Have you ever heard the question, "Why
should I confess my sins to a priest, when I can go directly
One answer is that we can talk directly to God
and ask forgiveness for the sins or faults that weigh on us.
There is allowance made for this approach in the penitential
rite at the beginning of Mass, and surveys indicate that many
Catholics use this opportunity to examine their conscience
or take their spiritual temperature and ask forgiveness. The
Church has always taught that God's love and acceptance are
available whenever anyone is truly sorry for harmful words,
deeds or attitudes.
Most of you probably find yourselves talking
to God at some point during the week, perhaps even daily.
You may ask God to help you do well on a test, to make a sports
team or just to be liked by your classmates.
Other times you may be uncertain about a decision
that you have to make and you feel the need to pray over it.
Maybe a close friend has asked you to lie to his or her parents
about being with you when the friend was really with someone
the parents disapprove of. At times like this, talking to
God will help you sort out your feelings and be honest to
At other times you find that you need to ask
someone else for advice, simply to get a second opinion about
some concern. You might ask an older brother or sister: "What
should I say when my friends pressure me to drink or try drugs?"
A Sacrament for Seeing the Truth
The priest in his role as confessor in the Sacrament
of Reconciliation can also serve as a kind of sounding board
or mirror who helps you see points you may not have thought
When you look to others, whether priest, family
or friend, it probably isn't because you doubt God. You're
checking with those you trust and respect to reassure and
inform you. God, after all, speaks to us through those around
us. So it is with the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
You sometimes need feedback from another individual
who can help you understand your feelings, examine your motives,
analyze your actions and suggest a resolution of your concerns.
Catholics believe that God is so close to creation that the
divine enters our life in the most personal manner imaginable:
God becomes a visible part of our world in the person of Jesus
This Jesus meets you in the sacraments of the
Church in order to give you the gift of his presence through
the most common elements of your daily life: water, bread
and wine, touch and speech.
Jesus gives you the Sacrament of Reconciliation
as a help because he understands that you often need to hear
a voice other than your own to assure you that you are forgiven,
that all is well and that you do not need to be haunted by
Some Family History on Reconciliation
If you are ever asked why Catholics believe
that Jesus gave us the Sacrament of Reconciliation, you can
simply refer to John 20:22, "After saying this [`As the
Father sent me, so I send you'], he breathed on them and said:
`Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven
them, and whose sins you retain are retained.' "
The early Christians had no doubt that the Lord
Jesus had left with his community the power to forgive sins.
What was not clear was the form that such forgiveness was
to take, and it is clear that the understanding of the sacrament
has evolved over centuries.
Scholars tell us that the earliest form of forgiveness
of sins was expressed through the Sacrament of Baptism. When
a person was baptized, sins were forgiven at the same time
that the person became a member of the Christian community.
As time went on, however, the question arose of what to do
about sins committed after Baptism.
Some strict Christians like Tertullian (who
lived from about 160-230 in the Christian era) taught that
some sins like murder and adultery could not be forgiven by
the Church, but his views were not accepted by the majority
of the community.
Tertullian did not prevail, but the early Church
nonetheless required a severe penance of a public nature when
a Christian confessed, usually to the bishop. This penance
might take as long as two years to fulfill, after which time
the sinner was reconciled to the community. As you might guess,
few persons were willing to undergo the embarrassment of having
everyone know that they had done something so serious that
they were not allowed to take part in worship. They often
had to stand outside the church in rags to symbolize their
As a result of this demanding tradition, which
was allowed only once in one's lifetime, most persons who
intended to become Christians would wait until they thought
they were near death and then ask to be baptized. In this
way, they had their sins forgiven. It seems that most Christians
did not consider themselves either great saints or great sinners,
and they simply avoided the rigors of public penance through
the more usual means of prayer, giving alms, fasting and attending
the eucharistic liturgy.
In the fifth century, a major change in the
form of the sacrament took place in Ireland. Here, the monks
would travel the country to hear individual confessions privately.
They would then give a penance to be performed, and when they
returned, months later, they would pray with the sinner to
ask for God's forgiveness. Gradually this practice became
popular in Europe, even though it was resisted by some Church
leaders as too lenient. By the year 1215, the Church officially
adopted this practice of private confession to a priest, but
absolution was now given after the confession of sins and
before the assigned penance was completed. This remains the
common Catholic practice today.
You may have taken part in a communal reconciliation
service in your own parish. The community gathers and, after
prayers and Scripture readings, the people are urged to reflect
upon their personal sins and faults. Afterwards there is the
opportunity for personal confession to a priest. In this way,
both the private and the communal dimensions of sin are emphasized.
A third form, which is rare, is general absolution.
In some instances, usually during wartime or where there are
many persons and few priests, individuals are asked to privately
express sorrow for their sins and then the priest absolves
the entire group at one time.
All these developments are based upon changing
circumstances, but each reflects the teaching in John's Gospel.
Be Sorry for What?
When you were younger, it seemed that something
was wrong if it caused your parents or teachers to get upset
or punish you. You may remember coming home covered with mud
and having your mother yell at you; or your teacher may have
had you stand in the corner after you kept talking during
class. If these adults praised or rewarded you, you felt you
Now that you are older, not only the approval
of your parents and teachers counts, but you also need the
acceptance of your peers to judge what is good or bad. This
is a very confusing stage for many.
In some circles, teenagers are made to feel
guilty if they spend time on their studies. In other circles,
they may be made to feel guilty if they refuse to try drugs.
Much depends on the values your peers hold, values that can
reinforce or contradict those that your parents, society or
Church have tried to give you.
Some adults seem never to have outgrown this
stage of conforming to the group, so morality becomes a matter
of loyalty to the group in order to have their approval. Ultimately,
however, it must be your conscience that determines what you
should be sorry for.
Conscience means "judging with correct
knowledge." Conscience is not a "little voice"
inside you that automatically tells you when you have done
good or bad. Conscience simply means having a sense of yourself
when you make choices, knowing that you are actively involved
in what you do and say. It is your sense of personhood in
Conscience, like speech or your sense of self,
has to be developed. It involves listening to the voices of
your parents, your community, your family and friends and
your Church in order to hear, as best you can, your own voice
as you make your choices in life. Conscience is the most sacred
space where you seek to be responsible to God and others for
who you are and what you do. Within this space, you judge
your "spiritual temperature."
Reconciliation, in or out of the sacrament,
starts with facing the facts of your behavior and attitudes
honestly and humbly. The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates
said it well: "The unexamined life is not worth living."
For Christians, the unexamined life is incapable of moral
growth and development. You would remain a "moral infant"
if you never reflected on your actions. This first step in
the Sacrament of Reconciliation is called the examination
Following the examination of conscience, where
you look clearly and honestly at your life patterns, you reach
the second step of sorrow. This step will usually be a mixture
of thinking and feeling about your choices. It is one thing
to know that you may have done something wrong, but it is
just as important to feel remorse for those things that have
gone against your conscience. In those actions where you have
hurt others, it is feeling that allows you to see things from
the viewpoint of those you may have hurt and to feel the pain
you may have caused.
This vision will help you to experience regret
for violating values and standards that you believe are crucial
to living your life in conformity with the life and teaching
of Jesus. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the priest can
help you to express your sorrow, confess your sins and receive
forgiveness in the name of Jesus the healer.
A Double Check for Your Conscience
Catholics have usually reflected upon the 10
Commandments as they prepare for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
This is a sound tradition and here I merely wish to ask some
practical questions based on the commandments and the teachings
of Jesus. These questions can help you form your own conscience
and prepare to celebrate the sacrament. Even if the questions
do not always touch on actual sin, they help us form our conscience
by weighing moral values.
This list does not tell your temperature precisely,
but it does help you to recognize some symptoms of spiritual
or moral "illness." When you read these questions,
do you feel unmoved or unaware that such a question touches
on your spiritual condition? Do you want to excuse yourself
from responsibility for your answers? Do you find yourself
thinking of ways to change your attitudes or behaviors so
that your answers reflect your deepest beliefs?
If you find yourself resolving to be more loving,
you are basically healthy. If you become aware of ways that
you treat others as possessions or have deliberately damaged
the reputation of others, this is a moment of grace for admitting
poor moral "health" and praying for the strength
to seek help.
1. Do you worship the "false gods"
of status, consumerism or peer approval? Do you ignore or
avoid old friends in order to be part of the popular crowd?
Do you make unreasonable demands on your parents for clothes
or money, or feel no responsibility to save for your college
education? Do you give support to your peers when they tell
racial or ethnic jokes? Do you indifference toward the poor
and thinking them "losers" by social show disgust
or homeless, standards? Why do you find it hard to see the
value in those who are different from you?
2. Do you use language that you would never
speak in front of your grandmother? Is this choice prompted
by the violence of the vocabulary, its low opinion of others,
its insulting character? Why do you choose such language?
3. Do you skip Mass because few of your friends
go to church or because you feel that the gift of God's presence
should be as entertaining as MTV? Why do you think Jesus gave
us the Eucharist?
4. Do you thank your parents for what they do
for you? Do you offer to help around the house or do you see
yourself as a guest? If your parents are divorced, separated
or widowed, do you try to understand their pain or loneliness?
Why do you try to impress others and yet have little sense
of the needs of those in your family?
5. Do you value your life and that of others?
Do you drink and drive or travel with those who do? Do you
fool with drugs and pretend that doing so does not affect
your grades, your self-respect or your relationships? Have
you ever hit your girlfriend or boyfriend? Why do you feel
the need to control or humiliate someone you claim to care
6. Do you use other persons for your own selfish
pleasure? Do you lie to get sex or force others to act against
their values? Do you see sex as a way to be popular or to
rebel against your parents? What do you think the casual use
of your body or that of another says about your self-worth?7.
Do you cheat on tests or homework assignments? Do you ever
shoplift or take things belonging to your parents, your family
or other students? How do you feel about yourself after you
do these things?
7. Do you cheat on tests or homework assignments?
Do you ever shoplift or take things belonging to other students?
How do you feel about yourself after you do these things?
8. Do you gossip or pass on rumors that hurt
another's reputation? Can you be trusted to keep a confidence
after you promise? Do you lie to protect your own ego, even
if someone will be hurt? Why are you upset if you are the
victim of such actions?
9. Are you envious of others? Do you resent
their popularity or success? Do you feel you have to put others
down in order to feel better about yourself? How do you feel
inside when you do?
10. Do you resent your parents when they tell
you that they cannot afford to buy the things that you feel
you need to keep up with your friends? Do you ever ask your
parents what their financial worries are?
Forgiveness Is Freeing
One sign of your moral maturity is the ability
to see things clearly, to be honest with yourself and to hear
the insights and challenges of others in a non-defensive manner.
That can be difficult unless you can trust others to respect
your attempts to be true to yourself.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is an invitation
to place yourself in God's gentle presence. Because Jesus
wishes to heal your broken parts, so that you can be made
whole and confident, he offers you God's assurance of acceptance
through the words and absolution of a priest who is, like
you, aware of his own need for forgiveness.
Jesus taught that "the truth will set you
free" (John 8:32). It is this freedom from selfcenteredness
and selfishness that is given you when you examine your conscience,
express genuine regret and seek divine forgiveness for whatever
hinders your relationship to God and to your fellow human
beings. A firm purpose of changing those patterns and completing
the assigned penance concludes the reception of the sacrament.
This experience will make real and immediate the promise of
Jesus: "I came so that they might have life and have
it more abundantly" (John 10:10).
God is always present and you are always free
to speak to God in the quiet places of your heart. Yet there
will be times when you may feel the need to take your "spiritual
temperature" and seek a more tangible assurance of divine
forgiveness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
In both these ways, God seeks to remove your
fears and guide you into the future, confident that you are
loved and comfortable with the call of living the Christian
Youth Update advisers who previewed
this issue, suggested changes and asked questions of the author
are Jessi Rau and Cara Watson. Both are members of St. Rita
Parish in Dayton, Ohio, where Karen Sipos is youth minister.