As Lent begins, 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.
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Feb 6, 2008)
The following is the third part in the series, "Reconciliation: the Sacrament of Mercy and Healing."
By Dr. Robert Stackpole
In this third installment of our series on sacramental Confession, let's go back to something that we quoted last time from St. Faustina's Diary. In entry 1448, Faustina records for us some in-depth teaching about this sacrament of mercy and healing. We looked at several aspects of that teaching in last week's column. But there is one more thing that Jesus told Sr. Faustina that we should not pass over without comment. Jesus said to her: "Tell souls where they are to look for solace; that is, in the Tribunal of Mercy [the Sacrament of Reconciliation]."
It was from Vinny Flynn, a Divine Mercy evangelist, that I first heard this properly explained. He pointed out that "Tribunal of Mercy" almost sounds like a contradiction in terms, like saying "hot ice." After all, I do not know what the word "tribunal" conjures up in your mind, but it makes me think of anything but "mercy"! It makes me think of a courtroom scene, with judges sitting in high-backed chairs, looking very severe and displeased, whose job it is to make an inquiry into a serious crime, and pronounce a verdict in accord with the most stringent principles of justice. In other words, if you get called to appear before a "tribunal," it's usually because you are in BIG TROUBLE !
Yet our lord calls the sacrament of Reconciliation a tribunal of "mercy." How can this be?
I think it only makes sense if we remember who the judges are that are sitting on this tribunal. If the confessional is anything like a courtroom scene, then it is really the court of heaven we are kneeling before, awaiting our sentence, and the only judges in that court are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: the Holy Trinity of Divine Mercy. They are the "tri" in this tribunal. That is why when the priest pronounces the absolution, he starts: "God the Father of mercies ... through the resurrection of His Son ... sent the Holy Spirit." It is the Holy Trinity that is actually waiting for us in this sacrament, ready to apply the remedy of His merciful love to our sin-sick souls. The throne of God's justice, through Jesus Christ's sacrifice for us on the Cross, has become for us the throne of His grace. As the book of Hebrews puts it:
For we have not a high priest [Jesus] who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb 4:15-16).
The great Church Father St. Ireneus of Lyons put it best when he said that when we come before God in repentance and faith, the heavenly Father reaches out to us with His two loving arms, His Son and His Spirit, to embrace us with His merciful love.
That's the Gospel in a nutshell. It's cause for rejoicing indeed, just as the father in Christ's parable of the Prodigal Son rejoices when he welcomes his lost son home: "Let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found" (Lk 15: 23-24).
It follows that whenever we make a good and sincere confession, we not only find the joy of forgiveness and new life for ourselves: we actually cause the glorified Heart of Jesus to rejoice as well! As the gospels tell us, whenever the Good Shepherd finds His lost sheep, He puts them on His shoulders and brings them home "rejoicing" (Lk 15: 5-6). Jesus explained this to St. Faustina, too, as recorded in her Diary:
What joy fills My Heart when you return to Me. Because you are weak, I take you in My arms and carry you to the home of my Father. ... In a soul that lives on My love alone, I reign as in heaven. I watch over it day and night. In it I find My happiness; My ear is attentive to each request of its heart. ... O child, especially beloved by Me, apple of My eye, rest a moment near My Heart, and taste of the love in which you will delight for all eternity (1487 and 1489).
This "joy" that our Good Shepherd experiences whenever He rescues one of His lost sheep tells us something very important about His Heart. We commonly say, don't we, that "Jesus loves us in spite of our sins." I think we understand that to mean that He pardons us when we are contrite, helps us in our struggles, and puts up with us with great patience. And no doubt all of that is true, as far as it goes. But the gospels tell us something more. Our Lord is even more closely bonded to us than that. He actually "likes" us. In other words, He has boundless affection for us. He feels for us when we are suffering and lost, and rejoices for us whenever He is able to relieve or restore us.
Notice that the passage from Hebrews (quoted above) says that He "sympathizes" with us. And again, when He finds His lost sheep, St. Luke's gospel tells us, He puts them on his shoulders and brings them home, "rejoicing." In short, Jesus Christ not only loves us with the virtue of charity; He also feels for our plight with tender affection!
How is this possible? How can our Savior have such tender affection for us when we so often fall into sin, and when our souls are often so wounded by the corruption of habitual sin?
Saint Thomas Aquinas can shed some light on this matter for us. In his writings, St. Thomas asked the question: "Why does God love sinners despite their sins?" The answer St. Thomas gave is that God does not so much love us because of anything we have done or not done. Rather, God loves us because of our potential. With the help of His grace, we are creatures capable of eternal beatitude (capax beatitudo). God always looks past our imperfect deeds to what we always have the potential to become: saints of His infinite Mercy.
You know how terrific a child can feel if a parent or teacher turns to that child and says; "You've got potential, kid!" Well, in God's eyes, we all have potential because He made us in His image. And God doesn't make junk. That is the underlying reason why God loves us in spite of all our sins: because He knows that until the day we die, we still have the potential to cooperate with His grace and become saints of His merciful Heart. And that is also the reason why Jesus, our Savior, retains such boundless affection for us — that He even "likes" us — even when we wander far from Him. He sees our hidden potential, underneath the grit and the grime.
It's a "pearl of great price" to Him. So, whenever we come to Jesus in sacramental Confession, we not only fulfill God's just requirements for obtaining pardon for our grave sins, and we not only find in this sacrament a fountain of Mercy, where healing graces for our hearts always flow. In addition to all that, we actually cause the Merciful Heart of Jesus to rejoice, a Heart that has been wounded so often by the sins of thankless men and women.
So, if someone asks me, "How often should I go to Confession?" I would say in response: "How often do you need to find pardon and forgiveness for your sins? How often do you need to drink from the fountain of Mercy, where healing graces flow? And most of all, how often do you want to bring joy to the Heart of Jesus? Go every week, if you can find time to prepare for this sacrament by making a good examination of conscience beforehand. Going to Confession not only when we commit serious sins, but even when we commit smaller, venial sins on a regular basis, is good for the soul, and rejoices the Heart of our Savior. The Catechism entry 1458 sums it up best:
Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed, the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ, and grow in the life of the Spirit. By receiving more frequently through this sacrament the Father's mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as he is merciful.
Thanks be to God for this wonderful sacrament of spiritual healing and mercy, that brings such joy to the Merciful Heart of Jesus!
Read part one and part two of the series.
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.