Sacrament of Peace

The American Bishops have just issued a Pastoral Exhortation of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (“God’s Gift of Forgiveness”), urging all Catholics to take advantage of this extraordinary gift of the Risen Lord during Lent. This sacrament is so full of opportunities of grace that it is no wonder it has been known under many different names throughout Christian history: Penance, Confession, Reconciliation, Forgiveness and, perhaps most appropriately, the “Sacrament of Peace.”

Unfortunately, for many Catholics who have not experienced this sacrament for a while, it seems anything but a peaceful experience to think about giving it another chance. It may be that the setting itself was once intimidating. Older Catholics will remember when the regular way of going to Confession was to wait on a long line, typically on a Saturday afternoon, to enter a very small and very dark box called a “confessional.” There may have been a lot to remember – the memorized prayers, the number and kinds of sins, the penance assigned – so that the focus might appear to have been more on the sins than the absolution, more on the sinner than the Savior.

Today it is still possible to confess in this manner, but there are other options. Penitents can choose to sit face-to-face before the priest. Usually the priest will help the person with the prayers and the confession itself. Most often there will be prayer cards or posters as memory aids. While most parishes schedule confessions at regular times, they also inform churchgoers that it is possible to make an appointment to meet with a priest at some other time, either in the church or a chapel or even in an office or some other suitable place in the rectory. Nowadays, a penitent who wishes to make a good confession should never have to feel in a rush or under pressure to come up with a detailed memorized list.

Will the priest ever yell? Some Catholics cite personal experiences or hearsay about being treated in a disrespectful or condescending manner during confession. Priests are human beings and need to seek forgiveness if they treat a person unkindly or dismissively. Jesus never did this with sinners. Not only did He welcome them, He seemed attracted to them, like a shepherd who goes after a lost sheep to bring the wanderer back to the fold. Priests today have been well-trained in how to welcome penitents and are there to assist them in meeting the forgiving Lord.

If in spite of this, if things do not go as expected, there is no reason why one cannot seek out a different priest. Many people find it useful to have a regular confessor who knows them well and can give more personal care, not unlike a physician whom one sees regularly, as opposed to one assigned by a hospital staff in an emergency.

Our own diocese has joined with the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Rockville Centre for the past several years in offering a day in Lent in which anyone can go into just about any church in the three dioceses throughout the day and receive the gift of forgiveness. This day has been observed on the Monday of Holy Week, which this year is on March 25. Mark your calendar!

Lent is not far away. Ash Wednesday this year falls on Feb. 13. We think of Lent as a penitential season, a time when we “give up” certain things in order to unite our sacrifices with the ultimate sacrifice of Christ who gave Himself up completely out of love for us sinners. The best things to give up, however, are our sinful patterns or attitudes which create so much unrest in our hearts and in the lives of those around us.

Reclaiming the gift of this wonderful sacrament as a regular part of our lives is, without doubt, the most effective way to find peace of mind and heart ever given to the human race.

All who truly seek the “Peace on Earth” that we sang of a few weeks ago at Christmas can encounter the Prince of Peace any time in the Sacrament of Penance. Why not be at peace?