I didn't. Somehow, I left the confessional feeling worse than when I went in.

I remained skeptical of the sacrament for years after that. I drifted away from regular Mass attendance, and went for years without darkening the door of a reconciliation room or slipping behind the velvet curtain of a confessional. What was the point? In my mind, I was right with God: He knew where I was coming from (and, no doubt, where I was going) and I apologized to him, privately, when it seemed like the right thing to do. End of discussion.

But no.

Years later, the twisting road of my life led me back to the church and the sacraments, and it plunged me more deeply into my faith than I had ever imagined possible. There were many reasons for my return: the deaths of my parents, the prayers of my wife, and a growing sense that there had to be more to life than just getting up and going to work and planning where to go out for dinner or when to take the next cruise. I became a daily communicant. I served in my parish as an usher and, later, as an extraordinary minister of Communion.

And as part of my journey, when the time became right and my heart became ready, I found myself on yet another Saturday in yet another church, preparing to catalogue my sins yet again.

I was going to give confession another chance.

I had wandered into the basement chapel of St. Francis of Assisi in Manhattan, a place whose lifeblood is the endless stream of commuters from Penn Station and the Long Island Railroad, who find their way there for confession at all hours of the day. There is always a line. As I soon discovered, it is easy to understand why.

After entering the small confessional/reconciliation room and closing the door, I found myself seated opposite a kindly old friar wearing the familiar brown robe and, oddly enough, sneakers. I cleared my throat and began: "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been (quick tally in my mind) ten years since my last confession."

He broke into a small smile. "Welcome back," he said. "It's good to see you again." He had never seen me before in my life. But I knew what he meant.

And with that, I began my confession. I spoke. He listened. He nodded. He had heard it all before, umpteen times, from the quivering lips of countless sinners like me. When it was over he gave me a mild penance and some gentle advice: "Just live the Gospel," he said softly. "Just live the Gospel." He sighed and smiled. "There you are. Good as new. God bless you."

It was the first time in a long time that those words stuck. And when I left that little room I felt, in fact, "good as new." So I went back a few weeks later, and a few weeks after that—again and again and again. It became a habit.

I can't quite explain it. Why does this sacrament exert such force? Some of it, I'm sure, is that it just feels good to let the weight of all our wrongs roll off our shoulders. It is comforting to be told that we are going to be okay and that what was wrong can be set right.

Everybody needs a second chance. Or a third.

Of course, it isn't easy. It requires reflection, observation, scrutiny. For a few moments we are asked to be moral anthropologists. We seek out our sins. We capture them, name them, tag them, and put them under glass to study, like wildly exotic fauna. What on earth is that?

The Chinese have a saying: "The beginning of wisdom is to call something by its correct name." Perhaps that is part of it, too: we name what we are—proud, greedy, lustful, petty, selfish, untruthful—and become aware. With penance and practice, we strive to be better. Wisdom begins.

Or so we hope. And so we pray: "I firmly resolve with the help of thy grace to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life, Amen."

Those final words of the Act of Contrition put it so succinctly and clearly. The purpose of the sacrament, really, is to amend life. To improve on what is there.

And with that improvement, I think, comes this beautiful promise at the heart of our faith: the promise that we will rise. We can be uplifted. Resurrection is available. All of us can roll aside the stone of our personal tomb and stagger, blinking, into the sun. As more than a few preachers have proclaimed, the paschal mystery didn't end on Good Friday but on Easter Sunday.

So it can be with each of us, too.

The profound act of being reconciled with God enables us to live Easter every time we emerge from that confessional. We breathe again. We see light again. We hope again. We are given grace.

At bottom, what begins with seven short words—"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned"—ends in transformation. It may last only an hour or a day. But the fact that it happens at all is miraculous. And that gives me reason enough to keep going back.


Reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc., 2008. All rights reserved. For subscription information, call 1-800-627-9533 or visit www.americamagazine.org.