[Please note this post is not intended as a theological exploration of the sacrament of reconciliation. Rather, it is a reflection based on my personal experience about one particular aspect of this sacrament: how marvelously it shows God's eagerness to bend down to us with the gift of mercy in a way that takes account most eminently of the needs and weaknesses of our human psychology.]
Something that has stamped me indelibly as a person is the history of my being a convert to the Catholic faith. Next to life itself my Catholic faith is God's greatest gift to me.
I was baptized (praise God) as an infant. However, as a young man I did not embrace the Christian (Protestant) faith into which I had been baptized (though I never rejected it either). I was agnostic and used to think that even if God did exist, when it comes to the issue of divine ontology we mere humans find ourselves with no choice other than being doomed to perpetual uncertainty.
Then, God's grace came into my life in a way I had never dreamed could be real. . . .
But, this is not a post about my conversion. This is just by way of background to comment about what I want to say now: I am so grateful to God for the awesome sacrament of confession!
As I prepared to profess the Catholic faith and be received into full communion with the Church, being a convert who was already a baptized Christian, I was faced with the (at first daunting) prospect that my first confession would cover 28 years of my life! As I took instruction in the faith (which a gracious priest agreed to conduct privately over a series of meetings), one of my first difficulties was thinking about the Catholic practice of sacramental confession. Certainly, it is the case that we can pray directly to God for forgiveness for our sins and move on from there.
But as I thought about this (then a newly believing Christian but not yet Catholic), something bothered me: How could I know for sure--how could I ever have a deep, peaceful confidence in my soul--that God has truly forgiven me? I knew that I was a sinner and had done some awful things; I had offended God and deeply hurt others and myself by my sins. And I was completely certain that to go forward in life as a newly reverted (converted) Christian, I had to ask for and receive the forgiveness of God for my past sins. I ached to have my soul cleansed; I knew I needed this. And I believed that God since He is truly our Father and loves us immensely would also want us to be able to have confidence in His mercy. What father could stand to have his beloved child uncertain about an authentic gift of forgiveness? I knew that on some level, if I could never have genuine confidence in having been personally forgiven by God for my own particular sins I would always be plagued by an interior anxiety--a spiritual angst would be simmering within: Has God really forgiven me? (i.e. Has my prayerful request for forgiveness been adequate enough? Has it been heard? How do I know?)
Then one day it hit me (at this I experienced a thrill of realization): The Catholic practice of sacramental confession--because it is so tangible--is an almost unbelievably perfect answer to the above wretched state of anxiety as to whether God would ever truly proffer his mercy to me. Left only to my own private self-assessment how could I be certain that my own flawed prayers would elicit the (badly needed!) divine mercy I desired? We don't (usually) hear God speak into our ears! How could it be adequate to merely "feel" like God had forgiven me?
Confession to a priest (a validly ordained Catholic priest who has received the authority from God to forgive sins through the power of Jesus Christ) I realized, would give me vastly more confidence about whether or not I had truly ever received forgiveness from God. I realized that while I could fret endlessly about the sincerity of a private prayer offered to God alone I could be absolutely certain of the fact of having gone to confession and heard those blessed words with my own ears, actually spoken by a real human voice: "I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." How could a person not be sure of the reality of having gone to confession, named his sins with his own voice, and received back the words of absolution from another living human voice?
I give praise and thanks to God for the awesome sacrament of reconciliation. Because of its particular form--taking place in a person-to-person interchange involving lips and ears of flesh for both parties--I need never doubt whether or not God has truly forgiven me my sins. It is as blessedly simple (almost scandalously so) as asking myself: Did I truly confess my sins with my own lips? Did I truly hear those words of absolution with my own ears? Yes, I did! Thanks be to God!
It is so amazing the love of God--how truly fatherly He is. No, He does not have to work through a priest to bestow forgiveness upon us. But, loving father that He is, isn't it so like our God who freely emptied Himself out on a cross for us that He would institute a way to forgive and heal us of our sins wherein we could not only be forgiven but would then possess the great peace of a conscious, personal certainty of the exchange--our confession for His mercy? What hope this gives me!
Does God love us enough to provide a way to be free from anxiety about His mercy?
Let us prepare; go to the confessional; speak our sins to the priest whose lips speak for Christ and afterwords know without doubt that we have heard these wonderful words: "I absolve you of your sins." Thanks be to God!