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An Experience
of Forgiveness

by Ellen Fanizzi

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 Church.

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 is holy.

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 mark.

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 most.

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 are required.

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 again—but 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 us.

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.

Ellen Fonizzi has a Master of Divinity degree from the Jesuit school of theology at the University of Toronto and has taught religious studies at St. Ignatius College Prep, a Jesuit high school in Chicago.

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 gathering.



How long can you put off Confession? Don't some people wait until they're dying?


Throughout the Church's history, the frequency of this sacrament has varied. Your parent's generation, for example, knew Confession as a weekly, Saturday afternoon practice. Catholics are obliged to confess all mortal sins, but are encouraged to come to the sacrament often with essential venial sins, so as to receive God's mercy and grace.


You almost make it sound as though it's better to be a sinner than to try to avoid sin. Isn't sin-free a better condition than being forgiven?


Absolutely, but you presuppose that human beings have the ability to live sinless lives. Look at history and consider your own personal experience. It becomes clear that the sinless option won't work.


What are tne circumstances in which a priest would deny absolution? You mention being truly sorry. How would a priest be able to judge that?


The priest's role is to administer the sacrament. He wants to be able to give you absolution. A priest would deny absolution, however, if you can't express an honest sorrow for your sins and a resolution to try to change. Those are signs that your repentance isn't sincere.


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