Jeff is 16 and considers himself a pretty lucky
guy. Last month, his two best friends got arrested for shoplifting.
Now they're spending their weekends doing the volunteer work
ordered by the juvenile court judge.
Jeff would be right there alongside them, if luck
hadn't been with him that Saturday at the mall when the three
tried shoplifting CD's. A security guard caught his friends
red-handed, but not Jeff. With no evidence, the judge had
to drop the charge against him. Jeff "beat the rap."
Why is it then that he feel so lousy about the whole
incident? Why can't he just forget about it?
Jeff is not what you'd describe as a really religious
guy. His parents send him to a Catholic school, but he isn't
very interested in what he calls Church stuff. He's interested
in broadcasting and spends his Sunday afternoons at the radio
station where he has an internship.
So, he is surprised to find himself thinking about
the Sacrament of Reconciliation, about asking a priest at
school to hear his confession. Why would anybody voluntarily
reveal their failures, faults or even their crimes?
Who Needs It?
Occasionally, when I talk about religion with friends
who aren't Catholic, they'll say, "It must be awful to have
to tell your sins to a priest!" I have to disagree. Going
to Confession is not easy most times, it's true. On the other
hand, I'm certainly glad that the Sacrament of Reconciliation
is there when I need it.
Why does the Catholic Church have this ritual? After
the Resurrection, Jesus established this sacrament for his
followers. He realized that even after Baptism we would still
have to deal with the reality of sin. Out of his great love,
Jesus instituted this sacrament through which a sinner who
is sorry receives pardon and peace and is restored to the
fullness of grace with God.
Confession is a very intimate experience. Even in
a communal reconciliation service that you might attend during
Advent, Lent or a retreat, individual confessions are private.
The Catholic Church maintains, however, that there
is also a social aspect to sin. Sin not only affects our relationship
with God, sin also alienates us from other people and the
In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Jesus provides
us with a way of being reconciled to God and to those we've
hurt, and to be strengthened in our connection to God's entire
family. This is more than symbolic; it is spiritual reality
expressed through ritual.
Maybe there are a few people who don't need ritual
in their life, but most do. Isn't the peak of every school
year the traditional events at its end? Seniors spend weeks
planning for commencement as well as preparing the invitations,
going to the parties. It is a big event, a ritual.
A principal can, I suppose, just send the diplomas
through the mail, but most realize it is important for students
to have a ceremony. I know, when I graduated from high school,
I wanted to walk across that auditorium stage in cap and gown
and be handed my hard-earned diploma. God understands this
about us. Human beings need rituals and ceremonies to celebrate
the important moments in life.
No Mere Magic
How would you define sin? When you were young, you
might have thought of sin in terms of the breaking of Church
rules. Children's confessions often consist solely of a list
of broken commandments. As you grew, however, you probably
developed a more mature understanding of sin. As a teenager,
you understand better than a child that sin can take place
in any aspect of your life.
A lot of images have been used to explain what happens
when we sin. My grandmother told me that when she was preparing
for her first Confession she was told to think of her soul
as a white dress. When she sinned, it was like spilling grape
juice on it.
The Church provides a clearer notion. It defines
sin as a deliberate turning away from God and God's goodness.
Since God is love and only wills what is ultimately good,
sin is a rejection of love. It leads to division, conflict
and pain. These are the characteristics of life apart from
God. On the other hand, whatever is good and leads to God
In some ways, it is really hard to commit sin, because
sin involves making a conscious decision to turn away from
God and God's goodness. You do not sin when you simply make
an honest mistake. On the other hand, sometimes sin can come
quite easily, especially when you've let bad habits such as
gossiping or lying become part of your behavior.
God has given you a wonderful freedom to love him,
his creation and everyone in it. When you sin, you misuse
that freedom. Fortunately, sin doesn't have to have the last
word in your life. You can repent and turn back to God. Jesus
is there to help you make that move. Through his death, Jesus
rescued humanity to the Father. As risen Lord, he now dwells
within the Church.
The formula for absolution recounts this great mystery
of salvation. Absolution does not work like magic, but it
is amazing to realize how extraordinary God's redeeming love
for you really is.
God of Compassion
Sometimes people think of the Sacrament of Reconciliation
in terms of a criminal trial. They imagine God as the judge,
the priest as God's lawyer and the sinner as being on trial.
And they think the penance the sinner receives is punishment
for the offense committed. This idea is completely off the
There's an old saying, "God hates the sin, not the
sinner." Just as a loving mother disapproves of those destructive
behaviors which harm her child, so God condemns our sins.
So while it's true that when you sin you turn away from God,
it does not follow that God turns away from you.
The God you encounter in the Sacrament of Reconciliation
is the God of compassion. In the battle against sin, God is
on your side. That doesn't mean God is pleased by sin. Rather,
it means that, because of an overwhelming love for us, God
reaches out even further to meet us when we need our Maker
When it comes to sin, we can be sure that God is
not vengeful or spiteful but merciful and forgiving. That's
clear from the example of Jesus. Think of how he dealt with
the sinners whom he encountered.
Luke tells the story of a sinful woman who sought
out Jesus. He was eating at the home of Simon the Pharisee,
a well-established and self-righteous man in the community,
when this sinful woman showed up at the dinner party. She
was obviously uninvited. Because she had a bad reputation,
she was considered a terrible sinner and hence an outcast.
But Jesus welcomed her in.
Simon the Pharisee was outraged that Jesus would
associate with this kind of woman. But the Lord knew of her
sorrow for her sins, and her humble heart which desired healing.
Jesus said of this woman that "her many sins are forgiven;
hence, she has shown great love" (Luke 7:47).
It's About Real Life
Religion is not just about what goes on in church.
It's about your whole life, because God is everywhere. When
someone believes in God and has faith, it affects his or her
whole life. Someone who is nice in church but a jerk the rest
of the week is someone who is not fully committed to living
a Christian life. If that kind of hypocrisy turns you off,
it should. Real religion is faith expressed on a daily basis.
So, what types of things should you mention in Confession?
All aspects of life are fair game: missing Mass, sexual misconduct,
cheating on test and not trusting your own brain. Remember
that sin can be committed in any part of your life. It's not
restricted to the list of sins you might have been shown when
you were preparing for your very first Confession.
When you ignore or mistreat a classmate because
that person's of a different race, or you attempt to solve
your disagreements with your fists, that's sinful. Racial
prejudice and violence are also sins. A good examination of
conscience requires that you consider how you might have expressed
the love of Jesus and failed to do so.
The Three Elements
In your parents' day, the Sacrament of Reconciliation
was usually celebrated in private in a closet-sized space
called a confessional box. Today, there are several ways to
celebrate the sacrament. It can be completely private, in
either a confessional or reconciliation room or other suitable
place, such as an office. It can also be celebrated communally,
during a public reconciliation service which includes the
opportunity for individual confession. Depending upon the
setting, a Scripture reading or music may be included.
In any case, a few things are indispensable. A priest
is necessary, since only an ordained person has the authority
to give absolution. On your part, three essential elements
1. Be repentant. O.K., you blew it. Being
repentant is the recognition that you've made a mess of something
in your life, and you want to clean it up.
Your ability to face your sins is a good sign. A
real scoundrel doesn't feel guilty about the evil he or she
has committed. So if you're feeling bad about something you've
done, that already says something good about you.
2. Confess your sins. When you
confess your sins, you're not telling God anything God doesn't
know already. The point is to be honest with yourself, to
hear yourself name those ugly sins out loud and in the presence
of a priest who alone can provide you with the peace of absolution.
3. Accept the penance. Accepting a penance
from the priest and completing it is proof of your true sorrow.
It is a way of expressing your sincere sorrow, a way of "putting
your money where your mouth is."
Consider it this way: Suppose a friend snatched
your allowance which was in your locker. What would you think
if that friend said, "Hey, I'm sorry I stole the money. Let's
forget it." Maybe you're a nice person and you decide to cut
the kid a break. But wouldn't you also expect the money back?
Wouldn't it be crazy if your friend said, "I'm sorry.
Forgive me. Let's be friends againbut I get to keep
the money I stole." Justice demands that words of regret be
accompanied by actions which demonstrate true contrition.
True contrition itself is a dynamic reality that
seeks to turn aside from sin and evil, and to turn back to
God. Accepting and performing the penance assigned by the
priest puts us on the road to God again, our final goal.
Peace and Freedom
Sometimes people put off this sacrament or avoid
it altogether because they don't have big sins to confess.
Well, the reality is this: While most of us will never be
great saints, we'll never be great sinners either. We'll just
be ordinary sinners, but still people in need of God's healing.
If you are ever hesitant or nervous about approaching
a pnest for Reconciliation, here are a couple of things to
keep in mind. First, whatever you discuss with the priest
is under "the seal of confession" and under no circumstances
can he violate that secrecy. Second, every priest goes to
Confession, too. He knows how hard it can be. If you're not
sure how to examine your conscience or forget how to make
an Act of Contrition, tell the priest that. Priests are trained
to help you receive the sacrament. Basically, you just need
to show up with a sorrowful heart.
At some point in your life, you have probably gotten
away with something, only to end up secretly punishing yourself
for the misdeed. That's because no matter who else was fooled,
you still knew about it and so did God. That's why Jeff, who
got away with a petty theft, now finds himself feeling not
so lucky after all. Unforgiven sins have a way of haunting
Instead of beating yourself over the head with bad
feelings about past misdeeds, consider accepting the forgiveness
God offers you through Jesus.
The words of absolution recited over you will renew
your inner peace. St. Paul assures us that "whoever is in
Christ is a new creation....and all this is from God, who
has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the
ministry of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:17-18). The Sacrament
of Reconciliation can set you free.
Beth Davis (15), Will Davis (18), Lisa Lang
(14), Lucy McGeron (15) and Robyn Tuchfarber (16) all members
of WAYMAD (We Are Youth Making a Difference) at St. John the
Evangelist Parish in Deer Park, Ohio, collaborated with the
author and editor on this issue of Youth Update. Chris
Schell, parish director of religious education, convened the