By Katherine Long
Pope Francis has spoken often about the beauty of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and he has made it an important part of the celebration of the Year of Mercy.
“So many people, including young people, are returning to the Sacrament of Reconciliation; through this experience they are rediscovering a path back to the Lord, living a moment of intense prayer and finding meaning in their lives,” he wrote in the bull announcing the jubilee. “Let us place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the center once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands. For every penitent, it will be a source of true interior peace.”
Closing the Sun’s series on the sacraments, we’ve updated a favorite piece from our archives. Here, with the help of Father Gregory Kreinheder, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church and St. Stephen the King Church in Oswego, and Pope Francis himself, we learn more about the Sacrament of Reconciliation. (This article appeared in its original form in the Feb. 14, 2013 issue of the Sun.)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that “sin is before all else an offense against God, a rupture of communion with him. At the same time it damages communion with the Church,” (1440). The purpose of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is to heal that rupture and damage, says Father Kreinheder.
“Sin causes an individual to be closed off in a profound way from our relationship with God and his Church,” he said. “Every Catholic needs the Sacrament [of Reconciliation] to be freed from their sin, to experience God’s love and to be reunited with the communion of the Body of Christ. We are all sinners in need of forgiveness.”
The essential elements of the sacrament are the following:
Contrition: The sorrow for having sinned and the firm resolve not to sin again; without this conversion of the heart, there can be no forgiveness
Confession: The act of telling one’s sins to a priest
Penance: The actions performed to amend for one’s sins
Absolution: God’s forgiveness of sins as imparted by a priest
The Church requires that every Catholic confess serious sins, at minimum, at least once per year; regular confession of “everyday faults” is strongly recommended (CCC, 1457).
“Regular confession is an essential part of any healthy spiritual life, because sin is the primary obstacle in our relationship with God,” adds Father Kreinheder. “A standard recommendation would encourage a confession once a month to once every few months. Any time someone falls into serious sin, though, they should avail themselves of the sacrament at the next available opportunity.”
Essential, too, is not avoiding the sacrament or talking one’s self out of receiving it.
“As individuals, we can become rather skilled at explaining away our sins and deciding for ourselves that what we’ve done isn’t all that bad, or perhaps isn’t even a sin at all,” said Father Kreinheder. “It’s terribly dangerous to deal with the reality of our sin by ignoring it, as though it will just go away if we don’t think about it.”
Priest as confessor
Knowing that God alone can forgive sins (CCC, 1441), penitents may think that reconciliation can be achieved through personal prayer.
“Unfortunately, that’s a misconception that has become rather common even among Catholics,” said Father Kreinheder. “First, the sacraments are necessarily tangible signs instituted by Christ for the conferral of grace.
Being able to see Christ’s intermediary, the priest, in person and hear his voice as he prays the words of absolution gives us a more intimate experience of forgiveness. Second, the concept of forgiveness sought solely through private prayer neglects the fact that we are a Body of Christ, a communion of believers in the Church. The priest not only stands in the person of Christ bestowing forgiveness, but also stands as mediator, offering the forgiveness that is sought from the community.”
In his bull, Pope Francis emphasizes that “None of us [priests] wields power over this Sacrament; rather, we are faithful servants of God’s mercy through it.” He later underlines his point: “In short, confessors are called to be a sign of the primacy of mercy always, everywhere, and in every situation, no matter what.”
Be not afraid
Of course, admitting one’s failings and wrongdoings aloud to a priest may not come easy for many. First and foremost, Father Kreinheder assures penitents that all confessions are kept in the strictest of confidence.
“The seal of confession is absolute,” he said. “Under no circumstances, for no reason, can a priest divulge the content of a sacramental confession.”
Penitents need not fear judgment from a priest, either. “Rather than judging someone, we strive to see them with the same love with which we hope Jesus sees us,” Father Kreinheder said. “When I see someone who has been harmed by sin, as a priest my primary concern is their well-being. My heart wells up with a deep sense of merciful love.”
Has it been a while since that last confession? “If people have forgotten prayers or how to go to confession, that shouldn’t keep them away,” Father Kreinheder said. “We can help anyone make their way through the rite. Forgetting prayers should not stand in the way of divine mercy!” (You can also check out this handy guide, courtesy the Diocese of Syracuse, and don’t forget that the Light Is On for confessions across the diocese from 4 p.m to 7 p.m. on Dec. 14.)
And if you need a little push to get there, take it from Pope Francis: “As we exit the confessional, we will feel His strength which gives new life and restores ardor to the faith. After confession we are reborn” (Homily, March 13, 2015).