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This week we begin our precious annual Lenten journey with the Lord and each other. The ashes placed on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday remind us of our own mortality and of the call to repentance. Lent reminds us that God is gracious and merciful to those who come to him with contrite hearts.
This season is one of penance, reflection, prayer, almsgiving and fasting in order that we can prepare ourselves to better celebrate and live Christís Resurrection on Easter Sunday and beyond. Godís divine mercy is a central theme of Lent. The priceless gift of Godís mercy is highlighted and celebrated by the Church in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
I have often been asked why we need to go to confession, especially when we can pray to a God of mercy on our own, one on one. Why do we need the mediation of a priest and the Church? Here are three reflections on why we need to go to confession:
Why confess your sins to a priest?
Why is it necessary to go to a priest for confession if I can pray to God on my own? Sacramental confession allows Godís loving mercy and his grace-filled absolution to be confirmed to us through the ministry of the priest. When we pray to God, we do not necessarily hear Godís response. We are often far more harsh on ourselves than God could ever be. God sees us with love, mercy and an abundance of forgiveness. We see ourselves and our sin through the eyes of guilt and shame. It is important for us to receive from a priest the unconditional love and mercy of God, as expressed and experienced in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Christ, through the priest, invites us to let go of anything that gets in the way of our relationship with him. Christ, through the priest, encourages us to open ourselves to the peace and grace which can only be found through Godís forgiveness. In sacramental confession, we hear the direct expression of Godís love, through the priest and the ministry of the Church. In sacramental confession, we know we have received the gift of absolution from our sins by Godís chosen instruments, the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the ministry of the priest.
The communal nature of sin
When we sin we not only offend God, but we also offend the individual(s) against whom we have sinned, if not the entire community of faith. Sin uproots us from our real home, the heart of God the Father. Sin also uproots us from the communion of the Church and the mystical body of Christ, which is the Church. We need to receive not only Godís forgiveness, but the blessing of the Christian community. The Letter of James (5:16) speaks to the communal nature of sin and of forgiveness when James writes, ďTherefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.Ē In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the priest represents both Christ and His mercy, and he represents the joy and the welcoming of the Christian community over one who repents of his or her sins.
Because Christ said so
Finally, and most importantly, we should go to confession to a priest because Jesus told us to do so. In His first appearance to the apostles after his Resurrection, Christ breathed on them and said to them, ďReceive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retainedíí (John 20:22-23). By these words, the Church and the priest have been entrusted with one of the most sacred and awesome ministries of Christ, that is, the ministry of reconciliation. I want my sins to be forgiven, not retained. I want them to be loosed, not bound. Through the sacramental ministry of the Church and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, our sins are forgiven and we are given the grace to be more like Christ. Through the Sacrament of Reconciliation we experience and embody the saving ministry and healing grace of Jesus Christ.
Understanding our need for repentance and the grace which is conferred through this healing sacrament, Cardinal SeŠn is calling us back to confession this Lent. Through the wonderful initiative, ďThe Light is on for You,Ē every church and chapel in the Archdiocese of Boston will have individual and private confession available, every Wednesday in Lent from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. beginning this week. I urge you to be open to Godís love and grace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation this Lent. Encourage family members and friends to do the same.
Some of the most powerful experiences of Godís grace in my life have been as a confessor and as a penitent in the sacrament of reconciliation. May the power of Godís grace and mercy bless us in abundance this Lent.
Father Richard M. Erikson is Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia of the Archdiocese of Boston.