The recent Covid-pandemic has shone the significance of confession into sharp relief. Limited access to the sacrament left the faithful yearning to take part of the reconciling gift of God. Many parishes took to ingenuity to make the sacrament accessible within the parameters of the restrictions. The availability of the confessional, however, was not always evident. As someone living in a seminary building with many priests at the time, it was easy to take confession for granted. I was often told from people outside that the situation was not so simple. This may be a historical, and unfortunate, anomaly, but one that in fact is of wider concern. A striking paradox is that through sermons we are often prompted to go to confession as often as possible, that one cannot receive the body of Christ when in a state of mortal sin, and that if we die with sins unconfessed we risk eternal perdition; yet, many priests don’t offer the very sacrament in nearly enough a rate as is demanded. Often, this is through no fault of their own owing to a deficit in priests.
A common accusation levelled against Catholics is that we have an easy excuse ready at hand: “sin as much as you want, you can always confess later!” This attitude reveals a real lack of understanding of the nature of the sacrament, and also of human nature. The genius of the Church is that it never denies humanity, but rather elevates it. We are fallen beings with weaknesses. We know that we are capable of horrendous acts towards one another and towards ourselves. Hence, recognising this, the Church provides a divine tribunal where we can ask for forgiveness once we have truly recognised our sins. We cannot sin by mistake, and the Church has strict criteria for types and gravity of sin.
The brilliant atheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens recognised that everyone is ‘fully familiar with the religious practitioner who can’t or doesn’t live up to the merits of his creed. There’s nothing innately paradoxical in that.’ Sadly, although Hitchens correctly identified the flaws of humanity, he thought they affected the strength of religion, writing that a ‘creed is only as morally strong as the person who happens to be uttering it.’ The strength in our creed is that there is a recognition of the importance of forgiveness, and a practical means whereby it can be attained.
The true difficulty with confession is not realising that we are weak and can at times feel hypocritical for not being perfect. Instead, the difficulty is that although we may know that we have been forgiven, we still carry the scars of our past sins. The sins may be washed away in the eyes of God, once we have been contrite and fulfilled our penance, but guilt for past mistakes, actively bad choices, and transgressions, can weigh us down. Here a sense of trust must take root. When we hurt a loved one, we tend to ask forgiveness. The relationship may have suffered some set-back, but if we make amends this sense of wrongdoing will be short-lived. So it is with confession, except in this case we have the infinite mercy and paternal kindness of God to meet us.
Confession can seem difficult. Impossible even. A flaw on our part is that we tend to see things from our limited perspective, aware of our imperfections. One of these difficulties, written in the fibres of humanity, is a struggle to forgive. This is why Our Lord was so emphatic about the value of forgiveness. When we meet God in the confessional, we ought to remember that we are elevated to a divine forgiveness, because we leave behind the flawed, limited, and even cynical views of forgiveness, that are prevalent in our fallen world.
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