The Sacrament of Reconciliation
Thoughts of a Confessor to Confessors
Few of the sacraments have such a checkered history as does the
Sacrament of Reconciliation. His unduly rigorous attitude about the
forgiveness of sins drove Tertullian away from the Church early in
the 3rd Century when Pope St. Calistus eased the nearly puritanical
discipline that dominated the age of persecution. Reflecting on the
question which St. Peter posed and which Jesus answered, Calistus
knew he was correct. "Lord, how often should I forgive my brother?
Seven times?" You recall Jesus' answer quite clearly.
Humanly speaking, I have to admit that the hearing of confessions is
usually quite boring. I overcome the boredom rather easily when I
pray seriously before entering the confessional. When I run to the
confessional at the last minute, I am more readily bored. Patience
has never been one of my attributes, so that I need God's grace
patiently to listen, to advise, and to absolve.
Often, I say to myself that I should read about and meditate upon
this sacrament much more often - to recapture, by an act of faith, my
understanding of this most generous gift of God. Yes, I know there
are greater gifts of God; and I want to offer a few thoughts about
some of them in other conferences. But if you want to examine
meditatively the marvels of God's love for us, reflect on the
Sacrament of Reconciliation.
I hear the same people's confessions week in and week out, and I
detect little or no improvement in those individuals. They are beset
with weaknesses and too readily submit to their temptations.
Sometimes, you're tempted to speak sternly to them. I never submit to
that temptation for two reasons. The first and most important is that
I sit there as Jesus Christ. I ask myself: "What would Jesus say to
this person?" And the answer comes soaring out of the Gospel of John:
"Neither do I condemn you. Go, now, and do not sin again. "Pushing
the matter a bit, I ask: "What if that woman taken in adultery had
been caught a second time and once again hurled at Jesus' feet. What
would he have said?" Seventy times seven.
A second reason is that I am myself a sinner. I have no stone to
cast, so I have no right to be stern with the penitents who come to
me. I admit that occasionally a penitent won't listen to what I have
to say, usually because of their nervousness. To catch such a
person's attention, I speak forcefully. But I quickly apologize and
assure the penitent that they should relax, set aside nervousness,
and listen to my counsel - which is not a criticism! I, a sinner, can
hardly be a critic of a sinner. I have no stones.
This sacrament, to be sure, is as necessary for you as for me as it
is for those whose confessions we hear. How often do we accept this
marvelous grace of God? How often do we confess our sins? I'm afraid
that many of us have slipped from the earnest practice of frequent
confession. These days especially, we have so much to do that we fall
into bed at night grateful for the opportunity to be alone. During
this retreat, ask yourself the direct questions: How important is the
sacrament of reconciliation to me? What schedule should I follow? How
often will I confess? To whom? Can I give this special priority?
There is, to be sure, a grave difference between the sins of weakness
and these sins of malice. Usually, we deal in the sacrament of
reconciliation with sins of weakness. I have most rarely been
confronted with malice, or at least, with malice that is grave. Yes,
sometimes we do malicious things, but seldom, if ever, do we perform
acts of malice that are studied, plotted out, willfully evil.
One of my favorite people is a Dominican whom many of you know named
Ed Conley, former Pastor at St. Anthony of Padua in New Orleans. It's
always interesting to drive with Ed when he is the driver. He has no
patience with slow pokes, and, especially if the car windows are up,
will cuss and storm about the car in front of us that is "moseying"
along. I shall not quote his expletives. I only hurry to add that the
man. is never malicious. He merely shares my impatience.
In the sacraments of forgiveness, we see the mercy of God at work,
perhaps better than in any other situation. God's mercy is an effect
of his love for us. Turning toward us without fail, calling us back
to him, prompting us with his grace, moving our emotions and our
will, our living father is anxious to wipe away the sins of men and
women. To wipe them away so that, in literal truth, they are no more.
Perhaps we should name this sacrament again, now calling it the
sacrament of mercy.
A quality of most priests that I have always reverenced is their
kindness in the confessional. I wish I knew why so many priests have
the reputation -- one that is deserved -- for being good confessors.
Good and kind. Our education is part of the reason; perhaps, our
tolerance for others who differ with us in the priesthood is another
To hear confessions, admittedly a tiresome proposition at times, is
an opportunity we should not miss. Kindness to others is a Christian
hallmark; those who are kindly are in the path of salvation. But even
more, we are "other Christs." And perhaps nowhere is that more
palpable to the faithful than in the confessional of one who goes
into the confessional box to sit there in Jesus' stead.
"I have come to call . . . sinners." Pray for patience and kindliness
before you hear confessions - asking Jesus Christ to prepare you to
sit there in his name - to be kind, compassionate, forgiving,
uncensorious, "alter Christus."
Remind yourself as you enter the confessional: Christ is the Prince
of peace. Where is this better demonstrated than in the Sacrament of
Reconciliation? You absolve sinners with kindness and so you send
them from your confessional in the peace of Christ, occasionally, try
to say with sincerity and feeling: "Go in Peace."
Sermons and Lectures by Damian Fandal, O.P.