This article first appeared at: stpaulcenter.com.
Baptism takes care of original sin and all actual sin committed up to that point. But what about sins committed after Baptism?
Saint John admonishes us to deal forthrightly with our sin: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9).
God’s faithfulness draws us to him; his forgiveness restores us.
Saint James indicates that the procedure for healing involves approaching the “elders” or “priests” (in Greek, presbuterois) of the Church for Confession and anointing with oil. “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (James 5:16).
Frequently the question is asked, why confess to a priest when we can apologize for our sins directly to Jesus? We can and should daily confess our sins to Jesus, using an examination of conscience and making an act of contrition. However, we recognize that as sorry as we are for our sins, we lack perfect contrition. We have mixed motives, as do our young children, who sometimes have remorse for getting caught rather than true repentance. In the sacrament of Confession, the Spirit perfects our contrition, as long as we have a firm purpose of amendment, a sincere intention of not committing the sins again. The Lord forgives us through the priest’s words of absolution.
There is also a corporate consequence to our sins. We recognize that our sins not only damage our relationship with the Lord but also harm the body of Christ. By God’s grace he allows us, through penance, to help repair the damage caused by our sins.
This is an example of how well God fathers us. We see it clearly when we apply it to the discipline of children. If a boy who was angry with his father spray-painted terrible things about his dad on a building, he would have two steps to take in restoring his relationship with his father. First, he would need to apologize for what he had done and ask for forgiveness. Second, he would need to repair the damage he had caused. Through Confession the Lord forgives us, and through penance he enables us to restore some strength to the body of Christ, which we have weakened through our sins.
In preparation for celebrating the Passover, it was the Hebrew homemaker’s task to rid the house of leaven completely. This was an important task, with serious consequences if it was not done carefully: “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall put away leaven out of your houses, for if any one eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel” (Exodus 12:15).
In preparing to receive Christ, our Paschal Lamb, Saint Paul commands, “Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8). How much more important is it that we eradicate sin from our lives than eliminate leaven from our homes?
In preparation for receiving our Lord at Easter, commonly referred to as our Easter duty, the Catechism teaches, “According to the Church’s command, ‘after having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year’” ([Cf. CIC, can. 989; Council of Trent (1551): DS 1683; DS 1708], CCC, 1457). If Confession is a lot like a bath, think how it would be for ourselves and others if we only bathed once a year! For the good of those around us, as well as for our soul’s sake, we do not want to settle for the bare minimum.
If we are aware that we have committed a mortal sin, we need to go to Confession as soon as possible. A mortal sin involves a grave or serious matter, our knowledge that it was wrong before we committed the sin and our deliberate consent to commit the sin. At the same time, we acknowledge that the path to mortal sins is often beaten down by habits of venial sins. We do not want any sins to weaken our relationship with the Lord. Sins are more than broken laws—they lead to broken hearts and shattered lives.
As homemakers, we play a crucial role in encouraging family members to get to Confession. We take good care of our children’s bodies, insisting on regular bathing. Why would we not take care of our children’s souls and schedule regular Confession? Instead of thinking about the inconvenience to our schedule or the cost of the gas to drive our children to Confession, we need to focus on how much all of us will benefit when any of us receives this sacrament. This is an answer to prayer for our teens who are feeling inundated with peer pressure and the immorality of our culture, coping with hormone shifts and related passions and struggling with living in a way that pleases the Lord.
One of my heart’s desires has been that our children develop a habit of going to Confession as teens. Not only does it provide a safeguard—knowing they will go to Confession helps them resist some temptations—but it also gives them a solid foundation for adulthood. I believe that this will bless our future in-laws and grandchildren immeasurably.
We face challenges in choosing to go to Confession. One is our ability to deceive ourselves by downplaying our faults and blaming others. We need an honest assessment of our culpability. Another is our judgment in comparing ourselves to others and thinking we are better than most. But we need to compare ourselves to Jesus. When we look at our holiness compared to his, we know how much we need the grace of the sacrament.
Finally, we are challenged by our concupiscence, or the tendency to sin. Following a passage in which Saint Paul speaks about the newness of life of Baptism (Romans 6:1–4), he articulates his ongoing struggle with sin: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19). We share the same struggle. Confession helps us think more clearly about our sins, recognize our need for God’s grace to live in a way that pleases him and strengthen our resolve to resist the temptation to sin.
I also need to bless my family by going to Confession regularly. After seeing a particular priest in spiritual direction for a year, I verbalized my discouragement: “Father, I could photocopy my list! I feel like I am saying the same sins every week. Do you see any progress?”
He nodded. “Even if all you are doing is humbling yourself to confess the same sins each week, you are taking a whack at pride. And whatever takes a whack at pride is a movement in the right direction.” (That has become a saying in our family.)
Humility moves us in the right direction. Like the psalmist we pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, / and put a new and right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). We want to keep moving in the right direction with greater order in our homes, through a plan for cleaning and organization, and greater order in our souls through Confession, by which Jesus unclutters our hearts of sin to make a beautiful home for himself.
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