Sometimes, as St. Paul reminds the Romans today, we do not know how to pray as we ought. In fact, learning how to pray as we ought is a discipline that takes a lifetime to perfect. The saints have done it, and maybe you even know some living saints whose prayer is pretty close to the way we ought to do it. But for the rest of us, prayer is a discipline that takes hard work and constant attention. It’s a good thing then, that the work and attention it requires is so joy-filled and rewarding.
But no, we don’t know how to pray as we ought, do we? I remember back when I was in college, all the way through probably my early thirties. I thought I had the prayer thing all figured out. When we’re young, sometimes we’re misled that way. Of course, I was off the mark by a lot, but that’s to be expected. So I have a confession to make, and it cannot leave this room, okay? My confession is that I always thought I never had to go to confession because:
- I never did anything all that bad … or
- The stuff I did was so bad that the priest would be shocked … or
- God already knows my sins, so why do I have to tell him and a priest about them? … or
- God has long forgotten my sins, so why bring them up again?
Maybe you’ve heard these arguments, or others like them before. Maybe those arguments have even come from your own lips. But sticking to my own confession here, I made all of these arguments myself at one time or another. And like a lot of people who grew up in my day, I didn’t go to confession hardly ever at all. But then, fast forward to about my mid-thirties, during a time when I was having a crisis of faith. I was trying to figure out at the time if I would stay in the Catholic Church, or whether I’d go join Willow Creek along with some of my friends. I had gone to a few of their services and found them inspiring, and was seriously giving thought to joining that church.
I prayed about it and really felt that God told me that he didn’t care which Church I was in, as long as I was committed to it. But there were some obstacles to my joining Willow Creek. One of them is that I would have to be rebaptized, which I think the Scriptures tell us is totally off-base. The other is that they only had communion once a month, and it wasn’t actually Jesus but only a symbol, and that didn’t work for me. But we’ll bracket those two obstacles for now – they are the stuff of other homilies. The issue that finally settled it for me was my long-neglected friend Confession.
During a sermon on one of the nights, one of the elders of the Church, who apparently was an ex-Catholic, talked about his experience of Confession as a child. He talked about the terrifying dark box he had to go into, and how he had to tell all his sins to someone who didn’t really have any authority (apparently he missed Jesus’ the passing on of the keys to the kingdom to St. Peter in Scripture, but we’ll leave that alone). And finally he said something like “after that, I got a penance and the priest said something that I guess was supposed to wipe my sins away.” It was very condescending and really flew in the face of what I believed about the Sacrament of Penance, even though I had not gone to confession in years.
To make a long story short, that really tugged on me, and I finally decided to stay in the Catholic Church (well, obviously, right?). But God’s call to make sure I committed to the Church I chose stayed with me, and I knew that meant I had to go to Confession. So I went to a Penance Service at my church and went to a priest that I knew there. I confessed I hadn’t been to Confession in years, and I’ll never forget what he said: “Welcome back.” That confirmed for me that the Sacrament of Penance was incredibly important to my prayer life – to any prayer life, and it’s been part of me ever since.
Why is it so important? Well yes, it’s because we all mess up here and there in little and big ways every day. By doing that, we separate ourselves from God and the Church and we need to be brought back. But more than that, the Sacrament of Penance puts us close to God in the most intimate way possible: by experiencing his mercy. The Wisdom writer in our first reading today makes this clear: “you gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins.” And it is that hope that we so much need, isn’t it? Because we are in a world that sometimes causes us to let go of hope, to lose sight of hope, and finally to give up on hope. The joy-filled Sacrament of Penance gives us that sacramental encounter with God’s hope which is a hope that nothing can destroy.
So what about you? How long has it been since your last Confession? If it’s been a long time, what is it that is keeping you away? I encourage you to go back soon, and in order to make that easier, here is Fr. Pat’s consumer’s guide to the Sacrament of Penance:
- If you have been away a long time, say that to the priest when you go in. Tell him, “Father it’s been years since my last confession, and I might need some help to do this right.” If he doesn’t welcome you back and fall all over himself trying to help you make a good confession, you have my permission to get up and leave and go find a priest who is more welcoming. Because it is my job to help you make a good confession, it is my job to make sure the experience is meaningful for you, it is my job to make you want to come back, and I take that very seriously.
- Tell the priest whatever sins you can remember. Don’t worry if you forget one or two, you can always confess them later if they still bother you. If there’s something that you think there’s no way you can say, say it anyway. We have heard just about everything, and we are not there to judge you. Our presence in the Sacrament is to help you find the way to God’s mercy, nothing more than that.
- Sometimes people feel like they can’t go to a priest they know because maybe the priest will think less of them after it’s over. Well, that would be true if I had never sinned, but let me tell you, I have plenty of my own sins, and I am humbled whenever I hear another person’s confession. Because I am a sinner too, I am more motivated than you could possibly imagine to help you find God’s mercy. I am always so humbled that people come to me and unburden themselves to find God’s mercy. I couldn’t possibly think poorly of you for confessing whatever was on your heart. If anything, I would think more of you.
- People sometimes worry that a priest will remember their sins. As you know, we are not permitted, under penalty of excommunication, to reveal anything you say in Confession, or even to confirm or deny that you have spoken with us in Confession. But we also pray for the grace of forgetfulness. This is a grace that God grants us: because God has forgotten your sins, we do too. The last time I told a group of people this, someone came to me afterward and said, “Father, I’m so relieved to hear that forgetfulness is a grace – I thought I was losing my mind!” But seriously, God forgets your sins, and we do too.
The Psalmist has the right words for us today: “You, O LORD, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,
abounding in kindness and fidelity.” If you haven’t had a sacramental experience of that in a while, I urge you to do it soon. We’re here every Saturday from 4-4:45pm. If you need to see us at another time, you can always make an appointment with me or Fr. Ted. We are here to put you in touch with God’s mercy, and, as Jesus says in the long form of today’s Gospel, to help you become one of t hose who “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”