Video: Pope Francis goes to Confession — and why we should, too

Talk about setting a good example.

Pope Francis, after presiding a penitential service (not equivalent to Confession, but leading to it) as part of the “Festival of Forgiveness” that started yesterday, unexpectedly goes to Confession!

The master of ceremonies, who was leading the Pope to his assigned confessional where he would hear confessions, was for a split second kind of disoriented, when the Holy Father detoured to a nearby confessional. The Pope knelt and is seen making his Confession to a (lucky) priest. The rite reportedly lasted a few minutes.

Now isn’t that a perfect keynote to the “Festival of Forgiveness”?!

So what are we waiting for? Let’s go to Confession!

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Pope Francis’ ‘celebration of forgiveness’

And so, Pope Francis promises not a climax, but a powerful ignition, of a wild campaign of mercy.

Some days ago (sorry I couldn’t blog quickly enough!), the Holy Father announced in his Sunday Angelus that March 28-29 will be a “celebration of forgiveness.”

Pope Francis as champion of Confession. Photo from patheos.com

Pope Francis as champion of Confession. Photo from patheos.com

From midnight of March 28 to midnight of March 29, St Peter’s Basilica and various churches and parishes the world over will have prayer sessions and Confessions galore. Priests will be available to hear confessions.

Pope Francis calls the event “24 hours for the Lord.”

I really hope that bishops and parish priests would look at this as the signal to open the dams of God’s mercy and make the Sacrament of Confession available in all parishes regularly (if possible, daily!) — no more “by appointment only” Confessions!

Confession in the Lenten season

Lent is the most intense season in the Church’s calendar. It is the 40-day preparation for Easter, which is the most important feast in Christendom (no, m’friends, Christmas isn’t the most important).

Lent is when liturgical stuff are also toned down dramatically, in order to manifest the austere solemnity of this Easter preps. This austerity also traces its origin to the 40 days which Jesus spent in the desert, fasting and praying and finally conquering ever so wisely the devil’s temptations.

The temptation of Christ depicted on a 12th century mosaic at St Mark's Basilica in Venice. Photo from wikipedia.com

The temptation of Christ depicted on a 12th century mosaic at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Photo from wikipedia.com

During Lent, altar flowers are replaced with mere branches or leaves, or none at all. Priests are dressed in solemn and royal purple vestments. Music is brought to being mere accompaniment — no tinkling bells or clanging cymbals. Even the Gloria in the Mass is omitted.

The message of all these austerities, of course, is this: it is time for deeper reflection, considering the extent of God’s love for us (up to the Cross!) and allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us to conversion. In a nutshell, it is time for more intense penance.

And what penance is more concrete than a sincere and heartfelt Confession?

Jesus in the wilderness. Lent is the best time to make the habit of praying -- that is, REALLY talking to God -- regularly. Image from  life2christ.org

Jesus in the wilderness. Lent is the best time to make the habit of praying — that is, REALLY talking to God — regularly. Image from life2christ.org

If you haven’t done it yet, please go to Confession this Lenten season. Going to Confession will help us live better the three elements of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It is also most helpful in fostering the virtues most appropriate in this season — the virtues of humility, simplicity, and docility. With Confession, our Lenten journey will become more fruitful and meaningful.

So, let’s go!

Sin and Lifehack’s top-tens

What is sin? It is going against God’s commandments. Simple.

And what are these commandments? The famous Ten, of course.

The Ten Commandments of God. Photo from catholictothemax.com

The Ten Commandments of God. Image from catholictothemax.com

Of course, these commandments are like pigeon-hole drawers or locker boxes. Each is representative of a set of related sins, says one spiritual writer. For example, in the first commandment (which is to love God above all things), the sins of despair, belief in superstitions, practice of black magic, etc. are grouped together. Thus the sins of adultery, masturbation, and pornography are lumped together in the sixth commandment. And so on.

So if we violate any of those “pigeon holes”, we commit sin.

Moses receives the Ten Commandments by João Zeferino da Costa. Image from wikipedia.com

Moses receives the Ten Commandments. By João Zeferino da Costa. Image from wikipedia.com

And definitely, God did not make those rules just because. Unlike some sadistic high school teachers (may they be converted, those lovely pitiful beings!), God gave Moses those commandments as any manufacturer would to a user of its product. God gave us life on earth; he also gave us a manual on how to live it.

Believe it or not, the Ten Commandments (or the Decalogue, as theology buffs would say) are our guidelines to live a happy life here on earth, a life which leads to the perfectly happy and everlasting Life in heaven. They’re God’s version of Lifehack’s top-tens.

And that, my friends, is the summary of this thing called “sin”, which is the only real evil. I end abruptly.

How often should one go to Confession?

Here are three easy-to-remember points, ladies and gents.

1. Quite simply, we have to go to Confession if we know we have committed a mortal or grave sin. Such sin can only be forgiven in Confession.

2. What the Church also requires is that we go to Confession once a year (CCC 1457). And perhaps she has in mind that we do this before or in the Easter season, in which she requires us to receive Holy Communion (we are required to receive Communion at least once a year, specifically in this season). As you probably know, one cannot receive Holy Communion in the state of mortal sin. So one has to be in the state of grace first — received through Confession — in order to receive Holy Communion.

(I once questioned why the heck we have all these “requirements”. Then I realized — Confession as the embrace of our Father God, and Communion as the tangible self-giving of the Maker of the universe — what stupid question!)

A priest takes a break from hearing Confessions during the World Youth Day in Madrid in 2011. Photo from Catholic Church England and Wales

A priest takes a break from hearing Confessions during the World Youth Day in Madrid in 2011. Photo from http://www.flickr.com/photos/catholicism/

3. What the Church strongly recommends, however, is that we go to Confession once a month. This is just about enough for the Christian to follow an OK path to sanctity. Going to Confession in this frequency — whether or not one has committed mortal sin — can already help her or him to stay on track to holiness. Of course, this takes for granted that the person is also intensely striving to improve in other aspects of Christian life, such as in prayer, good works, apostolate, and especially, the Holy Mass.

But depending on one’s conscience, a Christian can always decide to go more frequently than once a month. Pope Francis goes to Confession every two weeks. Blessed John Paul II went every week. St. Josemaria Escriva even said sometimes he would go more than once a week, when he thought he needed it. It’s important to note that Confession isn’t just about having our sins forgiven, but also about receiving actual graces.

Blessed John Paul II hears a confession at the Vatican. Photo from www.fatimacrusader.com

Blessed John Paul II hears a confession at the Vatican. Photo from http://www.fatimacrusader.com

In conclusion, then, frequent and regular Confession is beneficial to everyone. The minimum is set by the Church to, I guess, remind us how much we’re missing if we only go to Confession once a year, or less. That minimum requirement is an invitation for us to reconsider the true nature of Confession, which is astoundingly beautiful! And once we see that beauty, then we can decide to go monthly, or more frequently than that.

I will write a separate post specifically on frequent Confession in the future. For now, let’s settle with the basics. OK?

The tomb of Lazarus and the confessional

Many times we’ve heard it said that Jesus is the Divine Physician. He heals any wound. He restores health to the weak. He makes impaired people physically whole. He is the awesome Dr. Jesus Christ!

But this divine healing is most manifest in Confession, where we find Jesus Christ who heals us of the wounds caused by sin. There he dresses our gashed souls. Like the Good Samaritan to the mugged man, he anoints our wounds with the oil of compassion.

But then, even better, Jesus Christ resurrects us, in a sense, in Confession. This is particularly true if we had the misfortune of falling into mortal sin and are thus spiritually dead — like a branch cut off the vine. When we confess all our mortal sins, Christ makes our soul alive again and able to absorb grace like sponge in a stream.

Amazing, right?

Lazarus rises from the dead! (Image from Jean Louis Mazieres)

Lazarus rises from the dead! (Image from Jean Louis Mazieres)

So now let’s think of the confessional as the tomb from which came Lazarus, Jesus’ friend and brother of Martha and Mary. He was dead for days; people were sure the body already stunk. But Jesus’ mercy knew no physical law of decomposition. Jesus brought Lazarus back to life.

In Confession, by Jesus’ mercy, we too are brought back to life, fragrant with peace.

How the soul is washed in Confession

Another metaphor of Confession that I saw some years back is in a short (music) video of a girl whose body (clothed, of course) gradually became dirty with sins — literally.

The words “pride”, “envy”, and others, were appearing on her face and body one by one, until she was barely recognizable. Distraught, she takes a cool wash at the sink. The tattoo-looking words (henna?) slid off her skin and into the drain.

"The two rays denote Blood and Water. The pale ray stands for the Water which makes souls righteous..." - St. Faustina Kowalska

“The two rays denote Blood and Water. The pale ray stands for the Water which makes souls righteous…” – St. Faustina Kowalska (Image from http://www.patrick-button.blogspot.com)

Yes, Confession is like taking a bath. You remember the water (along with blood) that flowed out of Jesus’ heart when he was hanging on the Cross (John 19:34)? The Church has always seen it as the symbol of the life that Christ brings to everyone through the Sacraments. But we can also look at it as the symbol of his mercy that washes away our sins. It’s the same water that flowed out of that girl’s faucet.

We wash our hands before enjoying a meal. Let’s wash our souls in Confession to enjoy God’s grace!

(Dang, I still can’t find the vid — sorry — it was on YouTube!)

Why to a priest and not ‘directly to God’?

We often hear this question among our non-Catholic friends. Sometimes it’s even from some of our Catholic friends. You probably asked this yourself. I know I did.

“Why can’t I just confess directly to God?” I said aloud. But at the back of my mind I continued  “– so I don’t have to humiliate myself before a man who is probably more sinful than I am.”

Okay. I know how you feel, buddy.

Let me explain by slicing (to irrelevance, hehe) that quoted statement above.

Outdoor Confessions during the World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid.

Outdoor Confessions during the World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid. Photo from Catholic Church England and Wales

First of all, confessing “to a priest” is confessing directly to God. Not that the priest is God, but that Christ wanted his minister, the priest, to act in his name and person. “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Mt 16:19),” Christ told his apostles, whose ‘descendants’ are our bishops and priests. Confessors —  that is, priests and bishops who hear Confessions — are mere instruments of God’s mercy shown in Confession. Jesus Christ wants us to actually hear him forgiving us!

As for that second part of the statement — “so I don’t have to humiliate myself before a man who is probably more sinful than I am.” Well, we are probably right that our confessor is more sinful. But can we please let God judge him instead? Who are we to judge the priest? Besides, the effectiveness of the Sacrament doesn’t depend on the holiness (or lack of it) of the priest, but on the mercy of God alone.

For now let us look at ourselves, who feel the need of a sincere acknowledgement that we are miserable sinners, thirsty for God’s forgiveness. Believe it or not, we need to be humiliated in order to repent deeply. Look at the prodigal son. On his return to his father, he humiliated himself, saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” The boy faced his father! He didn’t write a letter or thought to himself that his father had already forgiven him just because he knew his father was such a good man. He actually returned home!

Exit to safety. Photo: Hans Dinkelberg

Exit to safety. Photo: Hans Dinkelberg

So that shame or embarrassment we feel when going to Confession — that’s natural. We worry if we don’t have it; it could mean we’re not really sorry about sinning. Pope Francis said, “Even embarrassment is good. It’s healthy to have a bit of shame… it does us good, because it makes us more humble.”

In the end, then, confessing to a priest helps us to become humble. And then — wonder of wonders — the priest, too, is helped to become humble. I heard it from some priest friends that they are indeed humbled by their penitents (of course, they said it in a very general way, lest they toe the line of their secrecy vow). Oh, the amount of humble trust that penitents gave them! And the even greater trust that God gives them in order to carry out his continuous act of forgiving!

Confession as sacrament of forgiveness

My favorite parable has got to be the one of the Prodigal Son. You know the story. Boy gets his inheritance, boy squanders it, boy repents and goes back to father, father welcomes him back.

This story also happens to be the closest metaphor to what happens in Confession.

We offend God, but God welcomes us back — if we repent and sincerely return to him. But like the father in the parable, he doesn’t force us to come home; he waits at the door. Today he’s right there on the other door of the confessional (if your church has those traditional confession boxes, anyway).

Embed from Getty Images

The sad thing, though, is that many times we get stuck halfway through the process. We stop at the squandering-and-becoming-sad part. Or, at best, at the repentance part. No actual return to the Father whatsoever.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

[Confession] is called the sacrament of forgiveness, since by the priest’s sacramental absolution God grants the penitent ‘pardon and peace.’ (1424)

In order for our mortal or grave sins to be forgiven, we need the priest’s absolution. It’s that moment when he says “I absolve you of your sins,” or words to that effect.

And you know what? Nothing beats hearing the person we offended tell us that he has forgiven us! The priest, as minister of Christ, acts in the name and the person of Christ, whom we offended when we sinned. So it’s really Christ, God, who forgives us in Confession.

Embed from Getty Images

Confession is also helpful for us, poor sinners, who have to accuse ourselves of sins, so that we can become truly humble. This private humiliation — a secret between you, the priest (who will most likely forget immediately the sins you just told him), and God — can lead us to greater trust in God’s mercy and help afterwards.

Besides, as Pope Francis said, in Confession we also get reconciled with the Church, because we also hurt the Church — the People of God — whenever we sin. And it is in Confession where we can have those wounds healed through the representative of the Church, the priest.

Actually, even at a non-spiritual way of looking at Confession, the Sacrament spares us from sure insanity in difficult times. Things that weight heavily in our soul have to be unburdened somewhere, to someone. And who else is more worthy of being our confidant than Jesus Christ himself?

So every time you hear the word “Confession”, think about the repentant son who came home — to be lavished by his father with kisses, a tight embrace, and everything sonship entails.

Disclaimer extended (or, Read the Catechism)

When it comes to doctrine, there is no simpler and more authoritative reference than the Catechism — which is, of course, a summary of teachings from Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

So I encourage you to read that treasure trove of doctrine. And, trust the Patron Saint of Cool, Blessed John Paul II (he asked it to be compiled by no less than the future Pope Benedict XVI), it’s an eye-opening and faith-deepening read. Or, if you want a more digestible version of it, you can get a copy of its Compendium (or summary), which is in a Q&A format.

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So why am I bringing this up? Because I would like to say that if you smell anything funny about my posts, you’ll know what to consult. I may not be able to explain things well enough, or I might not be totally right — so a correction would be most welcome and helpful to me and the other readers. 🙂

But then, just to emphasize my point earlier, read the Catechism. If you find it dense or too technical, don’t worry. Pray about what you’ve read anyway, and go back to it some other time. It worked for me. On my first encounter with the thick book, my eyes bled — know what I mean? But when I returned to the text after a while (I mean weeks, even months), it was like discovering a well in a desert.