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Sometimes I think of what it must have been like to live on earth when Jesus did, to be in the crowd and hear him preach at the Sermon on the Mount or be seated on the grass at the feeding of the 5,000, or witness one of his other miracles. What would my response be?

I think of those we hear about in the Gospels who were the recipients of one of his physical healings and how their lives must have been changed forever.

And when I walk into the confessional, either as the penitent receiving forgiveness or the confessor celebrating the sacrament, I am reminded that we get to encounter and experience what some who walked on this earth at the same time as Jesus got to experience – the power of his mercy; the freedom that comes with forgiveness. The beauty of the Church is that through Word and sacrament, we can have these very same experiences.

We see the effects of sin everywhere in our world and in our relationships. We feel the burden and the pain of sin in our lives. In our relationships we have to go to other people to ask for forgiveness. We speak words to express that we are sorry. We hear the response that we are forgiven from the one we have hurt. It is the same in our spiritual life. We go to God “in person,” and one on one in confession to ask for forgiveness. When Jesus gave us the sacrament of reconciliation on the day of his resurrection, He told his apostles, “Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:22-23). He knew our need to experience his mercy, and he gave it as a gift for all, not just for those who lived in the same corner of the world as he did. He gave it to us in every time and place. We have amazing access to his mercy, reconciliation, forgiveness, renewal and freedom. In confession, we are given new hope. We don’t have to be lost. What is broken can be restored, and we can be renewed in his love.

For many Catholics, the sacrament of reconciliation is approached with trepidation, fear and even dread, especially if we are not in the regular practice of confessing our sins. Even for those who regularly go to confession, it is difficult and sometimes embarrassing to admit that we have sinned and to name our sins. We can approach confession confidently because it is above all an encounter with God’s mercy, a free gift from the Father. Every time we approach Jesus in the sacrament, we have before us an opportunity for a life-changing confession.

Be not afraid.

We know that God knows our sins and that he is the God of mercy, but we can be afraid of naming them in confession. It is helpful to remember that every priest became a priest so that people could be reconciled to God. That is why the priest is there in confession – so that you can walk away from your sins and be reconciled to God. What you confess is between you and God. The priest cannot disclose what you have confessed to anyone.

Don’t get tired of asking for forgiveness.

We often struggle with the same sins again and again. This can lead to discouragement and frustration. Pope Francis reminds us that the God of mercy “does not tire of forgiving. We are the ones who tire in asking for forgiveness, but he does not tire” (Homily on the mercy of God, March 28, 2014). So we go to confession with confidence in the Lord’s words, “Behold I make all things new” (Rev 21:5).

Make a good examination of your conscience.

We shouldn’t approach the sacrament hastily or without reflection on our life. When we apologize to another person in our life, we know what we need to say in our apology. So we take some time to reflect on our life since our last confession. Have we broken any commandments? Have we committed sins through our actions and words or sins of omission of the good we knew we should have done? Many parishes have guides to help us or we can find them online.

Don’t make excuses for your sins.

How can we receive mercy if we make excuses for what we have done? We come to confess to our sins and recognize how they have damaged our relationship with God and one another. If we directly confess our sins without excuses, we are more likely to recognize the gift of God’s forgiveness and mercy. It is not owed to us. It is a free gift.

Don’t leave out grave sins.

We are obliged by the Church to confess all mortal sins. Mortal sin is grave sin (breaking one of the Ten Commandments) and is committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. Mortal sin breaks our relationship with God. Sin is called venial when it is less grave matter. Venial sin wounds and weakens our relationship with God. Sometimes there can be a temptation to leave out a sin because we are particularly ashamed of it or it is painful to name. If we do this, we hold onto it and we don’t let the Lord forgive and heal us. Intentionally leaving out grave sins because we don’t want to confess them invalidates our confession. The Lord wants us to walk away from confession freed from our sins. Let him free you.

Have confidence in God’s mercy.

We confess our sins with confidence in God’s power to forgive and in his willingness to forgive us. We might think of the words of the prophet Zephaniah as we approach confession confident of the Lord’s power to forgive, heal and change our lives: “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior, who will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love” (Zeph 3:17).