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Why do Catholics still go to Confession?

30 November, 1999

A brief note on the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is a celebration of the forgiveness of God, and it helps us to put the the past behind us and go forward in optimism.

Perhaps the most misunderstood of the Sacraments of the Catholic Church is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It has undergone many changes over the years. Within the last thirty years it has changed its popular name twice, from Confession through Penance to Reconciliation.

From a once in a lifetime public confession in the early Church to the weekly confession of fifty years ago the practice has changed a good deal. Basic to the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the celebration of the forgiveness of God. The Church is so convinced it knows the mind of God in this matter it takes literally the promise of Christ when he said to his disciples, “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven.”

Most of us are aware of being less than perfect, of doing things we later regret. We may act out of spite, selfishness, greed or desire for power. If we hang on to our regrets and guilt it may cripple us, make us unable to reach out in love to God, ourselves and others. This Sacrament is a means of renewal, putting the past behind us and starting afresh.

Prayer and reflection
We need to look back over our lives and take note of our guilt, anything we regret having done, where we feel embarrassed.

Sorrow and desire for change
With God’s help, if it is necessary, we can change. The forgiveness of God is not dependent upon our being able to pull ourselves up by our own bootlaces. Our desire to change is sufficient.

Promise of forgiveness
It is good to be reminded that whatever we have done can never keep us from the love of God. God never puts up a barrier against us; sometimes we are too ashamed to turn back to God. Often in the Sacrament of Reconciliation we are reminded of the forgiveness of God through an appropriate reading from Scripture.

In the Sacrament of Reconciliation traditionally we tell of our faults and failings, our sins to a priest. The priest is, of course, sworn to secrecy – the seal of confession. Psychologically it is good to speak out those things that we feel bad about and then hear the words of forgiveness. This process helps us forgive ourselves. It is often much more difficult to forgive ourselves than receive the forgiveness of God or others.

Penance – to make up
Sin is not a purely personal affair. Usually we have hurt another person. We may have broken trust or damaged a relationship. Sometimes there may be something we can do to make up for our faults – a word of apology, the return or replacement of something we took. Although God’s forgiveness is not dependent upon making amends, but if we are truly sorry we will want to do what we can to repair what has been broken. Traditionally priest will suggest a prayer or two for a penance, but something more creative and related to the fault may be substituted.

An expression of repentance is called for, either in some traditional ‘Prayer (act) of Contrition’ or in our own words.

“Oh my God, because you are so good, I am very sorry that I have sinned against you, and by the help of your grace I will not sin again.”

When we have had our say the priest assures us of the forgiveness of God by saying the words of absolution.

“God, the Father of mercy, through death and resurrection of Christ his son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God grant you pardon and peace .. and I absolve you from all your sins in the name of the Father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit.”

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