THE POPULAR IMAGE of the sacrament of Penance is a rather negative one. Television and movie representations of the “confession box" show everything from espionage to cooperation in murder and mayhem happening there. The confessor often gives only glib responses, like the reincarnation of a very severe Puritan divine or a teen-ager who is simply unable to understand or sympathize with real human problems. Sadly, the popular imagination fails to grasp the true meaning of the sacrament. The private intimacy between God and the soul of the individual through the mediation of the priest has only one purpose: “true 'spiritual resurrection’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1468).
Many would like to reduce confession to a sort of ecclesiastical counseling session. Though counseling can go on in the confessional, this is not its primary purpose, which is to make a soul, spiritually dead because of a loss of the interior presence of God, live again through returning to the life of God. This is true reconciliation. One returns to enjoying inner friendship with God.
This inner friendship is the origin of the true enlivening and order of the inner powers of the human soul: intellect, will, and emotions. One who receives sacramental absolution properly disposed is granted not only moral union with God but an intense psychological experience of inner healing. This inner healing returns the person to the life of the living on many levels.
First, on the level of the life of individual persons themselves, they are returned to communion with God and feel at one with Him. “Reconciliation ‘is usually followed by peace and serenity of conscience with strong spiritual consolation’” (CCC, 1468). This spiritual revitalization also makes a person a living member of the community of the Church again, returning them to the communion of saints. One can exchange spiritual friendship again with the saints in heaven and with the other members of the Church on spiritual pilgrimage here below, because one has returned to the grace of Christ. “Re-established or strengthened in the communion of saints, the sinner is made stronger by the exchange of spiritual goods among all the living members of the Body of Christ, whether still on pilgrimage or already in the heavenly homeland" (CCC, 1469).
The final wondrous reconciliation occurs in the person because he or she is also completely restored to union with the inner life of creation. C.S. Lewis once wrote a novel called Out of the Silent Planet. Earth is the “silent planet" and the reason earth is silent is that only on this planet did the creature rebel against the Creator in Adam. Earth was then not allowed to communicate with the rest of creation—as a sign of the lack of reconciliation of those who dwelled on earth.
Because man is restored to friendship with God and the Church, he is also restored to friendship with the entire created universe. “The forgiven penitent is reconciled with himself in his innermost being, where he regains his innermost truth. He is reconciled with his brethren whom he has in some way offended and wounded. He is reconciled with the Church. He is reconciled with all creation" (John Paul II, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 31, 5; CCC, 1469).
The new life which the penitent experiences results from the union of his body with his soul. Confession involves both forgiveness and judgment. In the ongoing living out of his conversion by confession of his sins the penitent continually experiences the mercy of God. This experience of the mercy of God in judgment is also his preparation for the last judgment. Deuteronomy tells us to “choose life!" Each time we confess our sins we choose life and the influence of heaven becomes more evident in our daily lives.
Many religious writers today make much of the experience of death. Some have suggested that death is the natural end or purpose of human life. Others have said that death is the great unknown, which each of us transforms into the great possibility through our faith. For these people, faith is merely making the best of a bad situation. In their minds, even Christ did not have any idea what awaited Him after death. As if He threw Himself into the absurdity of death on the cross trusting in faith that God would make the best of a bad situation and was the most surprised person on earth when He arose from the dead.
Nothing could be further from the truth. First, Jesus did not have faith because He saw the vision of God from the moment of His conception. Secondly, the true death of human life is not the death of the body. In Catholicism, we know that the body will rise again. The true human death is the second death of the spirit in sin. This death is sealed in hell where freedom and nature eternally disagree. Christ suffered the death of body to free us from the death of the spirit. Each time we approach the divine tribunal and are forgiven, we prepare our bodies for the Last Judgment, when our bodies will finally rise again. At that point the spiritual resurrection will be completed in the bodily resurrection. “O death where is thy sting, O grave where is thy victory! The sting of death is sin…. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 15, 55-57).
Father Brian Mullady, O.P., teaches theology at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Conn.