By Father Leonard Peterson
Ah, if only at least some of us could go back to the fifth grade! “Why?” you ask. It’s a long story. The short answer is that this is the elementary grade where the seven sacraments are taught. I learned that from my regular classroom visits to our parish school.
More importantly, I believe we have a couple of generations that struggle with an incomplete understanding of what I’ll call these “seven golden opportunities.”
“Why is that?” you may ask again. Another long story. The short answer is that for a time back in the 1970s, at least at the high school level, religion class was a lot of “Kumbaya” and soft social awareness with little stress on the content of our faith. I know because for awhile I had to follow that curriculum as a teacher.
“What’s the problem?” you could well ask. The short answer is that we have a lot of ignorance floating out there among a lot of believers, particularly regarding the sacraments. To take just one case in point, here is a perennial statement heard through the land: “I don’t need to go to confession to a priest because my sins are forgiven by praying straight to God,” or variations thereof.
In this Easter season, we are just past the ultimate penitential season of Lent, and it’s a sad but safe bet that many people who needed to make a good confession did not. Outside of the potential of someone’s spotless sanctity among us, there remains ample reason to believe in the need for that sacrament among the marred majority on a regular basis. I include myself among them. Otherwise, why would people like Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI go to confession weekly?
The fact is that Christ instituted the sacrament of penance or reconciliation or confession (the various names denote different facets of the one sacrament) as the ordinary way for sins to be forgiven in the Catholic Church. If somebody out there wants to argue with Christ about that, go to it. But you well know who will win.
What Christ did on Easter Sunday evening was to give His apostles, and their successors the bishops, and the bishops’ helpers the priests, the power to forgive sins. Not that any of us are special in our own right, or are even worthy of the gift.
Here is what Jesus said; “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:22-23). It can’t be much plainer than that. Jesus never did anything in vain, and so He didn’t give that power to His apostles and their successors for no reason. Now how is an ordinary man (which all bishops and priests are) ever to know whether to forgive or retain a sin unless he is told the sins by a penitent? Only then can he ever evaluate the person’s sorrow.
Now I don’t want to duck the question of the unpleasantness involved here. It is rather embarrassing to acknowledge our sins, to hear our own voice say what we have done or omitted doing. Paying taxes or root canal work might seem easier. But, to be honest, we’re all pretty good at playing games with religious practice. When we avoid the sacrament and make protestations about confessing only to God, we can actually delude ourselves into thinking we’re right and the Church is wrong, and maybe even that Christ meant the power to forgive to die when the last apostle did.
Here’s where we forget that a priest can help us get past our pride or our shame at a particular sin, give us some special advice and let us hear back from him the words of the Church acting for Christ. We may also forget that “father” has to go to confession too.
Remember that no sin of ours is entirely personal. There is a social dimension to my sins and yours, which we tend to forget. Just as one bad cop taints the whole force, or one bad priest the whole body of clergy, so your sins and mine tear down the holiness of the Church, Christ’s mystical Body. Now how could we ever rectify that and apologize to both God and the Church? You know how the early Church decided. They demanded that penitents sit outside the front door of church covered with ashes for weeks on end. And you thought Ash Wednesday was an embarrassment at your office! The answer to the problem is that the priest represents both: God and the Church. Now your contrition is complete.
I realize that this little column is just a start, and that there is much more to say about this sadly neglected sacrament. Try to remember that the whole thing was Christ’s idea, and He certainly knows what He’s doing. Many times over the years I have learned of psychiatrists and psychologists, not necessarily Catholic ones, who see the logic and beneficial effects of this sacrament. My only hope is that this tiny treatise helps you begin to see the same thing. Then you really won’t have to go back to the fifth grade!
Father Peterson is pastor of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Hatfield.
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