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Preparing for Confession:
Taking Your Spiritual Temperature

by Rev. Thomas M. Casey

Have you ever heard the question, "Why should I confess my sins to a priest, when I can go directly to God?"

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 your conscience.

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 of.

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 Christ.

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 past mistakes.

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 sinful condition.

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 were good.

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 moral matters.

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 of conscience.

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 about?

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 life.

Thomas M. Casey, O.S.A., is an associate professor of religious studies at Merrimack College, North Andover, Massachusetts. He has also taught high school and was once a teenager himself.

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.

Q.

I often do want to tell someone what's troubling my conscience, but it does not occur to me that the "someone" be a priest. Why not go to a friend to ease my mind and ask forgiveness?

A.

If you have harmed a friend, it certainly is appropriate to ask that person to forgive you. But I think you're talking about situations involving yet another person. Your friend may be a good listener yet unable to deal with your fears or your sense of guilt. Our Catholic tradition teaches that Jesus entrusted this healing sacrament to his priests, who would be able to help the entire community--even people who could confide in no one else. The forgiveness expressed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation represents the forgiveness of Jesus.

Q.

You offer a way of taking my spiritual temperature, but haven't told me how to judge the results.

A.

Read through the list again.Try to judge which actions do the most harm to yourself and others. Do you see a difference between envying a friend and enticing that friend to try drugs? Some of these questions concern character faults and others are far more damaging to the health and happiness of others. These questions are meant to challenge teenagers at many different places in their spiritual journeys. You are the one with the most insight into where you are on that path.

Q.

What's normal In terms of what I can expect when I receive the sacrament?

A.

From my experience, the average priest would be delighted to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation with anyone who seeks him out. He would take the time to listen and to encourage you to share any concern that you have. He would be pleased by your honesty and confidence in seeking the Lord as a friend. If you feel anxious about approaching a priest, you could ask around your youth group or your classmates. You also can call ahead to make sure it's a good time, if it's outside the times when the sacrament is regularly celebrated.

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