Patricia writes: I don’t feel comfortable going to the sacrament of penance, so I receive Holy Communion, even if I am in a state of mortal sin. I am a weak person, and I try to draw strength from the Body of Christ within me. Surely God wouldn’t mind me receiving when he knows my true motive for doing so? Bernard McGuckian SJ responds.
Towards the end of his life, Pope John Paul II reminded us of the long tradition in the Church, dating back to St Paul himself, that a person must be in a state of grace in order to receive communion at Mass. To receive communion worthily, a person who is aware of grave sin must go to confession before approaching the altar.
In communion and confession, Our Lord fulfils in a special way his promise to be with us always until the end of time. In communion he provides us with daily bread for the journey of life. In confession, he offers us the heavenly medicine that we need.
In life, there are days when, because of some indisposition or perhaps serious illness, the last thing we need or even want to see is food. At times like this, food, no matter how good or wholesome would only make us much sicker. In a similar way, without the healing of a good confession we may never regain a proper appetite for communion, the Bread of Life.
In ‘going to confession’, we follow the same route back to our Father’s house as the prodigal son. For him this involved a personal, one-to-one meeting between himself and his father. Think of the consolation it was for the son who had made such a mess of his life to be welcomed with an embrace and a kiss, the ring, new clothes, sandals and, later, the fatted calf. His father didn’t send a servant to deal with him, but came running down the road to greet him personally.
In confession we have the same reality. Not to put a tooth in it, at the moment of absolution, the priest and God are one. In confession the priest doesn’t make a prayer to God on your behalf, such as ‘May Almighty God forgive you your sins’. He does something much more extraordinary. He makes a declaration about you in your own presence that God himself stands over: ‘I absolve you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. For a man or woman of faith, this is one of the greatest consolations on earth.
The justification for this extraordinary priestly action stems from the words of Jesus a few short hours after he had risen from the dead: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained’ (In.20:22-23).
The Sacrament of Reconciliation resulted from the reflection of the apostles on this revelation, which implied a human process of sifting for evidence. The words of Jesus did not imply a blanket forgiveness, regardless of attitudes or dispositions. If a reasoned decision was to be made, some communication was necessary.
Without sorrowful confession and a change of heart, the whole thing would be meaningless. It certainly would bear little resemblance to the repentance called for by Jesus all through his life. Like the prodigal son, each one of us has to make the challenging effort to confess our own sins on the way to a happy homecoming. ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son’ (Lk.15:21).
Sorrow and love
Confession is sometimes described as a Tribunal. It is unique among all the Tribunals of the world, however, because it is ultimately about nothing other than love.
The judge in this case is not trying to find out what you have done or not done. All he is doing is trying
to find out if there is at least a spark of love for God and others that makes you sorry for having offended both.
Christian sorrow is simply the flip-side of the coin of love. I am only sorry to the extent that I love. Once there is some evidence for this, the priest is only too happy to throw open to you the infinite treasures of grace in the Heart of Christ.
First step to holiness
Throughout the history of Christianity, confession has been a source of consolation to millions of us sinners. For many it has been the first step on the way to great holiness.
One striking example is Charles de Foucauld, a French army officer. In his early life he was so incorrigible that he refused to send away his mistress from the officers’ quarters even though it would cost him his military career.
His life changed dramatically after going to confession in the Church of St. Augustine in Paris in the latter part of the nineteenth century. He eventually died a martyr for the faith in the Saharan Desert.
Only recently beatified, he is now featured among the great lovers of the Sacred Heart in a mosaic in the Church of the Visitation in Paray-le-Monial, along with St. Margaret Mary and St. Claude la Colombière.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (November 2006), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.