorder at some time in their life. Meanwhile, anxiety was the most common group of 12-month mental disorders (3.3 million people). There is no doubt, some percentage of those people might experience the healing power of this sacrament if they only wanted.

And this, at a time when Catholicism in Australia faces crises such as a radical decline in faith and morals, when thousands are abandoning the sacramental life each year; in July 2022, the Plenary Council of Australia asked that Pope Francis approve a wider use of the Third Rite of Reconciliation (that is, general absolution without individual confession). It reminds one of the situation sawing off the branch we are sitting on.

It amazes me even more that the Vatican explicitly told the Australian bishops on their ad limina visit to Rome in 1998 that they were not to allow the use of the third rite. The Catechism clearly explains “when there is imminent danger of death without sufficient time for the priest or priests to hear each penitent’s confession” (CCC 1483). Hence, “general absolution” can be applied, for example, in circumstances like war or natural disasters.

By the Scriptures, “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Thus, no one is “innocent” in the sense of being sinless. We were all born with a sinful nature, inherited from Adam. In theory, people should be fully aware of this, yet it appears to be out of touch with the realities of Christian life.

How often one can encounter an elderly Catholic, who has been living without the sacraments all their adult life, still deeply convinced of their righteousness, and claiming “I do not need a mercy of God because I have done so much good in my life.” Things seem to get even worse when this sense of false holiness and sinlessness before God accompanies a person who is about to leave this earthly life. Then the immediate implication of this attitude may be really tragic.

In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, (Luke 18:9-14) Jesus shows us that pride leads to illusion and self-deception, while humility helps us see ourselves as we really are, when one comes in all truth before God and needs for God’s mercy. “But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’” Acknowledging our unworthiness, inadequacy, and inability to accomplish His will, a fortiori, we should humbly beg for His mercy for our sins, even if searching our souls for any malice we find none.

As we grow in holiness, we actually become more aware of our own sinfulness and the need of God’s grace.

St. Faustina heard after Communion “You see what you are of yourself, but do not be frightened at this. If I were to reveal to you the whole misery that you are, you would die of terror.” (Diary 718).

God can draw good out of evil. In denying Jesus, Simon Peter not only betrayed himself but also revealed the weakness of his faith, how easily his love for the Lord was crushed by his own human fears. Without a doubt, it was the nadir of Peter’s life, touching the absolute bottom. However, it was a blessing in disguise, because learning the truth of himself, Peter possessed a real gem, an acute sense of his own sinfulness, which one can assume, most likely went on till the end of life.

Though it is our duty to mention in confession all our mortal sins, we are also encouraged to confess venial sins. There are numerous benefits of receiving the Sacrament of Penance regularly.

Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit. By receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father’s mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as he is merciful” (CCC 1458)

His Holiness Pope John Paul II, in Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation and Penance, perfectly fit in this January reflection on the Sacrament of Reconciliation in these words:

Though the church knows and teaches that venial sins are forgiven in other ways too-for instance, by acts of sorrow, works of charity, prayer, penitential rites-she does not cease to remind everyone of the special usefulness of the sacramental moment for these sins too. The frequent use of the sacrament-to which some categories of the faithful are in fact held-strengthens the awareness that even minor sins offend God and harm the church, the body of Christ. Its celebration then becomes for the faithful “the occasion and the incentive to conform themselves more closely to Christ and to make themselves more docile to the voice of the Spirit.” Above all it should be emphasized that the grace proper to the sacramental celebration has a great remedial power and helps to remove the very roots of sin.

The saints have always reminded us how important it is to receive this sacrament frequently.

St. John Paul II who went to Confession weekly, said: Those who go to confession frequently and do so with the desire to make progress, know they have received in this sacrament, through pardon from God and grace from the Spirit, a precious light for the path of perfection.

St. Francis de Sales in his book Introduction to the Devout Life, written for the 17th century laity, recommends regular and frequent confession:

even though your conscience is not burdened with mortal sin; for in confession you do not only receive absolution for your venial sins, but you also receive great strength to help you in avoiding them henceforth, clearer light to discover your failings, and abundant grace to make up whatever loss you have incurred through those faults.

One of the maxims of St. Philip Neri on the subject says: Frequent confession is the cause of great good to the soul, because it purifies it, heals it, and confirms it in the service of God.

A practice of regular confession looks different for each person – whether it is once a month, every two weeks, or some other interval. What is important is that each one individually or with the guidance of spiritual director can discern what is the best for them. It should be remembered, that the number of confessions does not increase or decrease God’s love for us, but does increase or decrease our love for God. Some may consider weekly confession of lay persons may be excessive, a sign of scrupulosity, not to mention it being impractical for some. But many did so in the annals of the saints, and going only every season, or even less often, may be proof of an easy going attitude to the spiritual life, even spiritually hazardous in case God wishes abruptly to end someone’s life.

The practice of going to confession during Mass is more common, although not universal, in Polish, Latino and Italian communities. However, different cultural factors here often come into play. The faithful hailing from an Irish, Anglo-Celtic and North European heritage are generally accustomed to a separation of the two sacraments. The priests, by and large, feel reluctant to make confession available during Mass.

Many say that prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Church was a rock of stability and certainty in a stormy world and Catholics in large numbers went to confession. Then almost overnight it changed, because sin was de-emphasized. For years, in many big parishes, large numbers of people go to Communion every week, while very few go to Confession. There were apparent reasons to wonder if there were also many unworthy and sacrilegious Communions received. This is certainly true for the majority of Western democracies but not necessarily for the rest of the Catholic World.

Long lines of penitents waiting for the sacrament of reconciliation hitherto could be seen in major cities of Poland not only on the main solemnities but also on the First Fridays and Saturdays of each month before the tsunami of Covid-insanity hit the world.

Although God is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and eternal, He cannot force us to love Him. If God created us without free will, we would be living machines or slaves, not made in His image and likeness. Therefore, God in His infinite mercy will wait until the final moments of a sinner’s life, but “those who run away from His merciful Heart will fall into the hands of His justice” (Diary 1728). Regrettably, many Australian Catholics, especially the young, are following the global trend towards eco-consciousness as a substitute for real Christian virtue.

Finally, may the words received from Jesus by a contemporary Polish mystic, Alicja Lenczewska, be a dire warning to all those who never want to hear of confessing; what is more – willfully neglect meeting Jesus in the afterlife.

Turning away from God, especially by definite break-up and rebellion against him, is suicide and deicide. It is killing what is divine in man and thus condemning oneself to eternal, terrible suffering, parallel to ripping out one’s heart.

Aren’t there things in us or in our fellow sinners that need pruning, such as pride, hatred, cruelty, envy, anger, violence? Perhaps, you need to sink so low into your misery as to weep bitterly like Simon Peter!

Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt 3:10)

A postscript:

Saint Joseph is our most powerful intercessor in preparing a soul for the great sacrament of mercy. The story is set in Eastern Poland in Borysław, the diocese of Lwów (Lviv), in 1930 where the spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary  reportedly manifested himself to an assistant pastor, Father Adam Sikora.

“One day, at the end of the afternoon Fr. Adam was exhausted and fell asleep. All of a sudden, someone loudly knocked on the window and woke him up crying out insistently: ‘Please, get up immediately and visit a sick person who is dying in the second floor apartment at 50 Sobieskiego Street (in Lwów).”’ The priest rose, went to the porch to meet the person who would lead him to the sick but no one was there. However, after a short time, the same happened again. The priest went out to the porch but nobody was found.  “Maybe somebody wants to drag me out of the house at night and kill me” he thought.

This time Fr. Adam lay down on the bed in clerical clothing. After a while, although the doors were locked, an old man came in, approached the bed, and grabbing the terrified priest he yelled: ”Go to the given address because that man is dying!”. Next the mysterious figure disappeared.

The clergyman realized that something supernatural had happened to him and he should not oppose to it. He hurried to the church for Viaticum and for the Anointing of the Sick and set out to help the sick.

The doctor’s wife was standing at the doorstep. “What brings you here at this time, Father?” she inquired anxiously.  “Neither of us has called the priest, we are both atheists”, she added.

When the priest told the extraordinary story of his arrival, the doctor was so moved that he asked his wife to fetch the holy image from the next room. Fr. Adam recognized at once in the image, the bearded, elderly man who had forced him to come there.

Then the doctor’s voice broke with emotion and recalled his mother leaving this earthly life. That poignant moment she handed him the image of St. Joseph with the advice that he should throughout his life say the prayer to Saint Joseph for a happy death. “In spite of losing faith in God to be faithful to the promise, I mechanically said this prayer. Now I see that St. Joseph did not let my soul die. I want to make a confession and  reconcile with God.” said the sick doctor

Fr. Adam thanked God for the grace of providing spiritual comfort and the sacraments to the sick man, and left the apartment. As he was reaching the elevator the doctor’s wife came running up and cried out “Father, my husband is dying!”

In 1954, at the meeting of priests of the diocese of Przemyśl, Fr. Adam Sikora described this very well in his account of the events.