Signs of Grace: God’s Way of Getting Physical with Us

Gerald Korson
From the Nov/Dec 2010 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine

I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that most Catholics have great difficulty approaching the Sacrament of Penance. In fact, I suspect many Catholics would prefer not to approach it at all.

The reasons are obvious. Going to Confession requires humility and can make us feel ashamed. We must state aloud how we have offended God, ask His forgiveness, and resolve to avoid all sin. We might fear the priest will recognize us and think badly of us for what we have done. If our aversion to the sacrament is strong enough, we might raise the Protestant objection: Why confess to a priest at all? Why can’t we silently tell God we are sorry, and be assured of forgiveness?

As a kid, I wished absolution could be obtained from a vending machine: Put in a quarter, punch the buttons to indicate your sins, then receive a slip of paper advising you of your penance.

Some people have asked whether one could confess by telephone, Internet, e-mail, text message, or Twitter. The answer to each is the same: No way.

“These are no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and shared worship in a flesh-and-blood human community,” said the Pontifical Council on Social Communications in a 2002 statement. “There are no sacraments on the Internet; and even the religious experiences possible there by the grace of God are insufficient apart from real-world interaction with other persons of faith.”

Not that God can’t forgive sins without sacramental confession. God can do whatever He pleases. It’s just that Christ, through the Church that He established and the teaching authority He granted her, has deemed that the Sacrament of Penance is the ordinary way by which the faithful are to seek and receive absolution.

Sacraments are particularly intimate personal encounters with Christ. In Confession, we encounter Christ through His mediator, the priest. When the priest pronounces the words of absolution, he speaks in the name of Christ and by the authority of Christ.

“The confession (or disclosure) of sins, even from a simply human point of view, frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1455). “Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible.”

The physical and visible signs of the sacraments are for our benefit, not God’s. Even the trepidation we feel before going, when followed by the essential elements of a good confession, can enhance the experience. To hear our forgiveness articulated can bring great consolation and peace, something we might not achieve while asking forgiveness on our own.

The rite of auricular Confession, like all the sacraments, satisfies our human need to visibly express what is going on within us, to experience with our senses the most significant moments in our lives.

God chose to encounter us through the Incarnation so that we could know Him more intimately and tangibly. Christ is the “image of the invisible God,” a man we could see, touch, and converse with like any other human person.

In His earthly ministry, Christ often healed the sick and disabled using physical signs and gestures: a touch, a paste of mud, an order to wash, a command to rise and walk. He sometimes healed by His word alone, as in the case of the centurion’s son.

The signs, gestures, and words of the Sacrament of Penance, as with all the sacraments, are important. Kneeling to confess is an act of humility and sorrow. Accusing ourselves of sin acknowledges our need of repentance. The words of absolution are the voice of Christ Himself, reconciling us to the Father. Penance solidifies our resolution.

If we accustom ourselves to thinking of the Sacrament of Penance less as a means of making ourselves vulnerable and more as an encounter with Christ, we may just find ourselves looking forward to Confession rather than dreading it.

A 25-year veteran of the Catholic press, Korson is a freelance editor and writer for several major Catholic periodicals and publishers. A former editor of Our Sunday Visitor newsweekly (1998–2007), he holds an MA in theology from St. Mary’s College of California and is a longtime associate member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. He and his wife, Christina, reside in Indiana with their 11 children.

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