A gift from Christ
Some years ago when I was chaplain in a university residential college, a student who had recently returned to the practice of confession after a long time, came to me and said: “Father, please pray for a friend of mine. We are going away on a study weekend, and I am trying to get him to go to confession during this time. I told him that if he goes, I personally will do 500 times the penance the priest gives him.” Needless to say, I was astounded and we quickly calculated how long it would take him to say 500 Rosaries, in case the confessor proposed a generous penance! When I caught up with the student again in the middle of the following week I asked him how it had gone with his friend. He said, with an obvious look of joy on his face, that he was doing 100 times the penance. Intrigued, I asked him what had happened. “The offer of 500 was only valid for the weekend”, he said with a smile, “but he went to confession today.” When I asked him what the penance had been, he answered with a look of relief: “an act of thanksgiving”.
I relate this anecdote because it highlights both the great joy experienced when someone goes back to confession after a long time and the resulting eagerness to share that joy with others by encouraging them to go as Well that joy is experienced by too few, as far fewer people go to confession than was the case 50 years ago. The queues of people waiting to confess their sins in years by, are today to be found in few churches. So much is this the case that Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia in 1984, bluntly stated that “the Sacrament of Penance is in crisis.”
This situation is most unfortunate, because, in my opinion, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the greatest treasures of the Catholic Church. It is a gift from Jesus Christ, indeed his first gift to the Church after the resurrection. On the afternoon of that first Easter, when he appeared to the Apostles in the Upper Room “he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit; when you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven, when you hold them bound, they are held bound’.” (Jn 20:22-23) If Jesus himself has given us this gift we would be most ungrateful and even foolish if we did not make use of it. Having heard many thousands of confessions over the years, I can attest to the fact that the ministry of the confessional is one of the greatest blessings for the priest as well as for the penitent. It is a forum in which one experiences the grace of God acting in a gentle yet powerful way, always leaving the penitent with a great peace and joy.