Our children have had their share of occasions to visit the nearby urgent care and emergency room – accidents, illnesses, and everything in between. A little medical attention or a prescription is all it usually takes to get them back in shape. Our souls, too, experience sicknesses when we succumb to temptations and fall into sin. “In the life of the body a man is sometimes sick, and unless he takes medicine, he will die. Even so in the spiritual life a man is sick on account of sin. For that reason he needs medicine so that he may be restored to health; and this grace is bestowed in the Sacrament of Penance.” (St. Thomas Aquinas) These words from the Angelic Doctor explain the necessity and benefit of frequently making a good confession. We are born with the sickness of original sin, which is cleansed through the Sacrament of Baptism. Imperfect beings that we are, we continue to sin daily throughout our lives, and so are in need of a healing and a cure for the stain of sin which we all encounter daily on our souls. That cleansing remedy can be found by examining our conscience and going to confession regularly.
We Should Not Fear the Sacrament of Penance
Like a cancer, if left untreated, sin will invade our souls and destroy our spiritual health. We are in need of a physician and treatment which can heal our souls and bring us conversion and salvation and freedom from the pain that comes from choosing our way over God’s. We should never fear exposing our sins and faults in confession. St. Jerome reminds us, “for if the sick person is too ashamed to show his wound to the doctor, the medicine cannot heal what it does not know.” (Council of Trent) With a good examination of conscience, we diagnose the disorders in our lives that need healing, then we present ourselves to the physician, who is Jesus in the person of the confessor. After we confess our sins, we resolve not to commit them again and to amend our lives with the recitation of the Act of Contrition. The priest is able to give us absolution, the forgiveness of our sins and healing and restoration occur.
The Good Medicine of Penance
The Sacrament of Penance is also called the sacrament of confession, conversion, forgiveness, and Reconciliation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church outlines the requirements for the Sacrament: “Penance requires . . . the sinner to endure all things willingly, be contrite of heart, confess with the lips, and practice complete humility and fruitful satisfaction.” (CCC 1450) The Catechism also states that through the Sacrament of Penance, our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled with the Body of Christ, the Church, whom we have harmed by our sins. Sin causes damage and division, and these rifts are healed when we confess our sins to a priest and receive absolution. After absolution, we receive a penance from the confessor in order to unite us with the suffering Christ and participate in his work of redemption. “[The penance] can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear.” (CCC 1460) We are then restored to God’s grace and reconciled with the Church community. As we experience comfort after we take the medicine prescribed by the doctor, if we receive the Sacrament with contrite heart and good disposition, it “is usually followed by peace and serenity of conscience with strong spiritual consolation.” (CCC 1468) When I come across these verses from the Psalms, I am always comforted and encouraged not to fear going to confession, but to embrace it and go often. The words remind us of the great blessing and comfort which comes from confessing our sins to God through the priest:
“Blessed is the one whose fault is removed, whose sin is forgiven. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, in whose spirit is no deceit. Because I kept silent, my bones wasted away; I groaned all day long… then I declared my sin to you; my guilt I did not hide. I said, “I confess my transgression to the Lord,” and you took away the guilt of my sin.” (Psalm 32:1-5)
The Power to Forgive Sins
God sees all of our actions and the inclinations of our hearts, our motives, and our intentions. He knows us better than ourselves but still wants us to approach the confessional to tell our sins to the priest, who is in the person of Christ, and receive the healing of the Sacrament. Some may wonder why Catholics confess to a priest and not straight to God. Jesus bestowed his authority on the apostles so they could continue his healing and saving work. That authority included the power to forgive sins. After Jesus rose from the dead he sent the apostles to proclaim the gospel and gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit. At this moment he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22–23). Through these words and actions of Jesus, the apostles were commissioned to go out and extend God’s healing mercy and forgiveness to all who confess.
Learning from Our Mistakes
St. Maximilian Kolbe says that even our sins and weaknesses can help us to grow in holiness if we humble ourselves and learn from our mistakes. “In fact, the only reason why the Immaculate permits us to fall is to cure us from our self-conceit, from our pride, to make us humble and thus make us docile to the divine graces.” (St. Maximilian Kolbe) Our God is so patient and loving that he even uses our falls to help lead us along the way of salvation. If we humbly admit our weakness, confess our sins and fault, and resolve to begin again, God can use our mistakes to purify and transform us and to help us to grow in holiness. We can even become stronger after a fall if we learn from our mistakes and resolve to begin again and avoid the sin.
Divine Mercy in the Sacrament
Confession heals, confession justifies, confession grants pardon of sin, all hope consists in confession; in confession there is a chance for mercy. (St. Isidore of Seville) What a wonderful gift God has given us through sacramental Confession, absolution of sins, and his pardon and mercy! His Divine Mercy is always awaiting us in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation; we have only to take advantage of it.