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Father Vincent Hawkswell

Experience ‘forgiveness and mercy’ in confession

Voices April 22, 2019

Priests know how difficult confession can be, and Pope Francis has urged us to make the sacrament of penance “not a prosecuting court, but an experience of forgiveness and mercy,” writes Father Hawkswell. (Image by Peter van Briel/Pixabay)

Second Sunday of Easter, Year C
First Reading: Acts 5:12-16
Second Readings: Rv 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19 
Gospel Reading: Jn 20:19-31

This Sunday is “Divine Mercy Sunday.”

The heaviest cross for Blessed Damien the leper, says Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York in his book Priests for the Third Millennium, was not “his quarter-century away from family and home,” nor his 16 years of isolation on the island of Molokai, nor misunderstanding by his superiors, nor the pains of leprosy, nor the malice of critics.

It was “the impossibility of frequent confession.”

Father Damien would wait on the dock when a ship was expected. If there were a priest on board, he would “yell his confession” to him in Latin or his native Dutch “and then receive absolution from the deck of the ship.” That sacramental absolution, he said, “meant more to me than the tea, tobacco, clothing, food, or letters being brought ashore.”

It is not mere coincidence that our Lord gave us the sacrament of penance as his first gift after his resurrection, Cardinal Dolan says. He could have said, “I promise you everlasting life” or “I have conquered Satan.” However, “what he most wanted to give his Church was mercy for sins”; he wanted to “share with his priests the power to absolve them.”

As the Gospel Reading relates, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Clearly, if the Church is to exercise this power of forgiving and retaining, she must know what our sins are, and she must be convinced of our penitence and our resolution to change.

Nevertheless, the actual confessing can be the most difficult part of the sacrament of penance. Can we not, we ask, just confess our sins to God in our hearts?

No; for God, who “reconciled us to himself through Christ,” gave “the ministry of reconciliation” to his Church, St. Paul says. In the sacrament of penance, the priest acts in the person of Christ, the one whom we have offended, both as head of the Church and in his mystical body.

However, there is also a human reason for confessing. Forgiveness is a mental act, but a social mental act, for it is offered by one person and accepted by another. Accordingly, it cannot exist without being expressed: “I’m sorry” and “I forgive.” It is what linguists call a speech act: an act we perform by saying something.

In confession, we make our sins and our penitence known not only to the priest, but also to ourselves.

“We can hardly be confident of the state of our own minds, but as it stands attested by some external action,” said Samuel Johnson; “we are seldom sure that we sincerely meant what we omitted to do.” Accordingly, one of the 12 steps in Alcoholics Anonymous is to admit “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

By disclosing our sins in words, we look at them squarely and take responsibility for them. It is humbling, but humility is appropriate when we are seeking forgiveness. Even psychologically, it frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with God and the Church.

In the sacrament of reconciliation, after the difficult words of confession, we hear the most consoling and uplifting words of absolution, in which Christ addresses us personally: “My son, your sins are forgiven.”

My mother, who became a Catholic at the age of 21, said, “I had always believed that God is merciful, but now I have heard his forgiveness.”

We experience many temptations to stay away from the sacrament of penance: pride, shame, discouragement, or reluctance to “avoid the occasions of sin.” Overcoming them can be part of our reparation for our sins.

Priests know how difficult confession can be, and Pope Francis has urged us to make the sacrament of penance “not a prosecuting court, but an experience of forgiveness and mercy.”