Photo: Felix Carroll
If going to sacramental confession seems like a daunting task at times, just remember that it is not only the pathway to pardon, but also to the healing of our broken hearts.
The Sacrament of Mercy and Healing
Dr. Robert Stackpole Answers Your Questions On Divine Mercy
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jan 16, 2008)
As we draw closer to Lent, it is good to begin to examine our hearts and our consciences, trying to see clearly our sins and seeking out God's mercy, forgiveness, and help.
Recently, I received several questions about sacramental confession. One person simply wrote: "What can a person do if he has committed mortal sins? And how can he be sorry for them?"
I gather that by "mortal sins" the questioner is referring to sins that are so serious that they separate us from the Holy Spirit altogether and drive His sanctifying grace right out of our hearts. The ancient fathers of the Church listed murder, adultery, and apostasy as the most grievous of these "mortal sins," but there are others as well, such as acts of deliberate, premeditated cruelty and malice, major acts of theft and fraud (especially victimizing the poor and needy), dishonesty in important matters, and any wilful rejection of the revealed truth of God.
For an act to be classed as a "mortal sin" it must concern a grave matter, be done with full understanding of its moral character, and must be done with deliberate consent (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1854-1864).
To find forgiveness for such grave sins, it is best to go to Confession, because Jesus said to His apostles: "Whoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven, and whoever sins you retain, they are retained" (see Jn 20:21-23). The bishops and priests are those who carry on the leadership ministry of the apostles in the Church, so being honest about one's sins to God in the privacy of the confessional, with the help of a priest, is a special way that Christ gave to us to enable us to receive His forgiveness and find some relief for our troubled consciences. The Catechism puts it this way in entries 1446 and 1468:
Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of His Church: above all for those who, since baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as "the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace."
"The whole power of the sacrament of Penance consists in restoring us to God's grace and joining us with Him in an intimate friendship." Reconciliation with God is thus the purpose and effect of this sacrament. For those who receive the sacrament of Penance with contrite heart and religious disposition, reconciliation "is usually followed by peace and serenity of conscience, with strong spiritual consolation." Indeed the sacrament of Reconciliation with God brings about a true "spiritual resurrection," restoration of the dignity and blessings of the life of the children of God, of which the most precious is friendship with God.
As for what can help us be truly sorry for our sins? Just remember that by committing serious sins, we are betraying the One who loved us so much that He created us in His own image and bought us with His own blood on the Cross. Try reading the Gospel of St. Luke (sometimes known as the "Gospel of Mercy") from start to finish. You will see the beauty of His love for all people and the tragedy that we so often let Him down — and also the wonder and mystery that He keeps on loving us anyway, like a Good Shepherd who ever searches for His lost sheep until He finds them.
But you know, I'll bet the problem for many people is not lack of regret or sorrow for their mortal sins. A poll came out some years ago that showed that the main reason lapsed Christians do not go to church anymore is that they feel they are not "good enough" to go, that they are "too far gone," so to speak, and couldn't possibly be forgiven for all the bad things they have done. As if the Church was meant primarily for "good people"! But as someone once said: The Church is not meant to be a museum for saints; it's a hospital for sinners! If you are struggling against the guilt and power of your sins, then going to the sin-hospital, the Catholic Church, is precisely where you can find the help you need!
Of course, it is not easy at first. Turning your life around never is. I have a friend in the Divine Mercy movement who likes to point out the remarkable difference between our attitude toward Holy Eucharist and our attitude toward confession. If we say we are going to go to the Eucharist, we often say, "I want to go to Communion" — and we say it with a smile. But if we tell someone that we are off to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we usually say, "I have to go to confession." Have to.
The fact is that we tend to see the Eucharist as something joyful, refreshing, and uplifting, but confession as something we sometimes "have" to do, something we have to go through, and get over with so that we can get to the more enjoyable thing later, which is the Eucharist. And I think this is the thing that plagues the lapsed churchgoers, too, especially lapsed Catholics. They wouldn't mind going to Eucharist on Sundays again. They just know that to do that with any honesty and integrity, they would "have to" go through a pretty serious confession first. It's too much: It awakens their doubts and fears that they really might not be "forgivable" anymore after all, and they really might not be able to do any better with their lives, even if they were forgivable. So they don't even try. Rather then set themselves up for a big disappointment, they just stay home.
Now this hesitation, in part, is quite understandable. After all, a sincere confession can be a bit painful at times. It is very humbling, even humiliating, to have to verbalize, in the presence of another person (in this case, in the presence of the priest), the miserable, base, or shameful things that we sometimes do. It hurts. It uproots our pride. It's like pulling a bad tooth. Still, like having a bad tooth pulled, we know the temporary discomfort will be good for us in the end, and if we are willing to go through with it, we will hear those blessed and comforting words of absolution pronounced over us by the priest, assuring us of the pardon of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and we will indeed find relief for our troubled conscience, and a fresh start.
Still, it is no easy thing to do — especially after being away from confession for a long time (the "shame factor" feels huge at first), and we still may wonder whether the effects of the treatment will be worth the cost in humiliation and embarrassment.
Here is where I think the Diary of St. Faustina and the Catechism can be a great help to us. For these two great books teach us the same thing: that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is primarily about healing, about finding the healing love of Christ who will not only completely pardon you for the past, but also give you the healing, spiritual strength to find a new life in the future.
We know from the Catechism that all the sacraments are given to us to impart God's "grace" to our souls. In entry 1999, we find a good definition of "grace":
The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of His own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it.
This is especially true of two sacraments in particular, that the Catechism calls "Sacraments of Healing":
The Lord Jesus Christ, physician of our souls and bodies, who forgave the sins of the paralytic and restored him to bodily health, has willed that His Church continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, His own work of healing and salvation, even among her own members. This is the purpose of the two sacraments of healing: the Sacrament of Penance, and the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick (1421).
The truth is that sin causes brokenness within our souls. Sin is not only a violation of God's commandments and laws (a breaking of His rules, so to speak), it also poisons and weakens our souls. Mortal sin even drives the life-giving Holy Spirit out of our hearts altogether. Thus, the Sacrament of Reconciliation not only enables us to receive the assurance of God's pardon for our misdeeds, it enables us to receive the life-giving Holy Spirit again and all the sanctifying and healing graces that He wants to pour into our hearts.
If going to sacramental confession seems like a daunting task at times, just remember that it is not only the pathway to pardon, but also to the healing of our broken hearts. In fact, the spiritual healing that this sacrament can bring to us is so amazing that, as we have seen, the Catechism tells us that it can bring about a true "spiritual resurrection" within us.
In fact, all this is precisely what our Savior taught St. Faustina about His merciful love at work in this sacrament.
(Read part two of this series, "Reconciliation: the Sacrament of Mercy and Healing.")
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.