Every Lent for the past ten years my bishop, Most Rev. Arthur Serratelli, has mandated that all churches and chapels in the Diocese of Paterson have the Sacrament of Penance available every Monday night from 7:00-8:30 p.m. This is in addition to any other regular time set aside for the sacrament (usually Saturday afternoons). I think this a stroke of pastoral genius on the part of Bishop Serratelli, and he should be thanked for it for several reasons.
First, the need to return to Penance, especially during Lent. Since we, as Catholics, must receive Holy Communion at least once a year, and that during the Easter season, what better way to prepare than through weekly confession?
Second, one can’t use the “I-don’t-have-time-on-Saturday-afternoons-for-confession” defense. And if you read any church bulletin closely, in addition to the confession times on Saturdays, there is usually added “or any time by appointment”. And in the Diocese of Paterson at least, we have Monday nights, too.
Third, as one priest once said: “Think of going to confession once a week like doing your dirty laundry: if you don’t do your laundry at least once every two weeks, your entire closet starts to smell. The same is true of our souls.”
But most important, for those who have been away from the Sacrament of Penance, this is the best way to get back into it. As anyone who has been to a twelve-step meeting will tell you, the hardest part is that first step— that step through the door and into the actual meeting. The same is true of the tribunal of confession. Once you are there you will realize that, despite your sins, failings, bad habits and long time away from Penance, the roof of the Church is not going to fall down on you. Nor is the priest going to “yell” at you in the confessional. Nor will you spontaneously combust due to the weight of your sins.
Just the opposite is true: the very act of confessing is incredibly liberating. It is, of course, much more than that, too—but that initial feeling of the weight of sin being gone is so freeing that, once you begin your confession, it feels better, and you feel better.
True, prayer is not a “feeling”. And it is true too, that a proper examination of conscience is crucial to a good confession—though I hesitate to put too much weight on it if you’ve been away a very long time. The very thought of all those sins may be the devil’s defense of keeping you out of the confessional due to shame (which is a twisted form of pride, a truly diabolical trick).
Once you’re in the confessional, remember this: the priest is there to help you make a good confession. While this is not as easy as “just showing up”, it is vital that you overcome the shame, the fear, the deep-seated pride that has kept you away from Reconciliation.
St. John Paul the Great once said: “To those who have been away from the sacrament of Reconciliation and forgiving love, I make this appeal: Come back to this source of grace: do not be afraid! Christ Himself is waiting for you. He will heal you, and you will be at peace with God!”
And Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ wisely tells us that “Habit is overcome by habit.” Hence if we can get in the habit of frequent confession—ideally with a confessor who can sincerely treat and trace our progress—a lot of the major-league freak-out triggers that keep people away from confession (and mired in miserable sinfulness) can be clipped away.
The key to all of this, of course, is true sorrow for our sins, and not just fear of punishment. But instead of fretting about whether we are truly sorry for our sins, is it not better just to get to confession and, after making a good act of contrition before entering the confessional, to work through our compunction with the priest as our guide?
The great thing about frequent confession is that it keeps us honest with ourselves (It would, of course, be ludicrous and sacrilegious to lie in confession!) But it is also the source of grace which, as one confessor told me, “is simply a fancy name for ‘God’s Help’”. And who among us does not need God’s help?
We throw ourselves at the mercy of an all-loving and all-just God in confession. There is, of course, nothing He doesn’t know about us before we speak to Him during the Sacrament of Penance, but it is the humility, I think, that pleases Him. Another priest once told me, “We don’t go to confession to record our victories—we go to acknowledge our need for God’s help to become victorious over sin.”
And this process is never-ending. We’ve all heard the gem of the young novice who goes to confession to the 100-year-old abbot and, casting his sins before the ancient abbot asks in desperation, “My dear lord abbot: when will these sins of the flesh no longer afflict me?” And the abbot responds: “My son, you’d have to ask a much older man.” Which is to say: progress, not perfection, is what we get—though our ultimate goal is, of course, to “Be perfect as your Heavenly father is perfect.”
So with less than a month before the start of Lent, I hope that this will be time not only of returning to the sacrament of Penance after a long time away, but the beginning of frequent confession, which is one of the true treasures of our faith—and a sure way to peace of mind and soul.