It must be over twenty years ago since I first heard the phrase ‘the redundant sacrament’ and I hope I am correct in attributing it to the theologian Monika Hellwig. It refers of course to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or more popularly, Confession. Now, if it was true back then that this Sacrament had fallen on hard times, then it is certainly true today. My contention is that the neglect of confession by all of us, and I specifically include us priests in this, is directly connected with so many of the ills that have befallen the Church in recent times. This is bad enough but it is worse than this. I hope I might be forgiven for putting this bluntly. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the doorway to God’s boundless mercy. When this door is not availed of, souls perish. We as Church have an ominous responsibility in this regard. When we as priests fail to preach this awesome sacrament, we actually fail the people of God. Do we as priests go to confession regularly? Do we actually believe in the power of this sacrament to heal, restore and forgive?
‘I am a very good Catholic, but I don’t go to Mass!’. You are not. Yes you may well be a good person, or indeed you may well be a good Christian, but you are certainly not a good Catholic. Good Catholics attend Mass. ‘ I do not bother with Mary and the Saints, I just go straight to the top man!’ You as a Catholic are missing out very badly if you deprive yourself of the example of the countless women and men who achieved a level of holiness and who act as signposts for us on our pilgrim journey. However be that as it may, as a Catholic not to have a good relationship with Mary the Mother of Jesus, makes absolutely no sense. Actually if you as a Catholic have little or no connection with Mary, given to us by Jesus as our Mother, then you are engaging in a form of spiritual self sabotage. To deprive oneself of Mary’s motherly care, her protection, her counsel, her wisdom, her gentle companionship, makes no sense whatever. ‘ I do not believe in confession, why should I go in to a dark, stuffy box and tell my sins to a man?’ Would you prefer to stay in spiritual darkness, your soul stuffed with your sins? Why go to confession? Surely not to go is to throw God’s mercy back in his face?
There are many factors that have led to people abandoning Confession. I think it is true to say that there is a problem today with being accountable. People like to have rights and privileges but are often not keen on the duty and responsibilities that go with these. Sorry, as the song says, is the hardest word and appears to be becoming less and less fashionable. Is saying sorry a sign of weakness? Even in relationship some will say, ‘sure she knows I am sorry!’ Sadly we as a Church must take our share of responsibility for the damage done to this Sacrament. So many people have not had a good experience of Confession. This bad experience can range from an abusive, and often life long, damaging experience, to a listless uninspiring encounter. When was the last time you heard a priest share his joy of having been to Confession? When was the last time you heard a priest encourage people to go to Confession?
Each of the Sacraments benefit from a period of preparation, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation is no exception. There are seven sacraments and each one of them is connected with God’s desire to be with us in the key moments of our lives. These moments include birth, death and major commitment. Where the Sacrament of Reconciliation comes into play is at the very centre of our lives. The regular experience of failure, of broken promises, of a sense of having made a mess of our lives, is directly spoken to by this sacrament. This Sacrament exists so that the Lord can be with us in the dark days when deep in our soul we feel we are not good enough, we feel we do not belong, we feel we have made a mess of things. It is on the day when you feel there is no way back, when you are looking at your bridges burning, and you feel your failure, your mess is monumental, yes it is on this day that Jesus, the great bridge builder, the Great Healer steps forth and comes in beside you and listens to you and soothes and heals you. This is the great Sacrament of Reconciliation and we as individuals need it now more than ever, as does the Church and the world. Let’s claim it back. Let’s acknowledge that its neglect is a major cause of where we are. Let the penitent prepare prayerfully: ‘what keeps me from the Lord?’ Let the priest
pray: ‘Lord that I might listen with the ears of Christ and speak the words he wants me to’. Let’s stop using it for a chat, a quasi therapists couch. No more trite or meaningless penance. Let’s avail of this gift and rejoice in the loving embrace of the mercy of Our God.