Fr. Ray Ryland
From the Mar/Apr 2002 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine
“What? Me worry?”
Remember the picture of Alfred E. Neumann with this caption on the cover of Mad magazine? That was supposed to be a rhetorical question.
Now substitute a picture of the average Catholic with the caption, “What? Me sin?” That, too, would seem to be a rhetorical question.
Oh, yes, Catholics do regularly recite the confiteor in the liturgy, but what does that mean? The vast majority of Catholics make little or no use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If questioned, any Catholic would admit that on occasion he or she sins. But what does that mean? The real question is, how often or even whether that person goes to Confession.
Fifty years ago Pope Pius XII declared that the greatest spiritual problem of Catholics in the world of that day was a lack of a sense of sin. Pope John Paul II has made the same observation about Catholics today. The lack of a sense of sin means lack of sensitivity to the many ways in which we offend God, both by what we do and what we do not do. That lack of sensitivity reflects a serious weakness in the quality of our relationship with Jesus Christ.
Think of the saints. Reading their lives gives us the impression that they were practically sinless. Yet every one of them had an acute sense of sin. Teresa of Avila frequently asserts, almost as a matter of fact, that she truly deserves to be in hell. But by the grace of God she was a tower of strength for Christ. Like all the other saints, she frequented the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The more intimate our relationship with Jesus, the more keenly we will be aware of the countless ways in which we fail to respond to His infinite love for us. And from that realization flows a desire to receive His forgiveness through the means which He has established.
The grace of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a great treasure unclaimed by most Catholics. The first reason for this tragic neglect is lack of a deep sense of sin. Priests frequently encounter penitents who have great difficulty in thinking of any sin to confess. God will reward them for coming to Confession out of a sense of duty, but their lack of personal spiritual insight prevents their deriving the full benefit of the sacrament.
Another reason why Catholics in general don’t seek the grace of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a failure to understand the nature of sin. When the subject of this sacrament comes up in conversation with non- Catholics, they inevitably ask, “Why should I confess my sins to a priest? I confess to God in the privacy of my own prayer life.” Since most Catholics seldom if ever go to Confession, I assume this non- Catholic attitude has widely affected the thinking of Catholics.
At Union Theological Seminary, my Protestant professor, Paul Tillich, commented on the non-Catholic revulsion against the practice of Confession. Though not himself a penitent, he said it was ironic that so many of those same Protestants who abhor the idea of confessing one’s sins to a priest will unhesitatingly flock to psychiatrists’ couches to tell all.
Remember that sin always has both a vertical and horizontal dimension. Sin is first a rebellion against God. It distances us from God and, in the case of mortal sin, even cuts us off from God. But each sin a person commits also harms the persons around him, even though he and they may not be aware of the harm. “If one member suffers, all suffer together . . .” (1 Cor. 12:26).
Imagine standing beside a quiet pond and throwing a good-sized rock into its center. Watch those concentric circles go out and out from the point of impact. Eventually we lose sight of where they go.
Sin is like that. Think of the sinner as the point of impact. When he sins, the effects of that sin go out from him and touch far more lives than he can ever know. Now suppose that person becomes contrite and in prayer asks God’s forgiveness. The person can be reconciled to God, but what about all the other persons whom his sin has affected? Even if he knew the full effects of his sin (and only God can know that), he could never go to each person adversely affected and ask forgiveness.
Though we can privately seek and receive God’s forgiveness, we also need the forgiveness of the countless persons whom we have harmed. But we have no way of seeking or receiving that forgiveness. No way, that is, apart from the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Our Lord Jesus Christ in His infinite love has provided a means whereby we not only can receive God’s forgiveness but also forgiveness from the community of persons affected by our sin. Jesus Christ has empowered His priests not only to speak on God’s behalf, but also on behalf of the community in mediating forgiveness to the penitent. There is no other way by which communal forgiveness can be sought or received. That’s why the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not an optional luxury for Catholics. Jesus never dealt in options. He has given us this sacrament because He knows of our need for it. And He expects us to use it.
Piercing the Haze
To prepare ourselves for receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we cannot wait until a few minutes before we enter the confessional. Regular, daily, self-examination is the necessary means for preparing to make a responsible Confession. Before we go to sleep at night we should think back on the day just ending. Give thanks to God for the good things, recall the bad things (omissions as well as commissions), and ask God’s forgiveness. Then before going into the confessional, we should take time to pray over the period since our last Confession, asking God to bring to our mind those sins He wants us to confess specifically.
Note that word “specifically.” The more specific our Confession, the more honestly we face exactly what we have done or failed to do, and the more clearly we see what needs to be changed in our lives. Confessors often hear penitents say, “I haven’t been as thoughtful or as sensitive or as loving as I should.” So what? We all could honestly say that. The real issue is, in what situations have you been inattentive or insensitive or not loving? It’s easy to say, “I have not been as loving to my wife as I should be.” It’s not so easy, but far more spiritually therapeutic, to say, “On three occasions I spoke sharply to her” or “On two occasions I ignored her feelings” or “I didn’t help her when she needed help.”
When we probe our consciences in self-examination, we must ferret out those wrong attitudes, thoughts, and feelings we have harbored, as well as wrongful actions. Sometimes confessors hear elderly penitents say, “I really don’t have any sins because I live alone.” Do you see the assumption? Unless I interact often with other persons, I don’t have any sins. That’s false, and reflects a serious misunderstanding of the sin in one’s life.
When we allow many weeks and months to lapse between confessions, we lose our ability to make a good Confession. We simply forget a great deal of our sinful omissions and commissions, which should be offered to God in the confessional. I strongly recommend and follow the practice of going to Confession at least every two or three weeks. When we go often, we can more fully open our heart to Christ. We gain a certain facility in confessing and learn to look forward to the opportunity of making a fresh start. Many people have told me they have trouble going to Confession. But none of them go frequently. Allowing for their lack of understanding of the sacrament, I think-and tell them- that the infrequency of their Confession is a major cause of their discomfort with the sacrament.
Our priests should regularly encourage the people they serve to claim the great treasure of grace inherent in frequent Confession. Occasional homilies on various aspects of the Sacrament of Reconciliation would also help stir up a greater response to this gift of Jesus Christ. Perhaps if we priests made more time available for Confessions, more penitents would come.
One fact is clear. Spiritual renewal and frequent Confession go hand in hand as mutual cause and effect. With God’s grace, it’s our responsibility to initiate and cultivate that renewal by frequent Confession. Let that great treasure no longer remain unclaimed!
Fr. Ray Ryland, Ph.D., an Anglican convert, is CUF’s spiritual advisor and writes from Steubenville, OH. He was featured in our June ’00 issue.
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