“Receive the Holy Spirit,” said the risen Lord to his apostles. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The sacrament of Penance, instituted by Christ himself, is one of the greatest gifts of Divine Mercy, but it is widely neglected. To help rekindle a new appreciation for such a profound gift of Divine Mercy, the Register presents this special section.
I had the joy (certainly not the misfortune) of making two first confessions. When I requested reception into the Church, I was on a “minister of religion” visa as an Anglican priest in Scotland. My reception had to be carefully timed. The moment I left the Scottish Episcopal Church was the moment I could be deported back to the United States.
The plan was to enter the Church with my family on Easter, after which I would have a new visa to work for the Diocese of Aberdeen.
While taking a class on canon law at St. Mary’s Monastery, a Redemptorist community in Kinnoull, Perthshire, I made my first confession. Father gave me a special blessing for the reception, as well as a copy of his book on divine mercy. Being bookish, I was quite pleased and hoped all the sacraments came with a free book.
After further discernment, my wife and I thought it prudent to return to the States. This meant postponing our reception until the kids finished school. The bishop felt it’s best to have first confession approximate first Communion, and thus I made a “second” first confession before being received on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. This time ’round I was given three books, ostensibly for the three sacraments received.
It was the bishop’s good sense of the connection between confession and Communion that afforded me the blessing of making two first confessions. We know we should not receive the Eucharist unworthily (1 Corinthians 11:27), and that means making confession beforehand whenever we’re in a state of mortal sin. But are there reasons to think that regular confession before Mass, even when not strictly “necessary,” is still worthwhile?
I think so. Regular confession enables and enriches our reception of the Eucharist, for it befits the eternal self-offering of our Lord Jesus Christ re-presented in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In order to think well about these sacraments, however, we must begin by contemplating the God of the sacraments.
The Catholic faith is fixated upon, captivated by, absolutely enamored of the eternal life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity is the prime and principle article of Catholic faith. It asserts not merely that God is three Persons in one being, but, more specifically and wonderfully, that the being of God is perpetual, personal outpouring. Each divine Person is not an individual preoccupied with self-interest, only transacting with the others, but is eternally ecstatic, oriented to the others in love.
In what might be called an eternal liturgy, each divine Person offers himself to the other as self-gift, a reality that makes the statement “God is love” not merely a cheery metaphor, but the articulation of the deepest truth of all being. The Father does not have the divine nature possessively, with that fear of self-preservation that animates finite life. Rather, the Father is God as the One who eternally gives himself to the Son.
This Son who is “eternally begotten” or “born of the Father before all ages” (to use the language of the Nicene Creed) does not resist the Father’s loving arms, pushing them away like a willful child threatened by dependence, but finds solace in his embrace. In turn, Father and Son offer themselves to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit does not feel like a third wheel and resent his role as bond of love, but is the One who celebrates the eternal triune fellowship.
From all eternity, God is family. And this divine family is our destiny, should we accept it, a destiny we call the Beatific Vision, the happifying sight of perfection so sublime and true that it gives the soul perfect repose.
Undoubtedly this mystery is too wonderful for us. How can we peel back the veil of history and peer into the tabernacle of God’s eternal life? Thanks be to God the eternal Trinity is rendered in history for us and our salvation through the mysteries of Christ’s life. The Father’s eternal generation of the Son is reiterated in the Incarnation, when he generates the body of our Lord Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Son’s self-offering to the Father is demonstrated in his cross, when he willingly surrenders himself into the Father’s hands. The eternal aspiration of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son is displayed for us at Pentecost, when Father and Son send the Spirit to the Church. The great mysteries of Christ’s life, then, are historic touchstones of salvation, portals into eternal life. Our salvation is not just awareness of the existence of God and appreciation for the historical Jesus, but personal incorporation into God’s eternal family.
The question is: How do we, who were not present to experience these events, access them? The Lord instituted the sacraments to perpetuate his mysteries in our time.
The sacraments extend into the Church the historical outpouring of the eternal Trinity in the life of Jesus Christ. This is why incorporation into the Church is truly incorporation in Christ’s body. Through the sacramental life of the Church, we are made by adoption partakers of Our Lord’s natural, eternal sonship of the Father.
The Eucharist has pride of place in the sacramental economy. The Catechism of the Council of Trent asserted that while every sacrament is instituted by Christ and worthy of reverence, “there is none comparable to the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist” (Chapter IV, Question 1). The Second Vatican Council observed that the Eucharist is “the fount and apex of the whole Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, 11).
The Eucharist is primary because it is the re-presentation of the Son’s self-offering to the Father on the cross, an act of love and adoration so sacred and pure that no human offering can rival it.
When we receive the Eucharist, we participate in his eternal sonship to the Father. Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs us that, through the Eucharist, “we unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life” (1326). The Eucharist is the foretaste of the heavenly banquet, a training ground for our heavenly beatific vision of God.
Receiving the Eucharist in sin is a grave matter, for sin is resistance to God, the refusal to offer oneself to God. It is a rebellious reservation of self and retreat from the Lord’s love. It is the tragic, ignorant, foolish attempt to preserve some private domain, some independence, some identity and destiny apart from God.
How, then, can we fittingly and fully partake of the Son’s perfect self-offering that comes to us in the Eucharist while in a state of sin? How can we become incorporated into the divine family while corners of our souls are still cowering back from divine love? How can we embrace the charity of Christ in the Mass while persisting in prideful self-absorption?
Confession before Communion is so valuable because it conforms us to the model of the divine Son’s self-offering in eternity and in the Eucharist.
Through confession we offer ourselves wholly and unreservedly to the Lord. We turn away from curating a self apart from God, even the prideful desire to manage and remedy our sins on our own without the aid of divine grace.
We, by the Lord’s grace, are cleansed from our sinful withdrawal from God’s goodness. In offering ourselves to God through confession, we become more fit for receiving the Son’s perfect self-offering to the Father in the Mass.
If our capacity for eternal beatific participation in the perfect love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is determined by our present receptivity of the Son’s Eucharistic self-offering, shouldn’t we make every effort to receive it as worthily and purely as possible by frequently prefacing it with confession?
James R.A. Merrick, Ph.D., is a lecturer in the theology department
at Franciscan University of Steubenville and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.