When my children were old enough to understand what an emergency was, I taught them how to call for the police, fire department, or ambulance, by memorizing "9-1-1." It’s simple. It’s direct. It brings help.
This is Lent. So, I’ll make this simple and direct. Memorize this:
There is no offense, however serious, that the Church cannot forgive.
Got that? There. Is. NO. Offense. That. The. Church. Cannot. Forgive. That’s from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), paragraph 982. Ultimately this means there are no excuses for us to avoid receiving the graces God has in store for us through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The only problem is, we actually have to ‘fess up, and that’s the tricky part for many of us.
(Now, if you’ve already been to confession recently, or you are planning to go soon—wonderful! What follows is for the reader who may feel hesitant about going.)
For many of us, for many reasons, entering the confessional is a hard spiritual practice. Instead we practice active avoidance. The Church "knows" this about us. That’s why the Precepts of the Church urge Catholics to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation "at least once a year." (The 5 Precepts of the Church are simple directions that help us grow in our love of God and neighbor. See CCC 2042-2043.)
So, the minimum requirement for Catholics is an annual confession.
But we make good excuses for not going. We rationalize. We talk ourselves out of the need to confess. Often the lies we tell ourselves to deny our conscience, compounds the problem. Especially when it comes to those, you know, big sins. The mortal ones that break one the Ten Commandments.
The painful truth is that if we’ve broken a commandment or two, we’ve broken our relationship with Christ and the Church. But, there is hope in restoring it.
It requires faith that forgiveness is bigger than our sin. That means trusting that we can be forgiven, even if our sin is as bad as fill-in-the-blank.
We need to "call 9-1-1", spiritually speaking: The Sacrament of Reconciliation.
And now, a little analogy… (Bearing in mind that all analogies are flawed…)
I’m of a certain age and occupation wherein I choose to color my gray hairs. While not everyone relates to this, for those who do, you know this truth: there is no gray, however serious, that a good salon treatment cannot take away. It’s a rather joyful experience in that I always feel a little lighter and a little more radiant when I walk out of the salon.
Let’s apply that analogy to going to confession and receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Think of it as part of a spiritual makeover. In some ways, getting to the Sacrament is like going to a salon. There is a pressing need. We make the call and ask for help. Then we get the treatment we need, and leave refreshed and better for it.
I have to admit… there was a time years ago when I really needed to color my hair and didn’t. Oh, there were excuses. I did not want to spend the money. (Still don’t!) I had other priorities. I was too busy. None of my friends did it. I’d have to pay for sitter. Etc. Etc. Etc.
The truth is, I tend to be somewhat fretful over change. And I don’t like surrendering control of things. Maybe I could get by with a cheaper at-home treatment until I was really ready, you know? In short, I get stuck in indecision.
I finally gave in to getting the salon treatment when a pressing engagement on my calendar demanded I get "professional" help. Once I yielded, there was no going back. The difference between do-it-yourself, and hiring a professional is, well, enormous.
The same holds true for the spiritual life. I trust the Church’s teaching on forgiveness more than my own do-it-myself opinions. (Left to my own devices, I’d never forgive some of my sins. Thankfully, the Church’s opinion is different. Already I’m in a better place when I surrender my own judgment in favor of the Church’s call to reconciliation.)
But when it has been a long time between "treatments", sometimes I feel a little sheepish about re-establishing the routine. I have to remember that any growth in life is accomplished by moving from bad to good, and good to better. That applies to bad hair as well as the soul.
These days, when it comes to my hair, my stylist knows me pretty well. She is always glad to see me whenever I sit in her chair. Her customer service is extraordinary. It took me a couple years to find someone like her, who listens to my concerns and then advises a course of action. She even recommends things I can do to keep my hair looking good between appointments.
Like the rapport I have with my stylist, when it comes to my healing my soul in confession, I see the value in having a regular confessor and receiving the sacrament from a priest who knows me. And yet, there’s a part of me that sometimes prefers confessing to a priest I don’t know.
Whichever I choose, both options bring me to someone who is acting in the name of Christ who forgives me: someone who listens, advises, then, gives me a plan of action.
That’s the part of the formal fundamental structure of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as CCC 1448 teaches:
It comprises two equally essential elements: on the one hand, the acts of the man who undergoes conversion through the action of the Holy Spirit: namely, contrition, confession, and satisfaction; on the other, God's action through the intervention of the Church. The Church… [through the bishop or priest] forgives sins in the name of Jesus Christ and determines the manner of satisfaction [or penance], also prays for the sinner and does penance with him. Thus the sinner is healed and re-established in ecclesial communion [or communion with the Church].
Remember, whomever the priest is, he is standing in for Christ in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and Christ is always glad to see me. Even if it has been an unmentionably long time since I last came in.
Everything about this sacrament is about re-establishing our relationship with Christ and the Church.
That’s because all of the Church sacraments come from Christ. The Church, in her sacraments, are imitating and continuing the work and mission of Christ on earth. CCC 1127-1128 explains:
Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious [successful or effective] because in them Christ himself is at work: it is… he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies. The Father always hears the prayer of his Son's Church…
The sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God. From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.
This means that sacraments work because Christ is at work in them, and his power is working in the Church’s administering of them. It is not up to our personal holiness or the personal holiness of the minister to make them work. But in order to receive the fruits of the sacraments, we must bring the proper disposition to them.
This brings us back to the first point from CCC 982: There is no offense, however serious, that the Church cannot forgive. CCC 982 continues:
There is no one, however wicked and guilty, who may not confidently hope for forgiveness, provided his repentance is honest. Christ who died for all men desires that in his Church the gates of forgiveness should always be open to anyone who turns away from sin.
It does not matter what we have done. It matters more that we are honestly willing to do something about it now: confess and make it right. Christ desires that we all come to him through his Church for forgiveness of our sins. The door is always open to us if we are willing to turn away from our sins.
Even in these dire economic times, we probably get a hair cut or a trim, and perhaps a coloring, at least once a year, right? Our approach to confession should be no less. In fact many spiritual directors recommend monthly confession. But maybe that’s something we can work up to.
Right now, it might be good practice to book an appointment for confession as often as we schedule getting our hair done.
For A Guide to Making a Thorough Examination of Conscience and a Good Confession visit
©2009 Patricia W. Gohn
About the Author
Pat Gohn is a married empty-nester with three adult children and four grandchildren. An author, catechist, speaker, and host of the Among Women podcast since 2009, her books include the award-winning Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious: Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood, and All In: Why Belonging to the Catholic Church Matters. She works in Catholic publishing as an editor. Visit PatGohn.net