Updated: Aug 22, 2019
The sacrament of Reconciliation, Confession or more ominously, Penance, always seemed to have a bit of a cloud over it: certainly not one of your favorites. When I was growing up, we lined up like crime suspects, avoided eye contact, and then proceeded into a dark little closet-like space, to tell a faceless priest our misdeeds. Sometimes, when there was a choice of priest, we might slide into the queue for the one who was usually least critical and went light on the penance. Generally the emphasis was on what we had done (versus not done). We often left feeling a little better about ourselves, but sometimes with a sense of ambivalence about the overall process.
Today, for some of us Catholics, Confession (my favorite name for the sacrament), has evolved. At the risk of generalizing, I’d say there are roughly three categories of views on the sacrament. First, there’s the traditionalists, for whom maybe not a lot has changed. Then there are those who have truly embraced confession, a minority I fear, who are comfortable sitting in a room with a priest and truly reflecting on those areas where they have been less than we are called to be by God. And then there’s the rest of us.
In the late 90’s, as the internet boom was happening, there was a snazzy term that everyone in corporate America was tossing around: disintermediation. In basic terms, it means cutting out the middle guy. The thinking went, everyone who wants to sell something will set up a website, and customers will buy directly from them, eliminating the intermediary, like a retail outlet for example. My sense is that this is not a bad metaphor for how many of us think about Confession: why talk to a priest when I can go directly to God? It’s faster, more flexible (I can do it whenever I choose) and there’s none of those awkward feelings about saying your sins out loud or hearing yourself repeat the same old failings that have plagued you for years. A reasonable enough argument; however, to quote Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction……Allow me to retort!
The catechism defines a sacrament as “an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to convey grace”. The “outward sign” piece of this is extremely important. In the gospels, and indeed throughout the bible, there is a very physical or human aspect to major miracles or events. In the gospel of John for instance, Jesus makes a paste with spittle to put on the eyes of the blind man as He heals him. Obviously Jesus could have skipped that part but clearly saw it as essential. There is a recognition that the whole person, body, mind and spirit need to engage for something to be truly real to us as humans.
And so for us, taking a physical break to go to church, examining our conscience, confessing our sins out loud to God (the priest is there as God’s representative), resolving to do better and performing a token penance are essential for us as humans. God has already forgiven us as soon as we truly ask for it. And he never tires of repeat offenders! However, we need a ritual, a physical manifestation of our desire to be forgiven, so that we can truly receive God’s grace. Moreover, the actual act of reflecting on where we have not lived up to our calling and acknowledging it out loud, can and does help us avoid drifting in our lives to a place where things we once realized were sinful have now somehow become a normal part of our lives. Whatever your favorite name for this sacrament, and however you might like to receive it, it’s an essential part of our faith for many good reasons.