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Conversion and confession
I was 27 when I was received into the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church - and my induction started with confession. I was a poor candidate for the sacrament: born into a devout Methodist family (my father was a missionary preacher, and himself the son of a Methodist minister).
I - like many other carefree young men - had hardly bothered about going to church since leaving home. But I had inherited a steady belief in a living, ever-present God, so when I fell in with Catholic friends I was able to appreciate - and to be honest, envy - the way they regularly practised their faith.
If the Catholic Church produced such young people, I reasoned, there must be more to it than I had realised.
That was the beginning. Later, when I fell in love with a saintly Catholic girl, I was eager to share her faith, and asked the priest at the local church to prepare me for admission. I was privileged.
Instead of attending a group preparation, I was given one-on-one instruction by the caring priest.
It was a revelation. Here was a faith of a depth and magnificence far beyond anything I had experienced in my youth, and I embraced it with joy. This, I soon realised, was the faith of my (distant, pre-Reformation) fathers!
My reception into the Church was to be an awesome hurdle - a general confession covering two decades of transgression against God's laws.
It was a small ceremony, attended by family and friends. I was nervous but determined. After prayerful preparation, I humbled myself in a lengthy recitation of my wrongdoing through the years, as best I could recall, and physically felt a weight lift from my shoulders.
The sacrament of penance, given to us by Christ Himself, begins with contrition, is followed by sincere confession, and ends with the priest's blessing as you experience the joy of reconciliation with Our Lord and God.
As the family gathered afterwards to congratulate me and welcome me into the Church, my father brought tears to my eyes with the words: "I would rather see you a good Catholic, than a bad Methodist!" Loving words, which are engraved on my heart.
Following on the powerful cleansing ceremony of Penance, I joined other young people in regular attendance at Mass and periodic confession, and have never ceased thanking Our Lord and his Mother -my wonderful wife led me to an intense devotion to Mary - for the divine mercy which brought me a lifetime in the true faith.
As I well know, many non-Catholics have only a hazy idea of the Catholic faith and its sacraments.
In the sincere, but easy-going, Protestant belief, you confess your sins privately to God - never to a mere man! God will hear you and forgive you, they believe - and we hope they are right.
But if we go to the source - the Bible - there is no ambiguity in the commission which Our Lord gave to his Apostles and disciples on two occasions.
The first was in his famous words at Caesarea Philippi, after Peter had acknowledged him as the Messiah: "Blessed are you Simon bar-Jonah ... You are Peter, and on this Rock I will build my Church, ... I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven - whatever you bind on earth will be considered bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, will be loosed also in Heaven" (Matthew 16:17-19).
After the crucifixion and his rising from the dead, Jesus was even more explicit when he appeared to his followers in their locked room with the words: "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Having said this, he breathed on them saying: "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven. Whose sins you shall retain, they are retained" (John 20:21-23).
These same words are contained in Protestant versions of the Bible, with minor variations - so we are left to wonder why most non-Catholics are sceptical - even derogatory -about our cherished sacrament of confession.
Catholic priests are not just good, learned men, chosen by their peers to be ministers and preachers. They are supermen, called by God.
They spend seven years or more in seminaries during formation, and at their ordination by a bishop, they receive a three-fold power which sets them above all others: the power given by Our Lord to consecrate, to bless, and to forgive sin.
These are not hypothetical or nominal powers - they are real.
We all are sinners - even priests and bishops - though in varying degrees. The old truism is that ours is "the Church of saints and sinners", and even priests have to go to their colleagues for regular confession.
It is nothing to be ashamed of -rather, the opposite. It is a very real engagement with the mercy of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and a periodical (and essential) renewal of our faith.
A sincere confession can be a very humbling experience. At Marian Valley (the Pauline Fathers' beautiful Shrine of Our Lady, Help of Christians, located in the Gold Coast hinterland) there is always a queue for open-air confession on major feast days, which draw hundreds of pilgrims.
Sometimes there are as many as three or four visiting priests officiating under sunshades on the lawns, and people wait patiently for their turn.
I have seen some people - even teenagers - in tears after making their confessions, but these really are tears of joy and relief after becoming reconciled to Our Lord in penitential love.
Like many sinners, I have sometimes feared that a priest, who is also a friend, will hold our confessed sins against us, or perhaps think badly of us in future. We hesitate to confide our transgressions to him, because we don't want to lose his friendship and respect. How foolish of us!
The truth is, the confessor priest has nothing but admiration for the courage and faith of those who open their hearts to Our Lord in the confessional.
The other aspect of the confessional is that there is no need to go into gory details in baring our souls to Our Lord and his human representative - it is merely necessary to list our offences and (as nearly as possible) the number of times committed, as long as we have true repentance for our failings, and determination to do our best to avoid sinning again. (Unless we are saints, not sinning again is humanly impossible. But we must be determined to try our hardest, and both God and his priest will love us, and understand our weakness).
Be assured, too, that the priest has "heard it all before", and will not be shocked by our admissions.
He is trained to keep the things heard in the confessional in solemn confidence, and to elininate them from his mind afterwards - he deliberately erases them.
In the modern idiom, what passes between us in confession "is history". So do not hesitate - tell it all, in sorrow and humility, and we will be forgiven.
It is essential, of course, to make a good Act of Contrition in the final stages of confession: "Oh my God, I am sorry and beg pardon for all my sins, because I fear the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all, because I have offended thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I humbly resolve to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life."
That is an act of love, and it will earn God's abundant love in return.
When possible, I have always made a practice of doing my penance in front of the tabernacle, where one can speak and pray directly to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament as an act of devotion and thanksgiving. (And remember to say a special prayer for the confessor priest, that Our Lord may bless him and reward him).
Most of us will have imprinted on us Our Lord's beautiful actions and parables illustrating the pardon awaiting sinners.
We remember how he forgave the adulterous woman whom he saved from stoning, and his wonderful promise to the repentant robber on the Cross: "This day you will be with me in Paradise!"
And who can forget the story of the Prodigal Son who sins grievously, but is loved and welcomed home by his father when he repents and asks for forgiveness?
The lesson, here, and in the earlier parables about the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin, is contained in Our Lord's own words: "Verily, I tell you, there will be more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents, than over 99 just men who have no need of repentance!" (Luke 15:7).
Nearer to our own time, we were given an uncompromising reminder by Blessed Jacinta Marto of Fatima, who, during the visions of Our Lady in 1917, was told: "Confession is a sacrament of mercy therefore, we must approach the confessional with confidence and joy! Without confession, there is no salvation!"
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 27 No 3 (April 2014), p. 13
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