Q:Why should I go to confession? My non-Catholic friends tell me they’re forgiven by praying directly to God; why aren’t Catholics? And if I do have to go, how often?
A: This is a really relevant issue for us right now in Lent. We start by looking at some misconceptions about ourselves, the world around us and the nature of sin and grace. The first and biggest misconception we have seems to revolve around the idea that sin is somehow just about “me and God.” Humans are communal creatures and everything we do, good or bad, reaches out and touches someone. Perhaps the best analogy is to think of sin as a wild dog that we cut loose in a room full of people – someone is going to get bitten and we have no control over that once we’ve loosed the dog.
The most obvious example of this is in the basis of what we believe: We were all condemned by the sin of Adam and all saved by the obedience of Jesus. Beyond that, on a personal and practical level, think of how someone else’s sin can change our day and the way we relate the rest of that day. We can look at the big, crazy examples from our lives. Just last year, at the high school where I was chaplain, we lost a student and his mom to a drunken driver. How tragic and horrible is that? The world was robbed on that day of the gifts, talents and love of two beautiful human beings because of one man’s sin. The effects of that are obvious. Now, before we fall into any kind of self-righteous rage, how about our sins? How about gossip? That little tidbit you passed along to your friend about that one guy at work? What were the effects of that? Were there any positive ones? We even sometimes go so far as to try to call it something like “venting,” so that it sounds healthy instead of sick. What a mess that can make! We’ve all been victims and we know how impossible gossip is to fight; yet we don’t hesitate to pass along the bad news and our speculations about other people. The effects of just that one sin can really cause a world of damage and take people away from each other. Using that example, we can see how that sin is never “just between God and me.” It’s between the wounded person, the whole world and me. The easiest response to this is to feel despair, but we’ve got good news that trumps all the bad. God offers us a remedy and a beautiful one at that: The sacrament of reconciliation. We go to reconciliation because we acknowledge that our sin is communal and God’s mercy is boundless. He forgives us for the horror that we inflict on his creation, whether we meant to or not. Not only that, but God offers it freely and with joy – wow! Another great reason for us to go to the sacrament of reconciliation is because we are, ultimately, physical creatures. We were created with a need to see, to hear and to touch. I can sit here in my room and remind myself that I am forgiven, but when someone else – someone I trust – tells me “God forgives you freely,” there’s some real power to that. We are all aware of our own ability to deceive ourselves, but the priest in the confessional has nothing to gain by lying to us about forgiveness. The conviction in his voice alone can, at times, be a big part of the healing. As a personal testimony, I have to tell you that regular confession has changed my life. I’m learning more and more how deep the sin in my life goes. That sounds depressing or sad, but it’s not. Connected to that knowledge is the realization that I am forgiven. More and more, I see that reconciliation is all about maintaining my relationship with Jesus and allowing him to remove everything that blocks me from receiving his love. So, with all that in mind, how often should you go? Church law is a little bit funny on this, so we’ll have to look at it a couple ways. First of all, we are required to confess any serious sins at least once a year, so there is that. And it is recommended that we also confess our venial sins. But, beyond that, if we want to receive Communion, we need to make sure that if we have committed any mortal sins, first we go to confession. I’ve written tons about mortal sin, so I won’t go into that here, as I’ve run out of space – nothing new, right? Enjoy another day in God’s presence! Father Joseph Krupp