Sacraments: We are called to confession and mercy, not shame
By Father Charlie Garza
The sacrament of confession was once a sacrament that I greatly feared. In fact, there was a period of my life where I did not want to go to confession for a few years. I made excuses to myself that minimized the power of God’s mercy. I also minimized my need for God’s mercy. When I finally returned to confession, I was surprised at what a merciful reception I had from the priest and from God.
This encounter with God’s mercy transformed my understanding of this sacrament and hearing confessions as a priest has only deepened the transformation. I began to understand how my fear came from shame and a lack of understanding of who I am in relationship to God.
In the sacrament of confession, we make an act of contrition –– not an act of shame. Shame is when we are afraid to bring something to the light, so we hide it. I once tried to hide my sins from God and myself. Contrition is when we acknowledge that we have done something wrong and desire it to be forgiven in God’s light. God loves us and we are his beloved children. When we understand ourselves in relationship to God then we no longer fear confession but yearn for it. A child who knows they are beloved wants to run to their Father, not hide from him.
Mercy is all about a covenant of God’s loving kindness. In baptism we were brought into this covenant of God’s loving kindness and experienced God’s mercy for the first time. Just as Jesus was called beloved by God at his baptism (Lk 3:22), so we receive our identity as a beloved one in our baptism. Confession is a sacrament where God desires to help us to remember our identity as beloved. My favorite moment when hearing confessions is seeing God’s mercy wash over someone and the way they are transformed as absolution or God’s forgiveness is administered.
Mercy is connected to the four parts of the sacrament through contrition, confession, penance and absolution. We first must be contrite or sorry for our sins and desire God’s mercy. Then we need to bring these sins to light by confessing or mentioning them. Penance is a way of cooperating with God’s mercy and allowing God to heal us through that spiritual medicine. Absolution is the moment that God’s mercy washes over us and we are reconciled with God.
As a sinner who is sorry for my sins I go to confession and experience these four steps. I desire to prepare myself for God’s mercy when I examine my conscience to see where I have sinned and forgotten my relationship to God. In contrition, I see myself as a beloved child who is sorry for my sins. When I confess or mention my sins then I start to open my heart to receive God’s love and remember who I am to God. Every penance is not only a way I try to make amends for my sins but where I desire God’s spiritual medicine to heal my woundedness so I will be less likely to sin again. There have been moments in absolution when I am so overcome by God’s love that I am brought to tears.
As a priest when I hear confessions, I also experience these four steps. I pray that those confessing their sins will not give in to shame and hide their sins but desire to bring every sin to the light of God’s gaze. It is such an intimate privilege to hear people mention those sins that they might have never spoken aloud. As I hear someone confess their sins, I pray for the grace to know what prescription or spiritual medicine God desires to give them. I like to consider myself as the pharmacist who doesn’t write the prescription (God does) but dispenses it. Then when I pray the words of absolution, I so often cry along with the penitent as a witness to that encounter with God’s love.
In this Year of Mercy, please go to confession and do not be afraid of the priest. We know what it is like to both receive God’s mercy and be an instrument of mercy. We want you to have the same encounter with God’s mercy that we have and be transformed.