A few years ago, as I served as a sponsor in our parishís Rite of Christian
Initiation of Adults, our class watched a video on the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Although the piece was interesting in terms of its historical content, I felt
it missed a great opportunity. The film reviewed proper procedure and obligation,
but not once did it mention what a gift the Sacrament of Reconciliation
can be for Catholics.
As a convert myself, I always thought confession seemed a confusing
and intimidating practice of the Catholic faith. What was the purpose of those
dark little rooms where you whispered the unthinkable to a total stranger? I
didnít even like to think about sin, much less talk about it.
It was only through the grace of Godóliterallyóthat I finally came to appreciate
the beauty and significance of this life-giving sacrament.
Out of a Formal and Routine Past
In the Lutheran church of my youth, confession was handled
in a rather tidy manner. The congregation would stand and, together with the
pastor, face the altar and read aloud a statement of confession. The pastor
would then turn to face the congregation and read a response that essentially
told us we were forgiven.
I donít remember feeling heartily sorry for my sinsóor heartily
forgiven, for that matteróit was just a part of our Sunday worship.
I suppose I must have talked to God privately about my sins growing
up, but forgiveness and reconciliation do not hold strong memories for me.
I was a catechumen in 1983 as a young adult preparing for marriage.
When our RCIA class broached the subject of confession, the priest arranged
to meet with each of us privately. I remember feeling incredibly nervous.
My faith was not yet strong enough to see beyond the man sitting
across from me. I couldnít comprehend that it was Jesus and his forgiveness
I was encountering in this sacrament. The priest was helpful and patient, taking
me through the Ten Commandments one by one.
I squeamishly admitted my faults, looking to him for clues or approval.
The next thing I knew, the priest absolved me and sent me on my way. I didnít
feel any different and wondered if maybe I hadnít done it right. Puzzled, I
decided that this part of Catholicism was going to be a learning process for
As I entered the Church formally and began receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation
on a somewhat regular basis, I still found myself immersed in the
sin part of the equation. I was focused on how terrible
I was, how unforgivable, and completely missed out on the benefit
I dreaded having to bare my soul to a man who, in my opinion, must
be almost sinless (after all, he was a priest, wasnít he?!). I was still
concerned about what he would think of me, not only in the confessional, but
also every time we crossed paths. It was not uncommon for me, therefore, to
go to other parishes when it was time for confession.
At the same time, however, something significant was happening.
I was beginning to realize that, once I made a confession, I truly felt better.
Forcing myself to verbalize and take responsibility for my offenses and ask
pardon for them really did make a difference in how I felt afterward. It was
harder than my Lutheran way, but I was starting to see the benefits.
My biggest stumbling block remained not being able to forgive myself.
I used to come out of the confessional disappointed by the Act of Penanceóto
say an Our Father or something easy like that. I would have much rather been
told to take 10 laps around the church property. Still seeing things from a
purely human point of view, I was unable to grasp Godís ready and complete forgiveness.
Then, I experienced a miracle.
Miracle of Mercy
It occurred during Lent, not long before Easter. I had just
read the writings of a young Polish nun, the recently canonized Sister Faustina
Kowalska, and I was really excited about her message of Godís divine mercy.
I was praying the Divine Mercy novena and had planned to go to confession on
Divine Mercy Sunday for a complete pardon of sins as promised.
Inspired to share her story with my prayer group, I located a video
about Sister Faustina and prepared a little presentation. All in all, things
were going quite well. Thatís when disaster struck, and I committed the most
regrettable sin of my life.
A continual string of sleepless nights caring for my newborn was
taking a serious toll on my patience level and rational thinking ability. One
bleary morning, I lost what was left of my emotional control and raged against
my four-year-old in a way that filled me with profound shame and regret. I was
devastated and shocked at how such an unbridled outburst could occur during
the holiest time of the year.
When I regained my composure, I immediately sought forgiveness from
my son and, soon after, from my husband. I knew, however, that most importantly
I had to reconcile with God. A part of me wondered if I could be forgiven at
The following day was Palm Sunday. As the Church prepared for its
most holy celebration, I felt as if I should be counted among the ranks of Judas
and Peter. Ashamed and unable to live with myself, I went to my parish to make
a confession. My plan was to talk to a retired priest who heard confessions,
because I was too embarrassed to talk with my pastor.
When I arrived at church, however, I saw 25 people in line for the
retired priest and only three waiting to speak with the pastor. Humbled, I joined
the shorter line. God wasnít going to make this easy for me.
Inside the confessional, it all came out. Between sobs, I told the
pastor the unpleasant details of my crime. He was very understanding and said
pretty much what I expected, then he administered absolution. I still felt terrible.
As I was leaving the confessional, however, an amazing thing happened.
I experienced an incredible, tangible sensationóas if someone were pouring a
bucket of water over my head. I felt washed clean, tingling all the way down
to my feet, and feather-light, as if the weight of the world had just been lifted
off my shoulders. I had never experienced anything like this before.
I recognized at once that God was giving me a hit over the head,
an unmistakably clear sign that I was truly forgiven. He saw how my heart was
breaking and how genuinely contrite I was, and he was happy to welcome me back.
His words, as given to Sister Faustina, occurred to me, Let not even
the weak and sinful fear to approach me, even though their sins
be as numerous as the sands of the earth, all will vanish in the
fathomless pit of my mercy.
If forgiveness from God were always to come as tangibly as I was
privileged to experience it that day, Iím sure the lines for confession would
be far longer. But I suppose thatís where our faith must come into play.
Divine Dimension Holds Sway
God works signs and wonders in our lives according to our needs.
Evidently, on that day, I needed something pretty significant to get my attention.
From that experience, I was finally able to learn how to let go of my sins and
truly forgive myself.
Today, when I receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I no longer
drag my feet, focusing only on my sins. Now I look forward to receiving Godís
mercy. Even though I donít feel it in that same tangible way, I know itís happening
just the same. I look forward to being unburdened, and feeling close to Our
Lord once again.
Instead of seeking out priests I donít know, I can now go comfortably
to any of the clergy in my own parish. Each priest has his own style, but the
absolution is always the same because it comes from God.
Through the years, Iíve developed a special relationship with one
of our priests by making him my primary confessor. This way, heís better equipped
to help me overcome obstacles in my spiritual growth as I live out my vocation
as wife and mother.
For me, an adult convert, the Sacrament of Reconciliation has become
a way of encountering Christ intimately and meaningfully, second only to receiving
him in the Eucharist. At last, I experience confession the way I believe God
has always intended it: as a great gift. Forgive me, Father, for not recognizing
this gift sooner.