Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bless me Father, for have I sinned?

Our new pastor has been here eight months now. At one of our Tuesday evening Catechism classes, he spoke of his disappointment in the low number of confessions he has heard since coming to the parish. He said he is almost to the point of nagging people to come to confession. I understand his frustration, but doubt that nagging will solve the problem. I believe most people are reasonable, and therefore, will respond to a reasonable argument. Having said that, I have been thinking about the problem of how to draw people to the sacrament.

I confess that I was not going to confession nearly as often as I should have been, but I did go, and with more frequency than many other Catholics I know. My new year’s resolution is to go much more often, and so far, I am sticking to one-month intervals. Yes, I feel a wonderful sense of relief after confessing in contrast with a definite dread before I go. The apprehension is only natural when we are forced to face our faults, and that is precisely why we need to go. Confessing directly to God is way too easy. Confessing to another human being acting in the person of Christ is another story. One is apt to think twice about repeating a serious sin if confessing that sin is going to be unpleasant.

So, why don’t many Catholics go to confession anymore? Good question. Catholic behavior changed drastically after Vatican II. Those of us who were in the Church pre-Vatican II remember when there were long lines at the confessional every Saturday and much shorter lines for Communion on Sunday. We had a greater sense of the need to be in a state of grace when approaching the Communion rail. 1 Corinthians 11:27 says whoever eats the bread of drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord, but in the years following the Council, Catholics seemed to lose this awareness.

Saint Thomas warned that even when laws need to be changed, there is danger of reducing the binding power of the law as a consequence of the change. Prior to Vatican II, eating meat on Friday was considered a mortal sin. We had to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, kneeling with our hands under a cloth to make certain they did not come in contact with the host. The Mass was in Latin and the priest faced the altar. All of these things changed after the Council, and as a consequence, the binding power of Church disciplines diminished in the eyes of the faithful. Worship took on a more horizontal element, and a more “laid back” Catholic Church came into being.

Sin took on a more relative sense. If rules that were once steadfast can now be completely different, how much binding power did they have in the first place? Church disciplines suddenly seemed somewhat arbitrary and Catholics learned to rely on their own consciences in discerning which to follow, especially when it came to decisions on moral issues such as using birth control.

We were always told one of the Commandments of the Church was to confess our sins at least once a year. Now, we hear that we must confess MORTAL sins at least once a year. So, what sins are still mortal? Even the term “mortal sin” became obscure. We occasional heard references to grave sin or serious sin, but with the caveat that the disposition of the sinner affects culpability. The word sin itself disappeared from the priests’ vocabulary in many pulpits.

The manner of confession also changed with Vatican II. Instead of “Bless me Father; I have sinned”, we were now asked to use a form that required a response or two. What if there is no card in the confessional? What if I don’t do it right? What if I have to go face-to-face with the priest and I’m not comfortable doing that? All of these things contributed to keeping people away. When Catholics saw other Catholics avoiding the Sacrament, they too felt justified in doing the same.

The question becomes, how do we get people to come back? It won’t be easy. The responsibility falls on the shoulders of the parish priest, the shepherd of the local flock. Without nagging or sounding too harsh, he must gently reinstate the awareness of personal sin, and its affects on the state of grace in our souls. He must reassert the importance of being in a state of grace before approaching the Holy Eucharist. His best opportunity comes weekly during his homily.

One way might be to speak about the issue of Catholic public office holders supporting abortion. Several Bishops have ordered that such politicians be refused Holy Communion in their diocese. The priest could explain that allowing persons whose sin is publicly known to receive Communion not only profanes Our Lord, but also places the soul of those individuals in jeopardy. Refusing them Communion is also for their own benefit as it protects them from bringing judgment upon themselves. Allowing them access to the Holy Eucharist also creates scandal by giving the impression that the minister condones such action by his cooperation.

The homilist may also acknowledge the fact that Holy Communion should be refused any person in a state of mortal sin, but unless that sin is publicly exposed as in the case of the politician, the priest has no way of knowing. He might give examples saying he doesn’t know who in the Communion line is on birth control, or who missed Sunday Mass for no good reason, so he is in no position to protect that person from further harm to his or her soul.

Catholics also need a heightened awareness of less serious sin and the importance of bringing those sins to the confessional to attain the grace to overcome them. Many do not realize that actions that increase our separation from Christ are sinful. Sins of commission and omission affect most of us everyday. A good examination of conscience is essential for making us aware of sin, and that conscience needs to be properly formed. Catholics avoiding the confessional may think they have no sins to confess. Ignorance is not bliss. We have an obligation to grow in our faith, and to turn a blind eye to sin is a great disservice to God and to ourselves. All of these issues need to be addressed from the pulpit.

Lastly, Catholics need to feel confident that baring their souls to the priest is not an experience that will scar them for life. On the contrary, a good confession frees the souls from the scars of sin. If we really believe in God and the eternal life He offers us, we would take advantage of everything offered us to reach that goal, and we would rejoice in the comfort of knowing our souls are pleasing to God. Is confessing to the priest easy? Yes and no. If it were too easy, it would be less effective. Yet, considering the gravity of our sins and what is at stake, it is extremely easy to spend just a few minutes ridding ourselves of the pains of sin.

On the Second Sunday of Easter, April 17th, we will celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday. On that day, Catholics have an opportunity to receive a plenary indulgence, that is, complete forgiveness of sins and their punishment. Unfortunately, many Catholics are not even aware this opportunity exists. For the first time, our parish will celebrate this occasion with a novena beginning on Good Friday with daily praying of the Divine Mercy Chaplet. To receive the plenary indulgence, certain conditions must be met, including confession and reception of Holy Communion.

I addressed this topic of Confession once before (Confession Digression, 4-25-2004). At that time I said, at some point it will be necessary for priests to be blunt with the congregation. I think that time has finally come for our parish as our new priest mentions the importance of confession in nearly every homily. It will be interesting to see how many take advantage of this opportunity. Those who have avoided the confessional for many years will have a decision to make. When Divine Mercy Sunday passes, they will find themselves either closer to God or more detached. Simply maintaining their spiritual status quo is not an option. To ignore the opportunity is to deny one’s sins and need of reconciliation. Denying the need for Divine Mercy is itself a sin of pride.

I have sympathy for those who have not been to confession for many years. Yes, it takes some courage to fess up to the priest who gives you Holy Communion every Sunday that your last confession was twenty or thirty years ago, but this is an occasion for celebration. The priest views your return as a time for rejoicing. He is there as Christ’s ambassador of reconciliation. A heavy burden will be lifted from your shoulders when he gives you absolution. Now is your chance to take this step along with many others in the same situation as you are. Don’t let the opportunity pass you by. Just do it!