Monday, December 7, 2015

Running into the arms of forgiveness at confession

It’s coming round again – those heavy days of seemingly endless lines at the penitential services where the faithful make their way to the priest for their confession before Christmas. 

It never fails to cross my mind when these en mass confessions take place – that the grace of God is so lavishly given.  Before every Mass on Sunday, in almost all Catholic churches in the world, there these lines that form outside of the Reconciliation room.  But especially in the last few weeks of Lent and Advent, when there are these special services solely for the celebration of this much maligned and misunderstood sacrament, these numbers soar, and people come in droves. 

It is a happy problem.  So few priests serving so many penitents.  Some of my brother priests face these weeks with a certain foreboding because doing this for about 2 hours each night for an entire week can be a rather draining experience.  Many lay people have the wrong idea about this sacrament.  It is not a ‘pleasure’ at all to hear all these transgressions being confessed, like as if we were privy to some intimate edition of a talk show.  We need to listen to what is said, as well as to what is not said, and the latter is always the more important and for the penitent, much more challenging to identify.  Much as we priests truly want the heartfelt conversion of each penitent where there is a stripping away of a false and shallow living, we are constrained by the need to not take too much time with each penitent.  The more genuine and precise the penitent is in truly naming the sin and not glossing over it, the more sincere one is in wanting to change one's life for the better.  For the priest, it is a constant challenge between being an attentive and sharp listener, and being concise without being too expeditious, risking even the appearance of being dismissive. 

I can appreciate with sincerity the fears that unnerve many penitents who come to the confessional.  Besides, if we add to this the many terrible and foreboding ways that this sacrament is portrayed in films and TV shows, confession doesn’t get much good press.  Perhaps the deep truth is that no one likes to be so clear about admitting of one’s own stupidity and shallowness.  While the world tells us to boast and trumpet our achievements and titles attained, it also often tells us to hide all flaws, faults and peccadilloes.  Even if the twisted narrative seems to tell us to be proud and flaunt these flaws to the world and be brazen about it, there is one glaring difference between confession and making a show over it on the social media.  One is never asked to be remorseful and repentant about it.  In fact, it is often quite the opposite – the more ‘in-your-face’ one is about it, the more shock value one should garner, and hence the more ‘likes’. 

But when the mercy of God is sought for what it truly is – an underserved gift of a welcome mat back to the home where one stands on holy ground – it invites us to live in a new gratitude which gives us the opportunity to genuinely live and love with sincerity where before, we were living and loving with ourselves as the focus and end. 

I am not sure how to go about changing this poisoned view of the sacrament of reconciliation.  Many think that the Church seems to have a monopoly on God’s forgiveness and uses it as a trump card to control and have mastery over the laity.  And it doesn't help that a vast majority of the laity will only avail themselves to the grace that is outpoured to each penitent twice a year at most.  Used wrongly, of course it can turn out to be such a toxic experience, leaving so many wounded and scarred, and some for a whole lifetime. 

But aren’t all sacraments of the Church ways through which God’s love is experienced by the faithful?  That being the case, then a truly meaningful experience of God’s forgiveness becomes not crippling but freeing, not fearful but joy filled, and not dreaded but anticipated with great delight.  Who doesn’t want to run into the arms of a loving and forgiving parent?  Perhaps part of the problem is that too many people are far more concerned about what they bring up than being delighted by the grace that one receives as a result of this encounter of divine mercy.  Of course, it also necessarily means that one is at the same time humble enough to admit of one’s wrong ways and misdirected affections in life. 

When love is at the heart of the sacrament of reconciliation, it truly makes no sense why a Catholic would only come to experience God’s love only once or twice a year.  If an ATM machine was continuously spitting out $50 bills, would one go there only twice a year?  Forgiveness and the grace of God is far more valuable than any currency, yet, the sad fact is that so many Catholics have a loathing for this because they fail to see the intrinsic connection between mercy, love and forgiveness. 

Another misunderstanding about the sacrament is the penance that is asked of the penitent.  Often, it is in the form of a short prayer like a Hail Mary or the Lord's Prayer, or something familiar.  Can a prayer be truly be sufficient to make up or restore what was broken and taken for granted?  Of course not.  Often, the sin can be a huge one, injuring not just the self but the community as well, and the penance is a prayer one has learnt by rote in one's younger days.  It seems so disconnected.

But it imparts a truth that just on the level of economics alone, someone has to pay a price for something infringed and hurt.  The grace that comes from the confession is not cheap.  It was made possible only through the completely selfless act of Jesus' dying on the Cross on Calvary.  When we priests give a simple penance, we hope to show them just how merciful God is.  But is there justice in this?  Probably not.  But what many penitents don't realise is that on our part, there is something that is done that most penitents are not aware of.  Some of us willingly and lovingly take on much more penitence for ourselves to make up for what the penitents' simple penance may lack.  Each time a priest goes into prayer, fasts willingly, does some act of mercy and prays for his people with devotion and tenderness, you can be sure that some part of him is praying for the sins of the people he ministered to as a shepherd of souls.  Someone pays for the price of sinning against God.  Theologically, God himself did on Calvary, but those who confer the grace through the sacrament bear part of this burden to share in the unburdening of the heaviness of sin.  It may seem like a rather unnecessary thing to do, but no one can deny that this humbles the priest and sets for himself a discipline.  Besides, it shows another side of God's love for his people.

Someone said to me after I gave a talk on confession once, that the confessional room should be seen as God’s kissing booth.  Though it does give me some strange mental images, I think this person got the right idea of the theology and spirituality behind this much-maligned sacrament.   


  1. Thanks Fr Luke on that note on confession. On the other hand.. i do know that some people don't even go confession even on penitential service. They say not necessary at all.. When i suggest that they go .. they gave you a smug look.. whatever that means i don't know..

  2. Thank you Father Luke.
    I appreciate the fact that some priests will do penance on our behalf and this has made me resolve to be more mindful & to behave better so as not to commit so much sins.
    Going to confession, we need the grace to feel sorrow for our sins & the courage to confess our worst mistakes. It is a humbling experience but the relief & joy received during confession makes up for the earlier feelings of apprehension, etc.
    God Bless You.

  3. Dear Father Luke,

    The Confessional room is a sacred place where we come to acknowledge our sins. It is a conscious and subconscious that lead us to purify our hearts. Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God. ( Matthew 5 : 8) It does not matter what the priest think about me but to renew my relationship with the Lord. Accept whatever comments that being given and reflect about it and pray not repeat the same sin.

  4. While i really do feel for priests when penetential service time rolls round, i wonder if the importance of the sacrament is reflected by the amount of time devoted to its administration?..15 whole mins before mass if you're lucky ...
    of course there are a few excptions...

  5. “The grace that comes from the confession is not cheap.....................................those who confer the grace through the sacrament bear part of this burden to share in the unburdening of the heaviness of sin.”

    I find this paragraph both – moving and disturbing. I was ignorant of the fact that our father -confessors would also “participate” in the penance of the penitents via such a manner. It is so ‘in the footsteps of Christ’ for them to want to help lighten the unburdening of our is indeed a very beautiful act of love and mercy.

    Recently, going through a dark stretch - keeping vigil over a sibling battling for his life, I was awakened to the awareness of what a loving and caring presence can accomplish where words and actions fail.

    Similarly, knowing that at least some of our priest-confessors care enough to go the extra-mile for the penitents they minister to - also makes a difference in the attitude we hold towards this Sacrament. It can help to dispel the feeling of dread and a sinking feeling in the gut whenever we think of going for confession for we know now that at least we are in a caring presence. Sometimes, we feel over-whelmed by our audaciousness in seeking forgiveness for sins we commit repetitively .However, knowing that in their prayers the priests are also praying for all penitents/sinners who visit the Confessional gives us the courage and perseverance not to give up.

    God bless u, Fr