5th Sunday of Lent
March 20, 1994
Jer 31: 31-34
St. Vincent, Hunters, Grand Bahama Island
St. Agnes, Eight Mile Rock, GBI
This year on the 5th Sunday of Lent (March 22), I was with Boy Scouts and preached on the gospel (John 12:20-33) without a written text. Here's an oldie--one of the longest homilies in my collection.
“I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts…. I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:33-34).
For 4 weeks of Lent we have followed the theme of covenant. God covenanted with Noah to preserve the earth and all creation, and we too are obliged to care for God’s creation. God covenanted with Abraham and his family, and family is part of our covenant with God. God covenanted with the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai, and it is thru a people, a community, that he continues to save us. The people broke the covenant, and their infidelity, their sin, had terrible consequences.
Now we come to God’s promise of a new covenant to be written in our hearts, to wipe away our sins. This covenant ultimately is the new covenant in the blood of Jesus.
Christ in his mercy extended his forgiving presence thru the Church. His whole purpose is to reconcile the world to God (2 Cor 5:19), and he has given the Church that same ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18). The Church exercises Christ’s ministry of reconciliation, pardon, renewal, and healing 1st of all in Baptism.
Lent always points us toward Baptism, to celebrate it for the 1st time or to renew its life within us. When we are baptized, the blood of Jesus washes over us as we die with him in the saving waters and rise to new life as God’ children.
But there is only one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins, as we profess in our Creed. What do we do about sins we commit after Baptism? We can’t be baptized again. How does God’s covenant continue to reach us? How does he, or will he, rewrite it in our hearts and wipe away our new sins?
The Church had to face that issue early in its history. Its 1st 3 centuries were an age of persecution. Many baptized persons, under the threat of torture and death, renounced Christ and offered incense to the pagan gods. After persecution abated, some of them repented. But could they be reconciled to God thru the Church, and if so, how? A similar question came up for those who committed the other 2 gravest sins recognized by the early Church, viz., murder and adultery.
Eventually the Church decided that God’s mercy could indeed extend to these sinners—but just once in their lifetimes, and only after severe public penance, exclusion from the Eucharist, etc. Needless to say, that was a difficult path to reconciliation, to restoration of the heart-to-heart covenant with God. It was, however, the beginning of the sacrament of Penance.
Then around the 6th or 7th century, a practice developed in the monastic communities of Ireland, and with the Irish missionaries it spread to France, Germany, and Italy. The Irish monks would periodically go to their abbot and tell him about their temptations, external failings, interior attitudes, etc., and receive from him admonitions, encouragement, and penances. This was spiritual direction. Before long it also involved a form of absolution from sins. It was private, and compared to the once-in-a-lifetime, severe public penances, it was relatively painless. No wonder it spread so far so fast. What we’re talking about here is another development in the sacrament of Penance: private confession. By the 13th century private confession had become the norm for celebrating one’s return to God and God’s people. The Church accepted it as a way of extending God’s mercy to post-Baptism sins, a way of renewing the covenant in our hearts.
Not so many years ago, Catholics went to confession by the scores on Saturday afternoon; devout Catholics confessed their sins every month or 2. You don’t see that anymore. Let’s look at some of the objections that Protestants and others bring forth against this sacrament of Christ’s pardon, and some excuses that Catholics make for not taking advantage of it.
1. I confess directly to God. Why do I need a priest? God chooses to use human instruments to help him in his work. He could directly create human beings, but he chooses to use the physical love of men and women to create new persons. He could have pardoned the human race outright or found some means to save us other than having his Son take human flesh and die on the cross. But he chose that means. And Christ chooses to continue his work of redemption thru human instruments, as we read in John 20:21-23: “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’”
2. How can any man forgive sins? That was the question of the Pharisees about Jesus when he forgave the paralytic (Mark 2:7). The man, the priest, doesn’t forgive sins, has no power to forgive sins, except in God’s name and as the minister of the Church, which is Christ’s body. If the Church cannot forgive sins in God’s name, then Baptism too is useless, for it is the Church that baptizes for the forgiveness of sins thru her minister. But it is the same Holy Spirit at work in the sacrament of Reconciliation as in Baptism. Listen to the formula of absolution that the Church uses in the sacrament:
God, the father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and send the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
3. The priest is no better than I am. Why should I tell him my sins? Yes, the priest is a sinful human being like everyone else. But for whatever mysterious reason, God chose him to be an instrument of grace. Most priests are quite aware of their own weaknesses and sins. They have to go to confession too. Even the Pope confesses his sins to another priest on a regular basis.
|Pope Francis confessing (CNS)|
4. Father won’t understand. This is sort of the reverse of the previous objection. Recently I was reading a magazine article which made reference to a novel about Christ. In this novel, St. Peter asks Jesus why he chose him to be the leader of the apostles; why not John, who was evidently so much holier? And Jesus’ answer to Peter was that Peter would understand the weaknesses of others. Since the priest in the confessional is himself a sinner, he can be very understanding of those who come to him. Most priests truly do see themselves as instruments of Christ the Good Shepherd, the compassionate Savior.
5. I’m ashamed. They used to tell us there was nothing you could confess that the priest hadn’t heard before, and that’s pretty much true. In fact, some wise guy once said there’s nothing you could confess that the priest hadn’t done himself. That’s stretching the truth, but every priest, as we said, is himself a sinner. Before he gets ordained, moreover, he studies a great deal of moral theology, human psychology, etc., to be prepared for whatever the pastoral ministry will bring him. And before he has been a priest for very long, he will have plenty of experience in the confessional. It’s nearly impossible to surprise or shock him. While shame is a natural and healthy result of sin if we have a conscience, it is also a tool that the devil can use to keep us in our sins. The only lasting shame is being too hard-hearted to turn away from our sins. That may in fact be the “sin against the Holy Spirit” of which Jesus speaks (Mark 3:28-29).
6. I don’t remember how. If we haven’t gone to confession for a while, that could indeed be a problem. But Father will be happy to guide you along and help you. That’s why he’s there to begin with. Just tell him you need some help with the steps or with your prayers. More frequent confession will cure this problem in no time.
7. I have nothing to confess. This is a serious problem because it probably means we haven’t examined ourselves very carefully. St. John tells us, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves; the truth is not to be found in us” (1 John 1:8). The saints, e.g., St. John Bosco, used to go to confession every week; that’s what Church law used to recommend for priests and religious. And they must have found something to confess or some spiritual problem to discuss with their confessors. Unless our consciences are insensitive, we can find some external fault, some harm we’ve done to someone, or some interior attitude that bears correction. And reasonably enuf, the longer it’s been since our last confession, the easier it should be to find our sinfulness. Frequent confession, paradoxically, is a means of grace, a means of strength against temptation and sin, as well as a means of sharpening our consciences.
8. The priest may tell someone what I said. That’s a natural enuf fear, especially given the experience most of us have with keeping secrets and trusting people. But I ask you: Have you ever heard of a priest violating what is called “the seal of confession”? I never have. In fact, the priest is most strictly forbidden under any circumstances whatever to repeat or to use in any way anything that he hears in confession. Doctors and lawyers have a privilege of confidentiality with their patients and clients. But for them that privilege has certain exceptions. There are no exceptions for the sacrament of Penance. Every priest I know takes that obligation absolutely seriously. This obligation of secrecy, by the way, holds also for someone who might possibly overhear someone else’s confession, e.g., because a door was left open. There are, after all, few things in life more sacred than a person’s conscience. The Church’s whole ministry is reconciliation, and nothing can be allowed to intimidate people away from seeking forgiveness.
Are there any positive reasons why we should seek reconciliation with God and Christ’s Church thru the sacrament of Reconciliation? I’ll list 5 positive reasons.
The 1st and most important reason is that the confession of sins and the power of the Church to forgive sins is biblical. I’ve already cited John 20;21-23. Jesus also says to all the apostles in Matt 18:18: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” That passage is distinct from the same words spoken to St. Peter personally in 16:19; here they come specifically in the context of a brother who sins. St. James advises us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another, that we may be healed. “The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful,” he says (5:16). St. John tells us, “If we acknowledge our sins, [Jesus] is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing” (1 John 1:9).
|Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven,|
with the power to bind and to loose (from sin)
In the OT, too, we find passages advising or commanding public confession of wrongdoing, e.g., in Leviticus and Numbers. There is the well-known example of David, who committed adultery and murder, was publicly accused by the prophet Nathan, and publicly confessed his guilt. To David is attributed the great psalm of repentance, Ps 51.
So our Protestant friends who tell us that confession is not scriptural are either ignorant of the Scriptures or highly selective in quoting them.
The 2d positive reason to confess our sins is that confession is good for the soul. It’s therapeutic, healing. We’ve all had the experience of apologizing to someone we’ve hurt, and when we’ve received forgiveness the healing of both persons has begun. We don’t doubt that God will forgive us; so all we need to start the healing is our confession. But it’s also reassuring to hear God’s minister speak the words of forgiveness and healing. As human beings, we need sacramental signs.
Note how society does its confessions. People pay psychiatrists thousands of dollars to listen to their problems and sins. People go on Donohue and reveal their most disgusting habits and addictions to the whole world. Is it only for money and notoriety—or is it also a cry for help? And millions of people belong to AA or NA, where the healing begins with confession. Every meeting these men and women introduce themselves publicly by saying something like this: “Hello. May name is John, and I’m an alcoholic.” Then many of them proceed to tell what their addiction has done to them, what they have done to their families and friends, etc. They find support, and the healing begins.
We have all that for our moral failures, our sins, in the privacy of the sacrament of Reconciliation.
The 3d positive reason for celebrating this sacrament is that it’s a preventive. Prevention is the best medicine not only for our bodies but also for our souls. For some people the thought, “If I do this sinful action, I’ll have to confess it,” is powerful prevention. But the more we expose ourselves to the grace of healing, the less inclined we are to fall again. The deeper our friendship with our loving Savior, the less we want to hurt him by sin.
The 4th reason, indeed, is that Reconciliation aids our spiritual growth. Coming sincerely to Christ can only strengthen us: “When I am weak, then I am strong,” says St. Paul (2 Cor 12:10). Christ’s minister consoles and encourages us, gives us advice for the future—and if we are wise enuf or fortunate enuf to have a regular confessor, he becomes our spiritual director, the best friend of our souls.
Finally, Reconciliation or Penance is important as an example, especially for parents to teach their children. By going to confession, parents teach their children about sin and about God’s mercy. There’s no better teacher than your example. If sin is something you just shrug off, your children will have no sense of sin—and we see the effects of that in our society already. But if you have a horror for sin and take it to the Lord Jesus for cleansing, then your children will learn that and will learn to hate sin and love Jesus.
And Jesus will place his law within their hearts. He will be their God, and they shall be his people. (Cf. Jer 31:33).