Catholics urged to take advantage of confession this Lenten season
By Katherine Long
In January, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a pastoral exhortation entitled “God’s Gift of Forgiveness.” In this document, the bishops remind Catholics of the “extraordinary gift” of forgiveness God extends to them through the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance, perhaps better known as confession. “In the [sacrament], we meet the Lord, who wants to grant forgiveness and the grace to live a renewed life in him. In this sacrament, he prepares us to receive him free from serious sin, with a lively faith, earnest hope, and sacrificial love in the Eucharist,” the bishops write.
The bishops also encourage all faithful — particularly those who haven’t visited the confessional in some time — to rediscover the sacrament during Lent. Here, with the help of Father Gregory Kreinheder, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church and St. Stephen the King Church in Oswego, the Sun explores this sacrament of healing and peace.
The purpose of reconciliation
The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that “sin is before all else an offense against God, a rupture of communion with him. At the same time it damages communion with the Church,” (1440). The purpose of the sacrament of reconciliation is to heal that rupture and damage, says Father Kreinheder.
Sin causes an individual to be “closed off in a profound way from our relationship with God and his Church,” he said. “Every Catholic needs the sacrament [of reconciliation] to be freed from their sin, to experience God’s love and to be reunited with the communion of the Body of Christ. We are all sinners in need of forgiveness.”
The elements of reconciliation
Throughout the history of the Church, the sacrament of reconciliation has been celebrated in various ways. Jesus, the original confessor, befriended sinners and personally brought them to his table. In the early days of the Church, some Christians were required to perform lengthy and public penances. By the seventh century, private celebration between penitent and priest had begun (CCC, 1447). Even today, the practice continues to evolve — often, individuals can choose face-to-face confessions rather than confession behind the more traditional screen.
Despite these changes in practice, the essential elements of the sacrament have remained the same:
Contrition: The sorrow for having sinned and the firm resolve not to sin again; without this conversion of the heart, there can be no forgiveness
Confession: The act of telling one’s sins to a priest
Penance: The actions performed to amend for one’s sins
Absolution: God’s forgiveness of sins as imparted by a priest
The Church requires that every Catholic confess serious sins, at minimum, at least once per year; regular confession of “everyday faults” is strongly recommended (CCC, 1457).
“Regular confession is an essential part of any healthy spiritual life, because sin is the primary obstacle in our relationship with God,” adds Father Kreinheder. “A standard recommendation would encourage a confession once a month to once every few months. Any time someone falls into serious sin, though, they should avail themselves of the sacrament at the next available opportunity.”
Essential, too, is not avoiding the sacrament or talking one’s self out of receiving it.
“As individuals, we can become rather skilled at explaining away our sins and deciding for ourselves that what we’ve done isn’t all that bad, or perhaps isn’t even a sin at all,” said Father Kreinheder. “It’s terribly dangerous to deal with the reality of our sin by ignoring it, as though it will just go away if we don’t think about it.”
Priest as confessor
Knowing that God alone can forgive sins (CCC, 1441), penitents may think that reconciliation can be achieved through personal prayer.
“Unfortunately, that’s a misconception that has become rather common even among Catholics,” said Father Kreinheder. “First, the sacraments are necessarily tangible signs instituted by Christ for the conferral of grace. …Being able to see Christ’s intermediary, the priest, in person and hear his voice as he prays the words of absolution gives us a more intimate experience of forgiveness. Second, the concept of forgiveness sought solely through private prayer neglects the fact that we are a Body of Christ, a communion of believers in the Church. The priest not only stands in the person of Christ bestowing forgiveness, but also stands as mediator, offering the forgiveness that is sought from the community.”
Be not afraid
Of course, admitting one’s failings and wrongdoings aloud to a priest — especially the parish priest one sees every week — may not come easy for many. First and foremost, Father Kreinheder assures penitents that all confessions are kept in the strictest of confidence.
“The seal of confession is absolute,” he said. “Under no circumstances, for no reason, can a priest divulge the content of a sacramental confession.”
Penitents need not fear judgment from a priest, either. “Rather than judging someone, we strive to see them with the same love with which we hope Jesus sees us,” Father Kreinheder said. “When I see someone who has been harmed by sin, as a priest my primary concern is their well-being. My heart wells up with a deep sense of merciful love.”
But, he adds, “It’s understandable that one might feel uncomfortable going to their parish priest. Going to a neighboring parish or the Franciscan Place [at the Destiny USA shopping mall in Syracuse], is perfectly permissible. Our main concern is that they go somewhere!”
Finally, if it’s been a while since that last confession and the procedure isn’t springing readily to mind, Father Kreinheder says any priest is ready to help with that as well. “If people have forgotten prayers or how to go to confession, that shouldn’t keep them away,” he said. “We can help anyone make their way through the rite. Forgetting prayers should not stand in the way of divine mercy!” (See also the handy “How to go to Confession” guide below.)
“The truth of the matter is that too many of us are going about our daily lives weighed down under the burden of sins that we simply don’t need to be carrying around with us,” Father Kreinheder said. “The liberation available in this wonderful sacrament is too valuable to be turned down.”
Bishop Robert Cunningham has designated Monday of Holy Week as “Reconciliation Monday” in the Diocese of Syracuse.
In a letter sent to priests Feb. 6, Bishop Cunningham asked that each parish offer confession from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on March 25 in order to make the sacrament more readily available to the faithful of the diocese.
“It will be a wonderful opportunity for the people of the Diocese of Syracuse,” Bishop Cunningham wrote.
Many parishes are planning special celebrations during Lent, in addition to Reconciliation Monday and regularly scheduled confessions. Check with your parish for more information.
How to Go to Confession
May the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all the saints, whatever good you do and suffering you endure, heal your sins, help you grow in holiness, and reward you with eternal life. Go in peace.
–Rite of Penance, no. 93
1. PREPARATION: Before going to confession, take some time to prepare. Begin with prayer, and reflect on your life since your last confession. How
have you — in your thoughts, words, and actions — neglected to live Christ’s commands to “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:37, 39)? As a help with this “examination of conscience,” you might review the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes (Ex 20:2-17; Dt 5:6-21; Mt 5:3-10; or Lk 6:20-26).
2. GREETING: The priest will welcome you; he may say a short blessing or read a Scripture passage.
3. THE SIGN OF THE CROSS: Together, you and the priest will make the Sign of the Cross. You may then
begin your confession with these or similar words: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been [give days, months, or years] since my last confession.”
4. CONFESSION: Confess all your sins to the priest. If you are unsure what to say, ask the priest for help. When you are finished, conclude with these or similar words: “I am sorry for these and all my sins.”
5. PENANCE: The priest will propose an act of penance. The penance might be prayer, a work of mercy, or an act of charity. He might also counsel you on how to better live a Christian life.
6. ACT OF CONTRITION: After the priest has conferred your penance, pray an Act of Contrition, expressing sorrow for your sins and resolving to sin no more. A suggested Act of Contrition is:
I am sorry for my sins with all my heart.
In choosing to do wrong
and failing to do good,
I have sinned against you
whom I should love above all things.
I firmly intend, with your help,
to do penance,
to sin no more,
and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.
Our Savior Jesus Christ
suffered and died for us.
In his name, my God, have mercy.
(Rite of Penance, no. 45)
7. ABSOLUTION: The priest will extend his hands over your head and pronounce the words of absolution. You respond, “Amen.”
8. PRAISE: The priest will usually praise the mercy of God and will invite you to do the same. For example, the priest may say, “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good.” And your response would be, “His mercy endures for ever” (Rite of Penance, no. 47).
9. DISMISSAL: The priest will conclude the sacrament, often saying, “Go in peace.”
Copyright © 2013, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. Available at www.usccb.org.