Pope Francis seems to encourage confession at every turn, in homilies, general audiences and other miscellaneous opportunities. Most recently, Pope Francis put people in a tizzy by going to confession while leading a penitential liturgy in St. Peter’s Basilica. He then heard confessions for 40 minutes.
This was part of the “24 Hours for the Lord” initiative announced by the pope March 20 and sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization. Dioceses around the world were encouraged to have at least one parish with confession and Eucharistic adoration available all day and night March 28.
And yet, CARA at Georgetown University reports that 75 percent of Catholics either never participate in the sacrament of Reconciliation or only do so less than once a year.
So why does the Church treasure this sacrament so much despite its apparent failure?
Labeled one of the two “sacraments of healing” in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, confession is a bridge to God’s infinite mercy, a path of conversion and forgiveness. As the catechism states: “The whole power of the sacrament of Penance consists in restoring us to God’s grace and joining us with him in an intimate friendship” (No. 1468).
For author and blogger Mark Shea, it was a path to grace and a remedy for a lifetime of sin and guilt.
“You go into a little room, pour out your guts as you’ve longed to do and purge yourself of all the shame, sin and pain you’ve been lugging around like a lead weight,” said Shea in an article for OSV Newsweekly. “[Y]ou get gentle counsel, accepting love, a tissue, if necessary, and words of absolution, spoken by Jesus Christ himself in the person of the priest. Then you walk out of there, not only with your sins thrown as far away as the east is from the west, but with grace to be a completely new creation!”
That sounds great as a one-time, big-conversion experience, but the Church, and of course Pope Francis, encourage frequent confession. This means confessing all those little sins that people struggle with on a day-to-day basis. That often means confessing the same sins over and over again. What’s the point? Should the sacrament be reserved for mortal sin?
If the sacrament of reconciliation is only reserved for serious sins, it becomes easy to lose a sense of our own sinfulness, of the gravity in venial sins. In the Christian life, we are called to constant conversion, to sanctification, by allowing God’s grace to root out those imperfections. Confession is even labeled in the catechism as “the sacrament of conversion” (No. 1423). Reconciliation is a valuable tool for that transformation:
“Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit” (No. 1458).
OSV contributing editor Russell Shaw agrees, saying in an article about reviving confession that simply being sorry for your sins in your heart is not enough.
“[H[onestly confessing sins to a priest in the Sacrament of Penance requires facing up to their reality, feeling honest sorrow, and resolving not to commit them again,” said Shaw. “It’s true that God can and does forgive sins apart from the Sacrament of Penance. But the case for the sacrament rests upon the simple fact that Christ instituted it as the normal, natural means for his followers to use in seeking forgiveness for sin. And if that’s what Jesus intended, no Catholic with even a superficial education in the faith is entitled to turn his or her back on penance.”
Pope Francis also has spoken multiple times on the reality of sin, stressing that we are all sinners in need of the mercy of God. He even said “to be ashamed is a virtue of the humble.”
Jennifer Rey is the web editor of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing.