In one such retreat to students, a young woman came to me. I led her to the usual sign of the cross to start the sacrament. Surprisingly, she did not make the sign of the cross. Then she mentioned that she was a “born-again” Christian.
Curious as to why she wished to avail of the Catholic sacrament of Penance, she just mentioned two things. First of all, in all her troubles and worries, she found no one to talk to. Even her best friends, though willing to lend an ear, had big problems of their own. Secondly, she mentioned too that as a born-again, she confesses directly to God, but she neither hears nor feels anything when she does it. Giving her sound advice, I prayed over her and blessed her.
Many Catholics have apparently set aside the benefit of the sacrament of Penance. But now we see a resurgence of people who desire it. There are many who are so hungry to hear the Word of God and see how the Lord can change their lives. Or in some instances, others would just want someone to listen to them. It seems even members of their own families are too busy for quality time. It is for this reason that Jesus himself established this sacrament so that our transgressions can be forgiven.
A Note on Sin
All human beings are sinful according to the Letter of Paul to the Romans 5:12. It is true that Jesus, through his death, paid the debt for our iniquities. The Bible is clear on this. 1 John 1:7 states that “the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.”
Then there’s the reality of Original Sin. The Bible holds that all men and women have been conceived in sin. (Cf. Job 15:14) But all is not lost, for the love of God is still greater than all our shortcomings. It is simply a matter of humble acceptance of one’s imperfection, and the Lord will grant forgiveness. But as stated, we have to do something. The Bible teaches us that it isn’t enough to “go directly to God” when in fact Jesus himself taught that one must confess his or her sins.
Jesus: The Merciful Listener
Our Lord himself showed us through Scriptures the reality of the forgiveness of sins. In fact, this was one of the many reasons why there was a growing tension and anger with Jesus by the authorities. But as "God becoming man," they failed to understand this basic teaching.
He himself enunciated: “But that you may know that the Son of man has authority to forgive sins on earth” – he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.” (Mark 2:10-12)
He was despised for this as a blasphemer, but Jesus never took back his words. In other instances, he was more daring: “So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven: hence, she has shown great love.” (Luke 7:47). Then in Mark 2:5: “When Jesus saw their faith, he said, ‘Child, your sins are forgiven.’”
These actions became the nucleus of the sacrament of Penance. More than just forgiveness, the sacrament of Penance involves a very personal approach where a listening ear will be waiting, or a word of comfort will be given. These are very important for people who have no one to turn to.
Later on in the story of Jesus, as he approached his final ascent into heaven, he commissioned his apostles to carry on the work of forgiveness of sins. To the apostle Peter first in Matthew 16:19: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
One cannot just set aside this very great grace endowed by Jesus to Peter. Commentators say that this apostle, and later all the apostles, were being called to a special ministry (cf. Matthew 18:18) – a ministry of healing. The sacrament of Penance has been such ever since.
The apostle John, another witness to Jesus’ life, word and works was clearer in his words. He recorded in John 20:23 these words to the apostles: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” In other words, this power and grace endowed by Jesus to the apostles is a very lucid ministry for other people where the mercy and love of the Father will be manifested.
Why Confession of Sins?
The effectiveness of the sacrament of Penance becomes more meaningful when we understand that in order to be forgiven, the penitent must first confess his or her sins. Why so? Because it is through personal “confession” (actual telling of sins) that the apostles then – the priests now – can judge whether to forgive or retain sins.
How can one retain or forgive if there is no individual telling of sins? And the Bible favors this: in James 5:6, we “confess (our) sins to one another and pray for another, that (we) may be healed.” Again, confession is a necessary ingredient for the sacrament, and the result of course is a grace-filled life – that of healing.
The same promise is recorded in 1 John 1:9: “If we acknowledge (confess) our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.” Note here that it is still Jesus who forgives sins, through the minister, the priest, just as the apostles were vessels or instruments of forgiveness.
Down through the centuries, these little verses from the Bible became the bulk of the formulation of the sacrament of Penance. The elements involved in it are still present – the penitent, minister, confession of sins, and forgiveness.
The early Church made sure that these are preserved and handed on unadulterated. The Didache (70-110) on chapter 4:13 states: “You shall confess your offenses in church, and shall not come forward to your prayer with a bold conscience. This is the way of life.”
Later on St. Ambrose (340-397) wrote clearer in the document ‘On the Holy Spirit’ Bk. 3, Chap 18:
See that sins are forgiven through the Holy Spirit. But men make use of their ministry for the forgiveness of sins, they do not exercise the right of any power of their own. For they forgive sins not in their own name, but in that of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
And this holds true up to today.
And just to add weight to these early writings, many church Councils affirmed the beauty of the sacrament of Penance. The Council of Constance (1414-1418) affirmed that the Christian has the obligation to confess his or her sins to a priest. And the Council of Florence (1438-1445) issued the sacrament of Penance as the fourth sacrament. And so on.
The Example of the Saints
It is for these reasons that many of the saints went to frequent confession so that they can trod the path towards holiness of life.
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de Guzman, founder of the Order of Preachers, made sure that he confessed his sins every week so that he can remain pure and chaste. The same holds true for the deacon St. Francis of Assisi. He had many penances to purge the body, yet he relied more on the spiritual healing of the sacrament of penance.
The patron of parish priests St. John Mary Vianney spent hours in the confessional. He truly was a “caretaker of souls”, and many were reconciled to God because of his ministry.
St. Padre Pio made sure that penitents were reconciled. He “retained” the sins of those he felt were not ready for confession. Still, many came to him, including a young priest named Karol Wojtyla, who in the confessional heard from Padre Pio that this penitent will “assume the highest position in the Church”.
Many of the women saints were even more remarkable in their desire for this sacrament. Many foundresses of great congregations were inspired and strengthened in the confessional. It was through the confessional where Mother Teresa of Calcutta affirmed her desire to establish the Missionaries of Charity. And if we go back down through the centuries, there are more countless women and men saints who were reconciled and strengthened by the sacrament of Penance.
Do We Want to Experience the Same?
The invitation for us Catholics in this day and age holds the same. Do we want someone who will listen to us? Do we wish to hear the forgiving words of healing? Do we wish to be forgiven of all our sins and burdens? Then we must confess our sins. This is the way of Jesus Christ because it is he who established this sacrament. It is also Jesus who forgives our iniquities.
It is through the sacrament of Penance where the penitent will be forgiven. How many have come out of the confessional teary-eyed with joy and comfort now that they have been heard, unburdened and forgiven?
Many are afraid though, and uncertain. Our “born-again” friends chortle that the priest is just a human being as the penitent, and therefore also sinful; so why approach a sinful person too?
First of all it is not the priest who forgives, it is Jesus. The priest, just like the apostles in the Bible, was commissioned with this ministry of healing. Secondly, the priest being sinful is the key ingredient why the penitent will be understood. How so? Because the priest as a human being, is also familiar with sin and has most probably experienced those sins too. He has experienced being tempted by money, power and lust. He has fallen in love, or felt depressed. He probably in his life said some lies, cheated, stole, etc.
But the priest is continually renewing himself through his ministry and especially through the sacrament of Penance. He is living proof that despite his sinfulness, and ours, God still loves us and desires to renew us always.
This is the final challenge for all of us. Penance renews and re-invigorates us. It helps us go through the day refreshed and joyful in the Lord. But we as Catholics have to do our part. The Lord says in the second letter of Peter 2: 9 that he gives each of us an “opportunity to come back to Him and be reconciled.”
The opportunities are always there. When was the last time I took that chance? It may be too late soon. We should always trust in the love and mercy of God. It is the way towards eternal life. And we have to begin it now.