By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
Confession is a great gift of Catholic spirituality. Thankfully, we enjoy it at every Mass; and, hopefully, we enjoy it sacramentally at least once a year. Catholic faith has always insisted upon freedom and so upon the need to examine our conscience and to accept responsibility for our lives. Anyone who follows Pope Francis knows that he loves to talk about responsibility, conscience and confession.
But some struggle with confession. Doesn’t it make us wallow in “Catholic guilt” and ignore divine mercy? And why should we confess to priests when we can always ask God directly for forgiveness?
One can certainly have a bad experience in confession. Poor catechesis, a tired priest and other misunderstandings have their effects. But in my life, first as a layman and now as a priest, confession has been the most liberating experience. In life, it is so easy to become ensnared by social and psychological chains that prohibit us from accepting ourselves in our “brokenness” (to use a more popular word for an ancient idea, namely, “sinfulness”). We can be tempted to hide from others, lie to ourselves and distract our consciences by turning their power away from ourselves and toward judging others. We choose this anxiety because we are afraid to live honestly. We fear: “Am I still lovable despite my sin? Could I even be healed, were I ever to acknowledge my illness? Is it safe to ‘go down the rabbit hole’ that is my conscience, or will its twists tempt me to despair?”
Confession shatters such doubts. There is simply nothing in this world like totally revealing oneself before God and his people, and then hearing the words of absolution spoken in his name: “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Go in peace.” Is there another experience in which the certainty of being loved is more clear and the hope of healing more justified? When we confess, we do not wallow in guilt but rather embrace ourselves for who we are today, as we turn to our Creator with faith, hope and love for him and for his beautiful designs for our lives.
But why go to a priest? Well, because only with a priest can we experience confession as a sacrament. The Catechism of the Catholic church defines the (seven) sacraments as “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (CCC 1131). Christ wants us to experience confession in his church (cf. John 20:21-23; Matthew 16:18-19; 18:17-18). He wants us to experience repentance and reconciliation concretely: that is, physically, within the community of the Church and with the certainty of his promise — sacramentally.
Of course, all men and women, non-Catholics obviously included, can repent and receive forgiveness from God. God has bound himself to his sacraments; but he is not bound by them. In other words, he promised to give his grace in certain ways, but he never said that he would limit himself to those ways. Nevertheless, he did bind himself to his sacraments and ask his followers to enjoy them. Why? Well, one day we will just have to ask him! In the meantime, when theologians contemplate their faith in search of an answer, they usually see his wisdom for at least two reasons.
First, we are physical creatures and therefore the Gospel is not a merely mental reality. A physical, integral or holistic experience of reconciliation is truer and more satisfying than a mental, unilateral prayer. It is like the difference between, on the one hand, texting an apology with the confidence that it is received; and, on the other hand, apologizing directly and hearing the other respond by saying “I love you and forgive you” with all the power of tears, eye contact and an embrace.
Second, Christianity is a family affair. When we sin, we do so against both God and his people. Reconciliation thus has both a vertical dimension (God) and a horizontal dimension (the church). Yes, we can always ask God for forgiveness. But God is not the only one with whom we seek to be reconciled.
When was the last time I accepted my freedom and responsibility in life by examining my conscience? When was the last time I experienced the unconquerable love of God in sacramental confession?
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.