Confession and God's Presence
Diocese of Albenga-Imperia, Italy
Reflection on the Sacrament of Penance
After his Resurrection, Our Lord said to his disciples: "Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you". And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven" an 20:21-23). This Biblical citation is quite rich for a priest because he realizes just how present Our Lord is today in his very ministry.
This presence of Our Lord is worth considering. What first comes to mind when we think of presence is indeed the Sacrament that is the "source and summit" of the Church's mission: the Eucharist (cf. Vatican Sacrosanctum Concilium,10). Our Lord's Eucharistic presence throughout history is: in type, in event, and sacramental. He is first present in the types or figures of the Old Testament such as the Manna, the Sacrifice of Isaac, and the Lamb. Then, he is present in the Paschal event of the New Testament. Finally, he is present to us now and throughout the history of the Church in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
This presence we also experience in the Sacrament of Penance, otherwise known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Confession. Throughout history, it has had its variations. At first, it was more public, but we know that by the fifth century, Bishops actively discouraged the practice of public Confession, and it was the way monks celebrated it in Ireland that spread throughout Europe. They formalized the practice of confession of sins made privately to a priest, and under a seal of secrecy, and absolution was granted before penance was performed.
Why focus on the presence of God? It is important because we very much need to experience his presence close to us if we are to be saved from sin, if we are to convert to him. After all, as sin is turning away from God to turn to creatures (or lesser goods) instead, then the opposite of sin is to turn to God and to see his creatures in an ordered way as reflections of God.
How do we turn to God? What is primarily needed is his Revelation, or else we would not know where to turn. Our heavenly Father reveals himself by attracting us to his goodness so that we come close to him. He freely gives us his grace. God is not an idea. God has revealed himself as three Persons in One Essence. He is indeed a personal God. He is Love (cf. 1 Jn 4). He is communion. John 5:25 reminds us of the importance of listening to him: "I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live". After all, of the five senses, it is the sense of hearing that penetrates the most because it goes to the heart of the person. It converts us to God. It changes a heart of stone into a heart of flesh (cf. Ezek 36:26). However, one can ask: "While Jesus, the Son of God, preached to his disciples, I did not physically hear him preach to me". That is where the Church comes in. That is where the Sacramental presence of Christ comes in. If it had not been for the Church and the work of her apostles transmitting the Faith (tradition,in fact, means "to hand on"), we would not be talking about Christ today. If we hear God through his Son through the preaching of his priest, we have faith and begin our journey to him. St Paul reminds us: "How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?" (Rom 10:14).
The two very important Sacraments for the on-going nourishment of the faithful with God's presence are precisely Confession and Mass. It is through these Sacraments that one sees growth in the spiritual life because it is in these Sacraments that one grows closer to Christ, to his presence. It is not enough, after all, to be free from mortal sin. One needs to progress in the spiritual life seeking the perfection to which Our Lord calls each one of us: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48). How does one go about this? Well, first of all, the number of kinds of sins one can commit on a regular basis are limited. Second of all, one must not be tired of confessing the same sins, struggling to overcome them. If one confesses regularly, one will discover one to three sins that are repetitive, somehow connected to the list of Commandments or the capital vices (cf. CCC 1866). Most sins, are indeed sins of the tongue, that small instrument that can cause great problems (cf. Js 3:3-6). It is important to have a general sin in mind, finding concrete instances in which it is committed, inviting Our Lord to heal the concrete instances themselves. Since the grace of God is two-fold, operative and cooperative (cf. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia-IIae q. 109), it is wise to seek to cooperate with grace, inviting Our Lord to be present in the concreteness of our lives. Seeking him and his salvation through concrete acts of faith heals us from our concrete acts of unfaithfulness.
Going to Confession, there are three graces: the grace to know one's sins, the grace to confess and ask forgiveness, and the grace to be forgiven. The Christian moral life is principally positive. Often we read today that the Church says "No" to everything, but that is a misconception of Mother Church. The Church says "Yes" to Jesus, for how could a faithful bride not say yes to her spouse? Thus, all of her members seek to say "Yes" to Jesus because each one of us is called to know, to love, and to serve God in this life so as to find fulfillment in him in Paradise, in the Beatific Vision.
Such is the way the Moral Treatise in the Summa Theologiae,i.e. the Ia-IIae and the IIa-IIae, is set up. It is not a coincidence that this treatise in the Summa is precisely what St Thomas wrote for confessors.
Our last end is what moves us to act virtuously, to be strong in Christ's grace. We must not be discouraged by our sins. We have Our Lord ready to heal us, to bind our sins up so that we can move on to do what is good. After all, it is when we are humble, admitting our weakness truthfully, that we are strong in Christ, uniting our suffering to his sacrifice on the Cross (cf. 2 Cor 3:4).
It is fundamental that we remember that we cannot dialogue with the devil too much. We must recognize sin, temptation, the Devil for what they are, but we must not be obsessed with the topics. We must seek God and avoid evil. After all, the Devil loves to tempt us and then to accuse us.
Our Lord, instead, seeks to help us when we are tempted, and if we should fall, he is ready to be our advocate, to be our defense attorney before the judgment seat. When we are forgiven, the sins are also forgotten, so why beat ourselves up uselessly? We can go on courageously doing his work in a world that desperately needs people who do good and avoid evil, and we can remember what that great apostle of the Confessional, St John Vianney said: "Not all the saints started well, but all finished well".
Weekly Edition in English
31 March 2010, page 15
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