As you can see we have now lit the second candle of our Advent wreath to symbolize the Second Sunday of Advent. Each Sunday has a particular focus: last Sunday--the end of the world; today and next Sunday--John the Baptist and the final Sunday before Christmas we contemplate the Blessed Virgin Mary who is ready to give birth to the Christ child.
The fact that we devote the two central Sundays of Advent to John the Baptist indicates how important he is in preparing for Christmas. The reason is clear: he is the precursor of Jesus the Messiah. As the Gospel this Sunday says, John is "a voice crying in the desert. Prepare the way of the Lord." John called the people to repentance, to a change of heart. Before they were baptized in the Jordan, they confessed their sins.
That's what I would like to talk to you about this Sunday: The confession of sins. Besides asking forgiveness the moment we become aware of sin, we have a special sacrament called Reconciliation. The sacrament of Reconciliation (also called Penance or, simply, Confession) is one of the beautiful gifts that Jesus has given to his church. It was, in fact, the very first gift after the resurrection. He breathed on the apostles and said, "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven." How tremendous that men, ordinary human beings, would have the power to forgive sins in Jesus' name!
For a lot of us that gift of reconciliation is like a Christmas present we opened but didn't appreciate or didn't know what to make of it. So we left it in a closet to gather dust. Why not take another look?
First of all, let's examine the human level. In giving the apostles and their successors the power to forgive sins, Jesus knew our human psychology. When we have done something it can fester inside us and we want to get it out. That urge is so strong people spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars, to do just that with a psychologist. One of this century's most famous psychologists, Carl Jung, noted that, even tho the area where he practiced was mainly Catholic, most of his patients were Protestants or Jews. He surmised that on a human level, what others achieved in psychotherapy, many Catholics realized just by going to confession.
Those of us who were brought up Catholic know that in spite of feeling scared before going to confession, we had a beautiful sense of relief once we uttered our sins to a priest. In my 26 years of priesthood people have told me things in confession they have confided to no one else, not even their wife or their best friend. There is a certain intimate area within us that we can only share in the confessional.
I am aware of that personally. I remember once this guy made an accusation against me. It was really terrible and I was furious. But you know, I thought about it in a calmer moment and I said to myself, "at least he doesn't know my real sins." There is a part of us only God knows and even tho we may not have exact words to express it, we can unburden ourselves in the sacrament of reconciliation.
Every sin confessed to a priest is under the seal of the sacrament. That means the priest has to guard that secret--and usually it is just erased like hitting the delete button the computer.
Many people prefer to confess anonymously. Our reconciliation room has a screen the penitent can kneel behind and during this time of advent when we have some extra priests we will be using our old confessionals. On the other hand many of our younger people have gotten used to face-to-face confession. Besides being more personal it allows for the beautiful gesture of placing the hands on the penitent's head which can be so healing. Both options, anonymous and face to face, are available here at Holy Family.
Some people tell me, "Father I just don't know what to say when I go to confession." But it is so simple. You just need to know two things: the length of time since your last confession and your sins. You can say something like, "Bless me, Father. I have sinned. It has been a year since my last confession." Or five years. Or two months. Or "this is my first confession." Whatever it has been. Then say your sins.
Our sins are pretty standard, but we commit them in greatly varied circumstances. But in the sacrament we don't have to go into a lot of details. A simple statement is enough. "I stole something from a store. I lied to my parents. I missed Mass twice. I committed adultery. I had an abortion. I hurt people because of my anger, my impatience." Whatever it was. The priest might recommend something for further healing, but the sacrament of reconciliation is not a counseling session. What the priest does is give you the deepest healing, the forgiveness of your sins.
Now I know some people are worried Father is "too busy to hear my confession." Or if everyone came to confession, that's all the priest would have time to do. There were priests like St. John Vianney and Padre Pio who did spend most of their day hearing confessions. There are some today who hear confessions for long hours. What better thing for a priest to do? But suppose here at Holy Family every eligible person came to confession, would it be so many? I did the math one day. We have about two thousand people at our weekend Masses. Suppose sixteen hundred are eligible for the sacrament. If everyone came once a year, that would only be 32 a week. That's just a couple hours of confessions because even tho some people might want a little more time to talk, most are happy just to state their sins, get penance and receive absolution. Now I encourage people to go to confession more than once or twice a year, but even if many of you went once a month or more often, it would not be a great burden. Besides we have with us one of the best confessors in the Archdiocese--Fr. Jack Jennings. I know, I've gone to confession myself to him in the past.
Let me tell you, our problem is not too many people going to confession. There has been a great decline in confessions. I have often asked myself, "why?" Part of the reason is that we don't want to take responsibility for our lives. I was in a car accident a year and a half ago. He said it was my fault. I told him it was his fault. Isn't it amazing? All these accidents happening and no one is to blame! That mentality can affect even our spiritual life. Always someone else's fault. My parents yelled at me. My boss takes me for granted. My wife doesn't understand me. God made me this way. We can easily find another person to blame. Well, the sacrament of confession is the moment where we accept responsibility. Sure, I have been affected by other people, but I chose to do what I did. As David said when he was confronted with his double sin--adultery and murder--"Against you alone, O Lord, have I sinned." All of our sins, whether they are big or small, are sins against God. In the sacrament of reconciliation, we accept responsibility for our own sins. Like the people who followed John into the desert, we confess our sins and we are washed clean.
The sacrament of reconciliation is a "second baptism." It is so appropriate that our present reconciliation room is our former baptistery. It still has the beautiful stain glass windows depicting Jesus' baptism. When I was showing it to a grade school class this week, one of the children said, "cool." It really is that Jesus gives us such a gift to wash away our sins.
More on Confession
From Archives (Second Sunday of Advent, Year B):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Audio Files of Homilies (Simple Catholicism Blog)
Are these homilies a help to you? Please consider making a donation to St. Mary of the Valley Parish.
Fr. Brad's Homilies (well worth listening)
St. Mary of the Valley Album
(November of 2009)
Pictures from Peru
(Aaron Howard with girls at Puno orphanage, Daughters of Charity in background)
Procedure for Confession
Article explaining the need for Confession even after becoming a Christian.
For more an article on the struggle between watered down Christianity (dissent) and its full-bodied version (orthodoxy) see my review of Flawed Expectations.
He Approached the Victim: "It's much more likely one of your relatives will lose his life by surgical abortion than by heart attack."
Germaine Greer on Birth Control
Human Cloning: A Catholic Perspective (How the Unthinkable Became Inevitable)
Parish Picture Album
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Parish Picture Album
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru