Step Right Up: All Imperfections Welcomed!
Dr. Robert Stackpole Answers Your Questions on Divine Mercy
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (May 21, 2008)
I have been flooded with questions about the Sacrament of Reconciliation this year, as people prepare their hearts for Divine Mercy Sunday. Sadly, it is not possible for me to give an in-depth answer to them all in this column (although I try to give at least some kind of answer to everyone who writes to me, on an individual basis).
Suffice it to say that behind many of the questions I have received this year lies the underlying question: Are there some limits to how forgiving Jesus is willing to be in this sacrament?
One person named Vic wrote to me about his doubts in this regard:
"I am sure that during ... confessions I must have left out many sins (not on purpose) but maybe not as good a preparation as I should have done. For the last 10 years or so, I am trying to make up for this past by going to monthly confession and attending daily Mass. But there are many times when I think that maybe these confessions were not sincere and here I am going to daily Mass and receiving Communion and adding sins. In a confession recently I mentioned this to the priest, and he told me to forget the past, that all is forgiven, and to get on with my present life. I want to do this but still feel insecure."
Well, Vic, you are afflicted by "scruples," to be sure; in fact, you seem to have gotten yourself into the mental state that unless your confession is perfectly motivated and perfectly prepared, and comprehensive too (covering all your sins), then maybe you are not forgiven after all, and committing a sin by receiving Holy Communion is such a spiritual condition.
But Confession is not for the perfect: It is for the imperfect! The Church teaches us that even when we make a sacramental confession with "imperfect contrition" for sin (see Catechism entry 1453), our Lord is so generous in mercy that He forgives all our mortal sins, and the eternal punishment due to them, and strengthens us with His sanctifying grace to help us overcome our venial sins.
But we must trust Him. At one point, in the Diary of St. Faustina, Jesus complained: "Distrust on the part of souls is tearing at My insides. The distrust of a chosen soul causes Me even greater pain; despite My inexhaustible love for them they do not trust Me" (50).
As for "leaving out many sins (not on purpose)," remember that to do something "wrong" in the eyes of the Lord, it has to be a conscious and deliberate act of the will (Catechism, 1853: "The root of sin is in the heart of man, in his freewill").
Forgetting something (like some of your past sins in Confession) is not an act of willful rebellion against God; it is merely a human weakness, part of our limited human condition. Saint Faustina tells us in her Diary over and over that Jesus, our Savior, is overflowing with compassion for us. He does not hold against us such non-deliberate weaknesses; rather, He looks on the heart, on our intentions, and if we intended to try to confess all the sins troubling our conscience (in other words, if we did not willfully and knowingly cover them up), then all the ones we forgot are forgiven, too. But if scruples continue to bother you, try doing what I do: When you are in the confessional, after you are done recounting the sins that you remember, add the words: "for these sins, and for all the others that I cannot now remember, I ask you Father for penance, counsel and absolution."
Another person wrote to me these poignant words:
"How many times does God forgive you for the same sin? I have a serious problem with a certain sin that has been playing havoc on my spiritual life. Right now [my spiritual life] is non-existent. I really don't know what to do. I have wasted all the graces God has given me. I haven't been to Church, or even followed Lent as I should have. The last few days have been really hard because of the guilt. I keep thinking: How can God forgive me for what I keep doing!"
Well, I can promise you one thing for certain: You cannot possibly sin more times than God can forgive you, if you are contrite (as you evidently are). He is infinite, and you are finite. You can only sin a finite number of times, but God, your loving Father, could forgive you an INFINITE number of times, if need be!
Do you have a copy of the Diary of St. Faustina? If so, please read entries 1485-1486. If you don't have the Diary, here is a small section of it, from entry 1485. Jesus says to sinful souls:
My mercy is greater than your sins, and those of the entire world. Who can measure the extent of My goodness? For you I descended from heaven to earth; for you I allowed myself to be nailed to the cross; for you I let My Sacred Heart be pierced with a lance, thus opening wide the source of Mercy for you. Come then with trust to draw graces from this fountain. I never reject a contrite heart.
The Bible says the same thing (for example, Psalm 103):
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love ... For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.
In addition to making your Confession — with the confidence that Jesus is ALWAYS willing to forgive a contrite heart that trusts in Him — I suggest that if you have a sinful habit that is wreaking havoc with your spiritual life, open your heart to a wise and learned priest (or to a Brother or Sister or layperson who serves the Church as a spiritual director), someone who can give you good counsel to help you overcome this sin and who can walk with you through the process of overcoming it.
With extra help, you will win in the end, though the struggle may be a hard one at times. But our Savior loves you so much that He made you in His own image, and bought you with His own Blood: then don't you think that souls like you who are willing to struggle and fight to be His true disciples are especially precious to Him?
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.