Confession sacrament of healing
In preparation for celebrating the resurrection of Christ, Catholics around the world observe Lent — a 40-day season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. During this time, the faithful abstain from luxuries and seek a sincere inner conversion of their hearts to follow Christ. The sacrament of reconciliation is central to the Lenten season, which began on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 22, and continues to the Easter Vigil on Saturday, April 8. The time offers Catholics the opportunity to renew their relationship with God and receive His forgiving graces.
To better understand the sacrament of reconciliation, the North Texas Catholic reached out to parish priests, a high school chaplain, lay ministers, theologians, and a noted author. Their insights put the sacrament in historical perspective and can help Catholics better prepare for the spiritual healing and peace it brings to those who receive it.
Reconciliation rooted in the Gospels
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
“Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:21-23).
One of the most prevalent myths about the sacrament of reconciliation is that it was “invented” by the Catholic Church and has no Biblical basis.
But the Gospel reading above reveals Christ explicitly giving the Apostles the power to forgive and withhold forgiveness of sins, the core of confession, explained Jason Whitehead, M.A., director of Evangelization and Catechesis for the Diocese of Fort Worth.
“Jesus bound together His ministry of forgiving sins with the power of the Holy Spirit and His mission given Him by the Father,” Whitehead said. “In other words, the power given to the disciples is a continuation of Christ’s mission of forgiveness.”
Father Jack McKone, pastor of St. John the Apostle Parish in North Richland Hills, further explained that teachings about reconciliation and forgiveness can be found throughout the Gospels
“We hear in the Gospels that Jesus makes the Church itself the sacrament of reconciliation,” Fr. McKone said. “What the Church binds and loosens will be bound and loosed in heaven as well. The keys were given to the Church.
“Reconciliation is really the nature of what the Church is about and what Christ’s mission itself was about. Christ came to reconcile us to one another and to the Father.
“It’s all through the Gospels — sin divides; love and reconciliation unite.
“We refer to the Church sometimes as the ‘reconciling community,’” Fr. McKone said, “because sins are forgiven through the Church.”
He added, “The Church is comprised of sinners. We have a perfect head of the Church in Jesus Christ, but each of the living stones that make up the Church is full of fissures, cracks, and chips. So, we’re all in need of healing. We are to be healers while we’re still sick with sin. We’re in the process of being healed ourselves, even as we seek to help others.”
Fr. McKone went on to reference Christ’s teachings as told through the Gospels:
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison (Matthew 5:23-25).
“What’s interesting,” Fr. McKone said, “is that He does not say, ‘if you have offended your brother;’ He just says, ‘if your brother has anything against you.’
“Whether your brother is right or wrong in believing that you’re guilty, we are to be the initiators of reconciliation, whether we have deliberately offended or not. We’re not to wait to be convicted of an offense. We are to be proactive in seeking reconciliation.”
A good confession cleanses the soul
If you are wondering how often you should go to confession, local parish priests have some answers.
Fr. McKone explained the precept of the Church requires the faithful to go to confession at least once per year. Of course, that’s the bare minimum.
“That’s like saying we should bathe once a year,” Fr. McKone said. “My recommendation of once a month is pretty healthy. If you can’t do once a month, at least every Lent and Advent. But every month or two is much better.”
Father Ronaldo Mercado, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Arlington, made the same analogy.
“As our mortal bodies want to get rid of filthiness or uncleanliness through bodily washing or taking a bath, our soul — the Spirit that makes our body alive — should also receive frequent cleansing,” Fr. Mercado said. “We often focus on our bodies alone. We fail to check regularly the spirit that makes this body alive.”
The priest said while original sin is washed away at the sacrament of baptism, human nature has weaknesses that allow sin to creep back into our souls.
“Maintaining the life of God in us, which we call ‘grace,’ is very hard because of the many temptations around us. We fall to sin. In order to regain this grace, we need to participate in the reception of the sacraments,” Fr. Mercado said. “It helps us to live and lead a good Catholic life.”
Father Samuel Maul, parochial vicar at St. John the Apostle, made two contrasting comparisons related to the sacrament of reconciliation.
“People tend to think of the sacrament,” Fr. Maul said, “as if it were a trip to the laundromat — I come in with my dirty laundry (sins), I put them in the machine (confession), I pay with quarters (penance), and then I’m free to go about my business. This analogy fails on a number of levels. What I often tell people is that going to the sacrament of reconciliation is more akin to us climbing the hill of Golgotha and having a meeting with Jesus on the cross, a meeting which is meant to never end. … When we climb up to be back with Him, He welcomes us back with His open arms and provides us His protection and every need.”
Fr. Mercado, Fr. McKone, and Whitehead all stressed the importance of preparing for reconciliation through a serious examination of conscience. Many of our local parishes have pamphlets available that serve as guidelines for this introspective look. Numerous other sources, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic bookstores, and many Catholic websites also have aids.
Whitehead said a good examination of conscience helps the faithful recall sins that might have been pushed to the recesses of someone’s mind. In this examination, people should allow enough time in prayer to properly reflect and ask God to help them uncover their shortcomings.
The primary resource for the examination of conscience was etched in stone by God Himself in the Ten Commandments:
The tablets were made by God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets (Exodus 32:16).
Sins fall into two categories. The most serious, grave sins — mortal sins — separate people from God and His sanctifying graces.
Less severe offenses against God are termed venial sins. They injure, but do not sever, a person’s relationship with God.
Fr. McKone stressed mortal sins must be confessed to a priest in the confessional within the sacrament of reconciliation.
The priest also explained that sincere participation in Catholic Mass is an opportunity for the faithful to be forgiven of some sins.
“We start every Mass with the Rite of Penance, recognizing our common sinfulness,” said the priest. “As we enter into the sacrament of the Mass in a sincere manner, and not in a state of mortal sin, by participation we receive forgiveness,” Fr. McKone said.
“Sins are forgiven in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is Christ. It is perfect. No imperfections can exist within it. If we enter into the sacrifice of the Mass in a sincere manner and not in a state of mortal sin, we, by our participation in the Mass, receive forgiveness.”
This should not be confused with the sacrament of reconciliation, he said, which contains its own special graces and benefits of which we should avail ourselves.
“However, because the Eucharist is perfect, receiving the Eucharist and being part of the sacrifice of the Mass itself relieves us of [venial] sin,” he said.
The priest as confessor
Just as Christ entrusted His Apostles to forgive sins, priests are entrusted in the same way, explained Nikki Leafgreen, principal of St. George Catholic School in Fort Worth.
“Confessing your sins to a priest is an important part of the sacrament,” Leafgreen said. “Saying our sins out loud to the person of Christ, in the priest, helps cleanse our soul of sins that are harming us, and which we might desire to keep hidden. The priest has the opportunity to be the Good Shepherd, to care for the people by listening and showing the mercy and charity of God.”
Michelle Ebambi, RCIA coordinator at St. Joseph Parish in Arlington, quoted St. John Chrysostom, an early doctor of the Church and archbishop of Constantinople who wrote this in 387 A.D.:
Priests have received a power which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels. It was said to them: “Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose, shall be loosed.” Temporal rulers have indeed the power of binding; but they can only bind the body. Priests, in contrast, can bind with a bond which pertains to the soul itself and transcends the very heavens.
Another saint deeply involved in the sacrament of reconciliation was Padre Pio. It is estimated that the priest heard approximately 5 million confessions during his lifetime.
EWTN host and author Michael O’Neill, known in Catholic circles as “The Miracle Hunter,” told the North Texas Catholic that Padre Pio had the gift of reading souls.
“Perhaps a hidden or forgotten sin of the penitent would be revealed to him and sometimes he would, quite directly or forcefully, remind them of it so they might repent of it,” O’Neill said.
The Miracle Hunter added, “The sacrament of confession is a tremendous gift that all the faithful should take advantage of because it is a chance to start anew.”
Sometimes we ourselves may consider it to be something of a minor miracle in our own lives when God gives us the strength and inspiration to overcome the inertia, fear, or embarrassment that may hold us back from going to confession.
But miracle or not, taking advantage of this refreshing and renewing sacrament is nothing to fear when we think of it as God’s “tribunal of mercy,” as Jesus was said to call it in the Divine Mercy visions received by St. Faustina.
Fr. McKone also emphasized the faithful have nothing to fear and everything to gain by reconciling with Christ through a priest.
He explained that in the language of the Church, the priest acts in persona Christi — Latin for “in the person of Christ” — to the penitent.
“The priest, in effect, represents both Christ, the head of the Church, and the body of Christ — the Church herself,” he said. “When we confess our sins, we are confessing to the harm we have done to that body.”
Just as laity must confess their sins to a priest, so it is for pastors themselves.
“You would think one of the fringe benefits to being a priest is that you can hear your own confession. But nope, sorry, I have to go to another priest who represents the body of Christ to me, just like every other Catholic,” Fr. McKone said.
While laity receive graces and forgiveness through the sacrament of reconciliation, priests also feel God’s love through their responsibility in administering the sacrament.
“It humbles me as person,” said Fr. Mercado.
“It makes me think how I should guide and help people entrusted to me by the bishop and God to pastorally and fatherly minister to them. Being the channel of God’s healing mercy and forgiveness, I am able to see people’s willingness to be better Christians and better people of God. It also helps me devote more time to pray for the people of God.
“People live life, sometimes rough, and I can assist them through prayer, through words of encouragement, and by being an example of witnessing the love and mercy of God in my life as a priest,” Fr. Mercado concluded.
Fr. McKone expressed similar humility. He said hearing confessions makes him aware of timely, spiritual struggles of people. This, in turn, helps him formulate homilies to address common struggles of the faithful and share how the Gospel relates to them.
Fr. Maul, who was ordained in 2021, said that “besides the Eucharist itself, hearing confessions is my favorite part of being a priest. I get a front row seat to the process of God’s mercy and how intimately He loves each and every one of us. The encouragement I give to others as they face their sins and the reality of God’s mercy is frequently fodder for my own prayer life.”
Father Maurice Moon, chaplain at Nolan Catholic High School in Fort Worth, expressed the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation to his ministry.
“My whole being is wrapped up in helping souls get to heaven,” Fr. Moon said, “so when people come to confession, they are like the prodigal son who wants to be reconciled to the Father. I feel very blessed and graced to be in that moment to offer that healing forgiveness from God through my priesthood.”
A promising sign for the future
At Nolan, Fr. Moon has the unique opportunity to administer the sacrament of reconciliation to young Catholics. His experiences are promising for the present and future body of Christ’s Church.
Fr. Moon offers confession to Nolan students every Monday and Wednesday during their lunch periods and all day the first Friday of the month while they attend Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
The chaplain said on the first Fridays, about 15 students are lined up outside his office at any given time, waiting for their turn to confess their sins. Over the course of six hours, Fr. Moon said he sees as many as 100 students.
On Mondays and Wednesdays during lunch hour, it is common to see 25 students each day coming to the priest’s office for confession.
“It’s great to see so many students wanting to go to confession,” Fr. Moon said.
“It’s inspiring to see young people care about Jesus, their relationship with Him, and to receive forgiveness.
“Students are learning the importance of making a good confession. They’re going to confession regularly to grow in their faith life and to have that intimacy with God.
“Going often is helpful to our spiritual well-being,” the chaplain continued. “We receive a lot of graces. Even if we don’t have any mortal sins to confess, it’s good to confess venial sins, so we can help to overcome sinful life and receive the graces to help us get better at loving God and loving others.
“We encourage students to take advantage of the opportunities to receive those graces and to get their souls right with God. It’s a great way to receive God’s mercy.”
Over his past five years serving at Nolan, Fr. Moon said he has increased days and times that confession would be regularly available.
“Also, students know that whenever my door is open, they can come in and talk,” Fr. Moon said.
At the parishes, Fr. McKone said the COVID era presented special challenges as people isolated themselves, Masses were canceled, and activities halted.
He said, “We’re just now figuring out what some of the isolation and solo-living is causing. And we have a lot of rebuilding to do in our communities and our parishes.”
He expressed his wish to the faithful going forward:
“If you’ve been away — and a lot of people have been away the last three years because of the pandemic — don’t be afraid to approach the sacrament. You’re talking to a priest who himself has temptations and sin in his life. We all try to be welcoming and receiving of the penitent.
“The easiest thing to do that not many take advantage of is to make an appointment and talk to a priest in his office. You can meet with us in a relaxed environment. We’re here to help.”