My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
Monday, December 17, is Reconciliation Monday in the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn. This custom began several years ago in Rockville Centre during the Lenten Season. Now all of the Downstate dioceses have adopted this custom where you can be sure that from 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm in most every church of these dioceses you can find a priest who will hear your confession. And it has been extended to the Advent Season. How important this sacrament is for our spiritual life. Perhaps, however, we recognize the difficulty everyone has in going to confession. Confession is the hard part because we must confront ourselves; we must recognize our failures and our sins. And we must be humbled to speak of our sins before another human being, a priest who represents for us Jesus Christ. We must seek the mercy of God like the Prodigal Son.
Confession is the means. The end is reconciliation, the preferred title for the sacrament. The word reconciliation is an interesting word. Basically, it comes from two Latin words which mean to adjust our view to the eyebrow of another; to look another person face to face, which is the face of God. This is what our life is about, with the hope that someday we can see God face to face. Confession allows us to anticipate that view of the merciful Father as we realign our vision of God, seeing Him face to face in the confessional.
The History of the Sacrament
This history of the sacrament of reconciliation is obviously a long one. Have no doubt, however, the sacramental system that Jesus taught us was given to us by His example of forging sins; the sins of people who came to Him which horrified the scribes and the Pharisees. They asked, who is this but God who can forgive sins? Who is this but a priest who can exercise the power of Jesus Christ to forgive sin? This still scandalizes people today. In the early Church, the formal sacrament was perhaps much rarer than it is today since it was reserved for those who were apostates or who had left the faith, or denied the faith in times of persecution. Gradually, this sacrament became part and parcel of the life of the Church. We remember in the Gospel that Jesus gave the power to Peter and the Apostles that whatever they bound on earth would be bound in heaven, and whatever they loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven. This is what we call the ‘power of the keys.’ Many of our confessionals have this symbol of two keys crossing one another at the top of the confessional. Some might not understand what this is, however, it is the power of forgiveness, the power that Jesus gave to those who would follow Him in that sacramental ministry that is so dear to our life.
The Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, the sacrament of confession took a clearer shape and form and became a means of spiritual direction, a means of perfection for the saints who recognized that they were human and that they had failed. But they needed a means by which they could reconcile themselves to God again, to see Him face to face. In 1215, the Lateran Council decreed that it was the duty of each Catholic to go to confession at least once a year during Easter time. This was necessary because the practice of communion had diminished and communion was rare because people felt unworthy. Therefore, decreeing confession at least once a year guaranteed that people would receive communion during the Easter season. The Easter duty still is a responsibility for each one of us today.
After the French Revolution
During the time after the French Revolution, we remember the great Saint John Vianney, the patron of parish priests and confessors. This one man who heard confessions practically day and night was able to read hearts and souls and reconciled so many people back to God. During this time, the Church was all but extinguished in France and the sacramental life had fallen into disuse. This one man alone, with many others who followed in his footsteps, was able to bring the Catholic faithful to full sacramental system that is a special gift of the Catholic Church.
In 1903, St. Pius X changed the age by which children could be admitted to communion making it the “age of reason”, normally around seven years of age. This, of course, entailed prior confession of one’s sins. How important this is even today. Although confession is difficult, in this case, the end justifies the means because the end is reconciliation, the means is confession. Many believe that children do not understand sin. I can attest to you that in my 48 years as a priest many children understand very well their meanness and their other sins. They truly seek the forgiveness of God. Not all are so cognizant of their sins, but many children are and understand.
The Twentieth Century
During this last century, we had the wonderful example of St. Padre Pio, another great confessor who could read hearts and souls and could turn the worst sinner into the Prodigal Son just with a few words that touched their hearts. The Lord has given to us so many wonderful examples of the necessity and the value of confession. Today, unfortunately, it seems that the sacrament of reconciliation has fallen out of regular use by many Catholics. The idea of Reconciliation Monday is to reestablish the familiarity among Catholics of the necessity of this sacrament and its value to us all.
As a young priest, on Saturdays, I used to visit the local youth jail for their catechetical program and confessions. Another priest said Mass on Sundays for these young prisoners. I remember one time when I spoke with a boy of 14 years of age and asked if he wanted to go to confession. He replied that yes he would like to but he had not been to confession since his First Communion, and he asked to help him make his confession. So I asked him the usual question, what are you sorry for? With great sincerity he turned to me and said, “I’m sorry I’m here!” Truly, this boy had an unformed conscience. His sorry was reduced to the fact that somehow he had been caught for whatever he did. Unfortunately, this is the way many Catholics feel about confession. We are caught in sin and we do not know how to relieve ourselves of that feeling that our conscience tells us that we have done something wrong. We need to go to confession. We need that means, the sacraments, which reconcile us with God and allow us to look God in the face again and recognize that we are created in His image and likeness. We need to understand that we are destined to do the good in life, even though sometimes we fail.
Some have misunderstood confession is somehow a license to sin. Some do not recognize that it is not a license, but rather a defense against sinning again. Confession gives us that experience of God’s mercy and love with the grace that comes from confession. It is this grace that allows us to pursue our path to God in life.
Yes, maybe many will put out into the deep recesses of their soul on December 17 taking advantage of Reconciliation Monday. I, myself, will be at a parish hearing confession and almost all priests of the diocese will do so as well. One of the advantages is that you do not have to go to your own parish, as you can go to another Church and be unknown if there is some embarrassment in knowing the priest who will hear your confession. This is the time when the priest is merely an instrument of God’s grace and that the real absolver is Jesus Christ, Himself. It is Jesus who allows us to return to the Father, just as the Prodigal Son once did in the parable of Jesus in the Gospel.