The power of Confession

More people recognise the value of the sacrament

What a pleasant surprise to read in a recent edition of the Irish Catholic (9/1/14) that due to the ‘Francis effect’ more people are going to confession. I sincerely hope that having celebrated the sacrament, they will leave the church enhanced, consoled and renewed. This is very important to me, because it was as the result of a very bad experience I had in confession in 1990 that I felt called to the priesthood.

Since my ordination, one of the things that has exercised me greatly is the way that we, as priests, view the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and how we deal with our sisters and brothers in this sacred and most sensitive of encounters. The first thing that strikes me is that it is a celebration – a meeting with Christ which should bring joy and happiness and leave us with a great sense of contentment and well-being now that we are peace with God, our fellow humans and ourselves. God is the One who gives us unconditional love through Christ. We must never forget that after we have done the most awful of things – murder, child-abuse, character-assassination etc, that God still loves us. I often imagine Him as a doting grandfather who overlooks with a smile even the most serious damage done by the little ones. His major concern is that no harm should come to the grandchild. At the same time, when the granddaughter or grandson is old enough to realise that what they have done is wrong and says ‘Sorry’, the granddad sees it as a significant moment in the child’s growth in awareness and moral development. He is probably thinking: “That’s great. This child is going to be like my son or daughter.” And I’m sure, God rejoices in the same way when we repent and sees us in the same way growing more like His Son Jesus.

Ideally, we meet Christ in the Sacrament of Reconciliation after we have become aware of something in our lives that is damaging to ourselves or others. In modern parlance, this is often referred to as the ‘Aha! moment’. It may have dawned on us that we are treating our spouse with disrespect, or that we are cheating our employer, or that our drinking habit is ruining our lives etc. We then move to the next step by changing our attitude and style of living and by celebrating this conversion sacramentally. Liturgists are now more keen to promote this type of action in preference to the weekly confession of the few venial sins.

Forms of penance

The ‘penance’ forms an interesting part of the sacrament. The three Hail Marys or the Our Father etc are supposed to promote the essential process of repentance and reconciliation. However, could we not be more creative in helping our fellow sinners move forward? Somebody who has fallen out with a neighbour might be asked to give a smile and a greeting. A child who has given a lot of trouble in class could be asked to be so good for two days that the teacher will be surprised and amazed. A general penance might be a request to do something nice for someone. However, the penance that most often causes a negative reaction, is when somebody, like a parent under stress, is asked to give themselves a treat. In response to their protestations, I usually tell them that after a treat they will feel much happier and be better able to cope with their situation.

How priests behave

How should the priest behave in Confession? The old idea of the priest being the judge who needed to know the number of times the sin was committed and the details regarding the circumstances etc seem totally at variance with the Lord’s own approach to the sinner. Personally, I see no reason why the priest should need to know such details, but would rather see themselves as soft-hearted concelebrants with the repentant sinner.

So, while I don’t regret having had that terrible experience over 24 ago, I feel that any priest who makes himself available for Confession, should, like Christ, be gentle and humble in heart and be an alter Christus for those who come for reconciliation.