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Terrance KleinSeptember 07, 2022
Photo from Unsplash.

A Reflection for the Twenty-third Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14 1 Timothy 1:12-17 Luke 15:1-10

When I was a boy, almost nothing I said in confession altered the response of Father Kelly, our Irish pastor. “Say three Hail Marys and renew your confidence in God and in yourself.”

Once he did add something, no doubt to save me from scruples. “You have to entertain a thought for it to be sinful.” He meant that any notion could stray through one’s head. It is the bad ones we welcome and nourish that are sinful. That took time for me to understand.

As a confessor, I am aware of my regular penitents, even those behind the screen, so I do vary my words and the penance imposed, because I do not want to sound repetitive, but typically it is not in response to what I’ve heard. Not even this line: “I’m so embarrassed to repeat the same sin.”

Do not be embarrassed. Sorrow for our sins, an awareness that we have done wrong and can do better, is a gift from God. Shame, a sense that you are loathsome, comes from the Evil One. He is lying to you about yourself and about God. At least you are confessing. That puts you ahead of the many, who sell the church, God and themselves short by abandoning the sacrament.

If you left confession feeling bad, that is a tragedy. Perhaps the priest did not consider sufficiently that he is there to confirm God’s mercy sacramentally.

You are still in the fight. You have not been knocked out of the ring. Is it possible that people who say that the sacrament is more trouble than it is worth, that they do not need confession, have duped themselves? Dress up the reasoning as you will, but if you have turned from the mercy of Christ, poured out completely on the cross and confirmed in the sacrament, you have failed, a bit, to believe in our Lord. Why? Because you have lost your confidence in Christ’s continuing presence in the church.

Even if there were no God, we get out of life what we put into it. To my mind, that maxim essentially affirms the existence of God, but even if you cannot see that point, you know the saying to be true. People who go to the effort of confession are happier people. As any psychologist can tell you, the very act of describing your life creates clarity and energy.

But what about that terrible priest in your past? If you left confession feeling bad, that is a tragedy. Perhaps the priest did not consider sufficiently that he is there to confirm God’s mercy sacramentally. He should not feel free to comment on what you say. He should speak warily.

That is an advantage of a rather standard response. The penitent does not wonder why the priest commented on one sin and not another. In general, the confessor should only speak in response to a question or to offer some needed clarity.

Shame says, you will never change; you should be embarrassed. But neither God nor the church know anything of this.

But might I ask, how long ago was your negative experience? Do you still consider it to be entirely the fault of the priest?

Finally—perhaps this is not universal, but it is bankable—the only sins most confessors remember are their own. We say to our own confessors, “I’m so embarrassed to repeat the same sin.”

The Greeks defined God as eternal, all powerful and unmoved. It was St. Thomas Aquinas who added a properly Christian attribute to this list, one born of the resurrection. God is pure act. We are always beginning, and then beginning again. In between lies our exhaustion and our renewal.

God never began and never stops. God does not grow weary. When we confess our sins, God hears us from the virgin shores of eternity and then, in the sacrament of the church, speaks into our time. In God’s eyes we already stand before him in the life to come. There, our constant flaws and repeated sins were blown away long ago, like a small circle of dust.

Gladsome guilt brought you to confession. Sinful shame tries to tell you that it will do you no good. Shame says, you will never change; you should be embarrassed. But neither God nor the church know anything of this. You are the sheep that was lost, so very long ago in life. As far as God in the sacrament is concerned, you were long ago found and brought home. So renew your confidence in God and in yourself.

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