Fr Paul Keane, Vice Rector of St Mary’s College, Oscott, leads us in a reflection on how to approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation in this Year of Mercy.
I live in a beautiful building: St Mary’s College, Oscott – the seminary of the Archdiocese of Birmingham. In one of our chapels, there is a medieval picture of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is shown surrounded by menacing soldiers in extraordinary elaborate armour. Three of them are tightening their grip on Jesus’ arms and clothes in order to drag him away. Jesus, however, seems unperturbed. He looks elsewhere. In his left hand, he is holding an ear of the servant of the high priest. It has just been cut off by one of the disciples and its owner is sitting on the ground, dazed and bleeding. Jesus, despite his own predicament, looks down gently, kindly, at the poor man. His whole attention is upon him. What will happen next is this: ‘And touching the man’s ear he healed him’ (Luke 22:51).
Jesus is our merciful saviour. Even when he was being dragged away to face certain torture and death, his only thought was for an injured man who had come to arrest him. And Jesus thinks no less of each one of us – whatever we may think of him – now that he sits in glory at the right-hand of his Father. He is our physician always; the healer of our souls (cf. Mark 2:17). His surgery is the Sacrament of Reconciliation and, as with going to our GP, most of us find making our confession very hard.
So remember this: when we go to Confession, the priest we meet is a man like us but he is also in persona Christi (in the person of Christ). That is why he can say these outrageous words: ‘I absolve you from your sins’. No human being can absolve us from our sins, only God can. But the Son of God does absolve in the person of the priest through the Sacrament which he gifted His Church: ‘If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven’ (John 20:23). Jesus Christ’s willingness to forgive, his merciful love, cannot be doubted. He is the man who healed the ear of his enemy. Yet we do doubt! And we downplay our need of God’s forgiveness. That is why the Jubilee Year of Mercy is so needed.
I know that I need God’s mercy both in this special Year and in the Sacrament of Reconciliation but my confessions are not always what they could be. I hold on to sins because I have this ridiculous idea that I shall first make myself perfect. To present myself to God as I truly am without any window-dressing or some artful concealment seems not possible. Once I have saved myself, then I shall let God bless my self-saving.
However, in being forced to confront God’s mercy because of this Jubilee Year – and forgive me, I am slow – the penny has finally dropped or is, at least, dropping. I shall never save myself. It is not possible to save myself. So I must stop trying – and I probably was not trying that hard – and just let God save me. I have been hiding from him. This Jubilee is my chance to stop hiding and show all and fully my wounds to Christ, our physician, and let myself know his healing touch.
We know that sin is bad but to sin is not simply like making a collection of bad things, which though they take up space do not change us. Sin does change us. One of its changes – and this verb is bang on – is that it enervates us. To enervate is to weaken morally and destroy the ability to act. When we sin it becomes harder to recognise that we are sinning and, therefore, not to sin again.
To ensure that we are really honest with ourselves and truly exposing to God’s merciful gaze all that needs to be healed, before we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we must make a good examination of conscience. There are many examples in books and on the internet. What matters is that the examination is not superficial and limited but deep and wide-ranging. It is too easy to go to Confession and make the same confession again and again. We become almost cosy with our familiar list of sins. We settle for absolution only, rather than growth as well.
Christ, however, will only truly absolve us if we wish to be freed from the shackles of sin; he respects us too much to force freedom upon us. Therefore, for Confession to work, or to receive the Jubilee’s plenary indulgence, we must have a heart well-disposed that has let go of any inclinations to repeat what should have been confessed. A mature and effective confession is only possible after a real, deep and prayerful examination of conscience. In such an examination we come to see ourselves truly – warts and all – and, therefore, know where we need to change and, please God, desire to change.
It takes courage to go to confession, to ‘expose’ ourselves. It is necessary because confessing out loud ensures that we face up to our sins and allows the priest to speak words of encouragement and reassurance that are personal to us. How I wish it were possible to take away all fear of what the priest may think or say! The priest is a sinner, probably no less than you. He is the servant of God’s mercy not its master. And if you are particularly fearful because you have not been for some time, do not be. I promise you that any good priest will not be especially angry with you but especially happy. His heart will soar that you have returned and will know that it took real courage. ‘Rejoice with me, I have found my sheep that was lost’ (Luke 15:6).
And if it is life-changing to admit our sins and confess them to the priest, our life is changed even more by God’s response: loving mercy. The Sacrament of Reconciliation does not simply restore but makes us grow. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the man who Christ healed did not merely have his ear made better. St John notes that the servant’s name was Malchus. Why bother telling us? Is it important? Perhaps because everyone knew Malchus: a brother Christian, whose life was changed and who was brought to faith through Jesus’ healing touch. Yes, if you want life to remain in the same rut, do not go anywhere near God’s mercy. Who knows what may happen if you do?