Tom Nash is a Contributing Apologist and Speaker for Catholic Answers, a Contributing Blogger for the National Catholic Register and a Contributor for Catholic World Report. Tom formerly served as a Theology Advisor at EWTN and is the author of What Did Jesus Do?: The Biblical Roots of the Catholic Church (Incarnate Word Media) and The Biblical Roots of the Mass (Sophia Institute Press). He is also a Regular Member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.
When the Incarnate Word is the founder of your Church and thus leader of your apostolic team, you want him “in the game” as much as possible, so that your teammates—and thereby your opponents as well—can gain maximum benefit from intimately encountering him. I say “opponents as well,” because advancing the Kingdom is one contest in which winning over our merely human adversaries on earth—as distinguished from irrevocably opposed demonic spirits—is a key part of the battle Jesus Christ came to wage.
Jesus instituted seven sacraments to “give birth and increase, healing and mission to the Christian’s life of faith” (CCC 1210), providing two in particular his disciples can repeatedly receive throughout their lives: the Eucharist and Confession. Consequently, if we really want to renew the Church in our difficult times, fruitfully prosecuting the Great Commission our Lord gave us “to make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18), we need to take more seriously the power of encountering Jesus in these two sacraments.
Frankly, they’re indispensable and so should therefore be front and center in any efforts to renew the Church and otherwise promote the Kingdom.
Undervaluing the Sacraments
Having worked for and traveled on behalf of the Church for more than 25 years, I can sadly attest that Confession, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is not as valued as it should be in many dioceses and parishes around the country. Witness the limited time the sacrament is offered on a weekly basis — often for only one hour. Other than that brief window, a would-be penitent has to take the initiative of contacting the parish.
Meanwhile, too many Catholics approach the Eucharist nonchalantly, as if receiving Communion is just one more part of a weekly ritual, instead of the truly awesome encounter with the living God it can and should be. Similarly, rare are the priestly exhortations in Sunday and daily Masses that the faithful should reflect on whether they’re properly disposed to receive Christ’s Real Presence worthily and thus fruitfully (see CCC 1385, 1395, 1415 ). The sacraments are not magic. They are received according to the disposition of the receiver, and so, as St. Paul says, “Let a man examine himself” before he approaches our Eucharistic Lord (1 Corinthians 11:28).
When the faithful are regularly reminded about the joyful gravity of their sacramental encounters with Jesus, they will be much more inclined to take their discipleship—and the call to holiness it entails—much more seriously.
Increasing Opportunities to Encounter Jesus in Confession
Archbishop Allen Vigneron understands this, which is why he’s encouraging his pastors to provide increased access to Confession as part of his “Unleash the Gospel” initiative, which he began in 2017 to cultivate missionary disciples in the Archdiocese of Detroit through encountering Christ, and then growing and witnessing as ambassadors of the Lord’s Church. Catholic philanthropist Tom Monaghan gets it too, as he has long provided generous weekly opportunities to experience Confession through the Ave Maria University Chapel at Domino’s Farms in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
In addition to their existing weekly times for Confession, I propose parishes offer the sacrament two weekday evenings for two or three hours, i.e., when most parishioners can take advantage (e.g., from 7:30 to 10 p.m.). And then really promote Confession at Sunday and weekday Masses, informing regular penitents, including those who struggle with scrupulosity, that the new weekday evening times will be primarily aimed at those who haven’t been to Confession for a while. And convey to the parishioners with enthusiastic mercy how there’s no sin too big for Jesus to forgive, nor wound too large that he cannot heal, with examples from the lives of the saints.
A phrase heard often in the Church today is that many Catholics have been “sacramentalized but not evangelized,” meaning they have received the sacraments—in particular baptism, Eucharist, Confession and Confirmation—but they have never really encountered Jesus and grown as his disciples. I think there’s merit to this pastoral thesis, but I think many Catholics, including those who attended Catholic schools in their youth, have actually encountered Christ, but have gradually fallen away over the years in an increasingly toxic culture.
Expect Great Fruit from the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Holy Communion
What’s my point? While multi-week Alpha courses have been used to help evangelize Catholics into active discipleship in their parishes, I would argue that for those who’ve had faith formation in years past, encountering our Lord in the Sacrament of Reconciliation could achieve as much or even more through a reigniting of their faith. Consider the transformative sacramental encounters many faithful had with great confessors like Sts. John Vianney and Padre Pio.
These were exemplary priests, yet the fruitfulness of the sacraments they celebrated was primarily a work of Jesus. Which means what Jesus wrought through them can be wrought today through priests around the country and worldwide. No doubt that priests will need increased lay support so they can concentrate more on their distinctive sacramental ministries, and that could include assigning a discipleship team, e.g., an already committed couple and single person in the parish, to provide ongoing pastoral and catechetical support for a person who’s had a transformative experience in Confession. In addition, an increase of parishioners participating in Confession every 30 to 45 days may require further times for the sacrament, but the fruit from such engaged disciples will be well worth the priestly commitment.
These weeknight times of Confession could be coupled with evening Masses and Eucharistic adoration. Such a move will likely mean omitting morning Masses on those weekdays, yet a pastor can tell his morning Mass participants this is being done for the greater good of the parish family, and they’re welcome to participate in the evening Masses. In addition, brief preaching during adoration could be handled by parish deacons and/or qualified lay parishioners. And a parish could let non-Catholics in their area know about the regular weeknight opportunities to encounter Jesus in adoration, with perhaps an attractive related brochure being designed on the parish or diocesan level.
Pastors could also target male parishioners through periodic sports-viewing activities at the parish that include Confession, and also target unchurched members by offering the sacrament in connection with wakes, funeral Masses and weddings.
The faithful should be exhorted to approach Confession with joyful anticipation of Christ’s forgiveness and healing, and then the Eucharist with expectant hope that Jesus will transform their lives over time, giving them the incomparable peace the world cannot give (John 14:27). And for those who cannot yet receive the Eucharist for whatever reason, I propose a formal liturgical norm that allows them to come forward to receive a blessing at Communion time, a provision that will promote a greater sense of belonging for them and—in the process—hopefully foster a greater yearning to encounter our Eucharistic Lord in due time.
In short, if we let be God, which means letting Jesus be Jesus, and thus collaborate with Christ to maximize his sacramental impact on a particular parish and diocese in general, we will be amazed at what our Lord can and will work when we exemplify the faith and trust to allow him.