Confession and the early Christians (or, Dudes who went to Confession before Pope Francis made it cool)

The saddest thing about ignorance is that it often leads to hate.

That’s why it irks me big time when people say that Confession was “invented” in the Middle Ages, so that people would share their dirty little secrets and “useful” information to their equally corrupt clergy.

I've always admired the early Christians. Close enough to Jesus's time and far enough to see the billion-strong membership that is fruit of their faithfulness to God. And they're the original Catholic hipsters. :P Photo by Roger Jolly on Flickr under CC BY 2.0

I’ve always admired the early Christians. They were close enough to Jesus’ time yet far enough from seeing the billion-strong membership that is the fruit of their faithfulness to God. And they’re the original Catholic hipsters. ūüėõ Photo by Live Action Hero¬†on Flickr under CC BY 2.0

Truth is, Confession has been here — at least in its rudiments — since biblical times! And even before Jesus instituted it formally, St John the Baptist already heard people’s confessions before he baptized them in the Jordan River. (Of course, his version of confession rite was merely symbolic of the people’s repentance, with no effects equal to those of the Sacrament¬†which Jesus would institute years later.)

Immediately after Jesus ascended to heaven, the first Christians were already encouraging each other to go to Confession. They looked at the Sacrament as necessary for salvation. Their faith was sincere and simple, as can be gleaned in these quotes from some early Christians:

“If the serpent, the devil, bites someone secretly, he infects that person with the venom of sin. And if the one who has been bitten keeps silence and does not do penance, and does not want to confess his wound . . . then his brother and his master, who have the word [of absolution] that will cure him, cannot very well assist him.
– St Jerome, Commentary on Ecclesiastes 10:11 [AD 388]

It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God‚Äôs mysteries is entrusted. Those doing penance of old are found to have done it before the saints. It is written in the Gospel that they confessed their sins to John the Baptist [Matt. 3:6], but in Acts [19:18] they confessed to the apostles.”
– St Basil the Great, Rules Briefly Treated 288 [AD 374]

Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience. . . . I beseech you, brethren, let everyone who has sinned confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession is still admissible, while the satisfaction and remission made through the priests are still pleasing before the Lord.”
РSt Cyprian of Carthage, The Lapsed 28 [AD 251]

“[A final method of forgiveness], albeit hard and laborious [is] the remission of sins through penance, when the sinner…¬†does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine, after the manner of him who say, ‚ÄėI said, “To the Lord I will accuse myself of my iniquity.”
– Origen, Homilies on Leviticus 2:4 [AD 248]

“[Regarding confession, some] flee from this work as being an exposure of themselves, or they put it off from day to day. I presume they are more mindful of modesty than of salvation, like those who contract a disease in the more shameful parts of the body and shun making themselves known to the physicians; and thus they perish along with their own bashfulness.”
– Tertullian, Repentance 10:1 [AD 203]

Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. . . . On the Lord‚Äôs Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure.”
– The Didache 4:14, 14:1 [A.D. 70]

These quotes were culled from Catholic.com

At last — a free app about Confession!

Some days back, I was exploring the App Store aimlessly when I stumbled upon the most awesome Confession-related app I’ve ever seen: ConfessionGuide.

ConfessionGuide for your iPad and iPhone! Image from St Josemaria Institute website

ConfessionGuide for your iPad and iPhone! Image from St Josemaria Institute website

It’s free(!!!), it’s compact, and it has all the steps to making a good Confession, from examination of conscience to ways on dealing with post-Confession euphoria. Okay, I made up that last part. It actually has a short note on what to do right after Confession, namely, giving thanks to God, etc. Aaand it also has a built-in reminder for your next Confession. You just set it up according to your taste: weekly, monthly, whatever.

The app was developed by St Josemaria Institute of Opus Dei. All the better. A fan of St Josemaria Escriva myself, I’ve always looked up to Opus Dei as a solid and loyal guide when it comes to pursuing saintly awesomeness.

Download the app now!

(Sorry, Android friends, the app doesn’t seem to be on Google Play yet. But I’m contacting the developers about the need to release your version.)

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Confession

I’ve always considered myself part of Generation BXVI — those of us who discovered the beauty of the Faith during the pontificate and through the teachings of the now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

Wait -- what? Pope Benedict XVI reads his resignation notice during a consistory on February 11, 2013. Photo from dailymail.co.uk

Wait — what? Pope Benedict XVI reads his resignation notice during a consistory on February 11, 2013. Photo from dailymail.co.uk

(Bee-Ex-Vee-Ai! Sounds so snazzy!)

That’s why I really couldn’t help tearing up a bit as he left the Vatican last year.

He is an amazingly humble man — and a hipster pope in many ways, starting with his choice of footwear (red) and including, of course, the rare way he ended his pontificate (with a resignation notice written in Latin!). And all that, certainly, being a manifestation of his humility.

But all those wonderful qualities aside, it’s his diamond-like brilliance — clear and incisive — coupled with an evident piety, which impresses me the most. He can discuss the same stuff with his fellow theologians and then with children with such oomph and depth that it hits you softly the first time, then as seconds pass by you feel the impact more and more, and then you feel certain that you can think and pray about what he said for the next few days. His words — very much like Jesus’ — are inebriating! (In a good way.)

This brilliance and piety he displayed, for example, when he talked about Confession precisely in separate get-togethers with theologians and children during his papacy.

To the children, who had just received their First Communion, he explained why regular Confession is good, even if we end up confessing the same sins.

It is true: Our sins are always the same, but we clean our homes, our rooms, at least once a week, even if the dirt is always the same; in order to live in cleanliness, in order to start again. Otherwise, the dirt might not be seen but it builds up.

Something similar can be said about the soul, for me myself: If I never go to confession, my soul is neglected and in the end I am always pleased with myself and no longer understand that I must always work hard to improve, that I must make progress. And this cleansing of the soul which Jesus gives us in the sacrament of confession helps us to make our consciences more alert, more open, and hence, it also helps us to mature spiritually and as human persons.

Confession being like regular house cleaning! How vivid and simple can you get to explain frequent Confession?

Then Pope Benedict XVI exits a temporary confessional where he administered the Sacrament to four pilgrims of the World Youth Day in Madrid. Photo from CNS / L'Osservatore Romano

Ho-hum. Pope Benedict XVI exits from a temporary confessional where he administered the Sacrament to four pilgrims of the World Youth Day in Madrid. Photo from CNS / L’Osservatore Romano

And then to priests and bishops, he remarked that Confession is something wherein it is not only the penitent who receives some benefit, but the priest as well. He said, “The celebration of the sacrament of Penance has a pedagogical value for the priest, as regards his faith, as well as the truth and poverty of his person, and nourishes within him an awareness of the sacramental identity.”

His other words from that meeting with confessors:

The faithful and generous availability of priests to hear confessions ‚ÄĒ after the example of the great saints of the past from St John Mary Vianney to St John Bosco, from St Josemar√≠a Escriv√° to St Pius of Pietrelcina, from St Joseph Cafasso to St Leopold Mandińá ‚ÄĒ shows all of us that the confessional may be a real ‚Äúplace‚ÄĚ of sanctification.

[…]

Basically, hearing confession means witnessing as many professiones fidei as there are penitents, and contemplating the merciful God’s action in history, feeling tangibly the saving effects of the Cross and of the Resurrection of Christ, in every epoch and for every person.

[…]

Then, how much the priest can learn from exemplary penitents: through their spiritual life, the seriousness with which they carry out their examination of conscience, the transparency with which they admit their sins and their docility to the Church’s teaching and to the confessor’s instructions.

I’m sure he has more profound stuff about the Sacrament of Confession, but obviously I have not yet read his library of theological books — all written by himself!

Soon-to-be Pope St John Paul II and why he used to confess once a week

I watched his funeral on TV, and I became interested to learn more about my faith. That was Blessed John Paul II’s first miracle for me. The next one¬†was the election of¬†Pope Benedict XVI.

One of the most charismatic persons in modern times, the future Pope St John Paul II also knew his shortcomings and went to Confession like all other sinners who want to become saints. Photo by Dennis Jarvis on Flickr

One of the most charismatic persons in modern times, the future Pope St John Paul II also knew his shortcomings and went to Confession like all other sinners who want to become saints. Photo by Dennis Jarvis on Flickr

And on Sunday Pope John Paul II will finally be declared a saint, along with Pope John XXIII.

Everyone, of course, thinks he should be. Even while he was still alive, he was labeled along with Mother (now Blessed) Teresa of Calcutta¬†a¬†“living saint.”

The miracles and his other virtues aside, one remarkable aspect of Pope John Paul II was his love for the Sacrament of Penance or Confession. He was known to go to Confession once a week.

In a forum in 2004, he said: It would be illusory to desire to reach holiness — according to the vocation that each one has received from God — without partaking frequently of this sacrament of conversion and sanctification.” He added that together with¬†the Holy Eucharist, “[Confession]¬†accompanies the path of the Christian towards perfection.”

His Apostolic Exhortation¬†Reconciliation and Penance¬†is another testament to his desire for Catholics to find¬†God’s mercy in Confession and acts of penance. (I still haven’t yet read it in full, but so far so good!)

Also, if we were so edified¬†by Pope Francis’ unexpected Confession last March, imagine how such a saint as JP2 must have also walked his talk.

I remember an anecdote about how Pope John Paul II invited a group of priests to dinner. One of the priests brought along a man he had met only a few days ago; the man was actually a priest who had gone astray many years ago and was now in the streets of Rome begging for alms. Long story short, the priest-turn-beggar-turned-lucky-man-to-have-dinner-with-the-pope was pulled aside by the Supreme Pontiff. Pope John Paul II confessed¬†to him!¬†The priest was at first hesitant since he had long ago been deprived of the “faculty” to hear confession, but the Pope said he was the Bishop of Rome and he could restore that faculty! Later on — though I’m not 100% sure — the priest himself was restored to his diocese.

I still get goosebumps when I hear this story.

Missing the Mass

Today and tomorrow — Good Friday and Holy Saturday — there will be no Mass. No bread and wine will be turned into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ.¬†

On Good Friday, the Crucifix is placed on or in front of the altar. We venerate it by genuflecting. Photo by Fr Lawrence Lew on CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

On Good Friday, the Crucifix is placed on or in front of the altar. We venerate it by genuflecting. Photo by Fr Lawrence Lew on CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

(The Easter Vigil Mass — which will be held on Saturday night — is of course a Mass, but it’s already considered a Mass for the next day.)

No Mass for two days! 

It may sound unremarkable and so-what-ish, but it is a big deal.

The Mass the “source and summit of the Christian life,” says the Catechism. It is towards the Mass that all Sacraments — including Confession, of course — are oriented. All the Sacraments are there so that we can all participate well in the Holy Eucharist as one People of God.

The thing is, the Holy Mass is sooooo immensely rich and profound that creating a separate blog about it (All About the Holy Mass!) seems like an inevitable future for me. In fact, I thought about making this blog so that more and more people can fully participate in the Mass! (I guess you know that if we think we have committed a mortal sin, we are not allowed to receive Communion.)

I said the Holy Mass is sooooo immensely rich and profound, but for the sake of this post and in light of today’s commemoration (the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ), here are three of hundreds of reasons why the Mass seems so underrated now:

  • Knowing that he was about to die, how lovingly must Jesus have done all he did in this meal! (If you know who painted this, please tell me! I like it. Thanks.)

    Knowing that he was about to die, how lovingly must Jesus have done all he did in this meal! (If you know who painted this, please tell me! I like it. Thanks.)

    It is the best physical Gift of our Lord! He leaves not photos of himself, or a lock of hair, or teddy bears with love notes, but himself, his very self. He left, yet he remains with us in the Blessed Sacrament (better than Skype).

  • It is the closest thing to heaven itself! If in heaven we become one with but God, so do we in Holy Communion, if we have the right disposition. The only difference seems to be just that here we are still mortal — subject to death and sin and time — and the Sacred Host is dissolved into our poor bodies. Our senses cannot grasp the mind-blowing supernatural reality that happens to us when we receive Communion, that’s why we can still comment that the Host is bland.
  • It is the best reality happening on earth! Imagine all the glories of Michael Jackson and Beyonce’s concerts (okay, don’t imagine too much), and the majesty of all the royalties in the world now and in the past, and all the World Youth Days and papal visits — all those are nothing compared to one simple Mass. I think it was St John Mary Vianney who said that Creation itself (that is, Genesis and all its ‘effects’ — the universe!) pales in comparison to a single Mass. Because in Creation, no-thing was turned into being; while in the Mass, poor things — bread and wine — are turned/transubstantiated into God, the Creator and Master of the Universe himself!

*Panting*

So there.

I invite you to read more about the Holy Mass. Writings by saints like St John Mary Vianney, St Josemaria Escriva, St Therese of Liseux, and St Thomas Aquinas are sure to inspire you to be more attentive at such an ordinary- and simple-looking rite.

Sometimes I get a kick out of imagining the above saints and their peers and all the angels in heaven in an eternal gasp as we, sinners on earth, receive Communion.

FessTime Project: A campaign to set a regular time for Confession in all churches and chapels

Nothing can more frustrating than a time when we are so ready to return to God, and find no schedule for Confession at the local church.

Or, if there is such a schedule, find no priest at the confessional at the scheduled time!

"Egad! But it's 5:30!"

“Egad! But it’s 5:30!”

And no, setting an appointment with the priest wouldn’t work — especially for the shy-type long-lost penitent.

God’s mercy poured forth in Confession has to be regularly available to all the faithful, just like the Holy Mass.

So join FessTime Project, our campaign in requesting parishes and chaplaincies to set a regular schedule for Confession every week — or even daily!

This campaign can work in three easy steps:

  1. Download this super-light template letter.
  2. Edit to your parish’s or chapel’s circumstances.
  3. Print and hand it to your parish office or chaplaincy.

It’s. That. Easy!

Everybody happy!

Everybody happy!

But, of course, this campaign is no longer applicable to churches and chapels that have — thank God — regular schedules for Confession.

It’s time we get to appreciate Confession better. It’s time to have regular Confession schedules in all churches and chapels.

FessTime Project. It’s time.

[FessTime Project banner image adapted from Steve Ranson on Flickr under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

How to do an examination of conscience before Confession

There are as many ways to examine your conscience before Confession as there are ways to skin a cat.

Okay, wrong comparison. (I assure you I don’t skin cats.)

Cuuute. Photo by Martin Poole on Getty Images

Cuuute. And unskinnable. Photo by Martin Poole on Getty Images

But yes, there are different ways to see how we have offended God since our last Confession. Some take a long time and involve a lengthy list of questions; some are very short, about three minutes. (Normally the length of time spent on the examination depends on the length of time since one’s last Confession.)

But whether long or short, an examination of conscience essentially involves a few unforgettable steps. Here’s a simple process:

  1. Put yourself in the presence of God. Ask the Holy Spirit for light and humility.
  2. Try to remember when you did your last Confession. You’ll need to tell the priest about this later on (e.g. one week, one month, two years, 10 years).
  3. Go through each of the Ten Commandments, and see how you might have violated it. Can’t remember all ten? You can download this guide if you’re a teen, or this if you’re an adult. For each sin committed or good thing omitted, try to remember how many times you did it. No need to be Sheldon Cooper-ishly exact about numbers, just tell the priest about your lack of sureness (e.g. “I did it four, maybe five, times.”)
  4. Memorize the sins you’ll confess. You can make a list if you want, but make sure you dispose of it properly afterwards (nobody wants their sins publicized, right?).
  5. Thank God for showing you light.
  6. Make a sincere act of contrition, from the bottom of your heart.
  7. Go confess! 

How to overcome shame when going to Confession

You’re at the Confession line. The entire congregation can see you and your fellow penitents. Two thoughts can come to mind:

  1. These people must be thinking I’m such a sinner, a criminal maybe, a mortal sinner on the verge of damnation.
  2. The priest! He must be horrified at my new mortal sin. Worse, he knows me personally. He would never look at me the same way again!
  3. The priest! He must be disgusted to learn that I fell into the same sins — including that one sin I am most ashamed of — again and again and again. He will kick me out of the confession box!

You know what? Just. Stop. Thinking. About them. THINK ABOUT GOD!

Sometimes this looks more like what I would rather do than be at the Confession queue. Photo from Calaimage on Getty Images

Sometimes this looks more like what I would rather do than be at the Confession queue. Photo: Paul Bradbury on Getty Images

Really, when we go to Confession, we’re neither there to please the public nor the priest; we’re there to please only God, who is reaching out to us to¬†reconcile us with him.

The people might think badly about us — fine! (Although, if those people are in their right minds, they would in fact be edified, seeing people, including you, who are contrite enough to approach the Sacrament.)

The priest might think badly about us — fine! (Although, actually, that would make him a mediocre priest. Because a true confessor assumes the merciful fatherhood of God, who waits and welcomes his daughter or son who returns to him.)

But we can be sure that Jesus — God — will be happiest of all when he encounters us at the confessional through his ordained minister, the priest.

So when we go to Confession, and we feel some shame (which is healthy, as Pope Francis said, because it makes us humble), we only have to think of one thing, one being: God. Confession is our meeting with our Father God.

And instead of worrying, let us be consoled by the fact that Confession is not like the courts of justice, where offenders are punished; Confession is a “tribunal of mercy,” as St Josemaria Escriva would say. Instead of punishment, forgiveness and joy are what we receive in Confession.

Why frequent Confession is good for you

We take a bath daily to keep our bodies clean. We clip and clean our nails, maybe polish them. We brush our teeth, gargle mouthwash, and even have a regular dental check-up. We also have a regular haircut. Some people even go to spas regularly!

If we take so much fuss about keeping our¬†bodies clean and refreshed — with frequency and regularity — why not do the same to our souls?

I mean, it’s logical, right?

And we know that Confession works like a bath. It makes us clean spiritually. We may not have mortal sins (thank God), but the venial sins we accumulate day after day make us grimy and unable to feel and absorb the sun of God’s grace.

Yep, like a cool bath in summer. Photo by PhotoAtelier on flickr.com

Yep, like a cool bath in summer. Photo by PhotoAtelier on flickr.com

So that’s reason number one: frequent and regular Confession keeps our souls clean.

Reason number two is that through Confession we accumulate grace. Of course. The more we go to Confession — with ever more contrition — the more we can receive grace. This is, of course, not an encouragement for us to sin, but an encouragement for us to strengthen our defenses against sin (through Confession), so that grace increase in us without interruption.

And reason number three is that through Confession, we can keep our egos in check. You see, pride is the most insidious sin; it is the sin we least feel. Oftentimes we only know it’s there when it already has made tremendous effects on others. And none but a serious examination of conscience — like what we do before going to Confession — can make us see how proud or boastful we really are.

Of course, after a good examination of conscience, we’ll feel (at least a bit) miserable being such stubborn sinners, but at the same time we are comforted by the fact that Jesus came “not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Lk 5:32). We are consoled precisely in that Jesus seeks us in Confession, letting us return to him, to God.

Ayt?

Mary’s role in Confession

Of course, the Blessed Virgin Mary has a big role in one’s return to God.

Our Lady gives the scapular to St Simon Stock, promising him that anyone who dies wearing her scapular "will not suffer eternal fire." We've heard countless stories of people who died wearing their scapular and have just had Confession. Promise kept!

Our Lady gives the scapular to St Simon Stock, promising him that anyone who dies wearing her scapular “will not suffer eternal fire.” We’ve heard countless stories of people who died wearing their scapular and have just had Confession. Promise kept! Image from holymusic55 on photobucket.com

As the sorrowful Mother of God (whom we offend in sin) and as our very own merciful Mother, Mary wants us to be reconciled with her Son regardless how much we have sinned.

None of us would dream of watching our loved ones writhe in pain in their last hours on earth. But look at our Lady: she was there in Calvary watching her Son suffer the most painful death, all for the sake of our Redemption. That’s how much Mary loves us — as her own children, united to the love that Jesus has for us.

So next time you go to Confession, call on her too. She will help in haste. She is the Mother who washes and dresses our wounds — she gives first aid, in a sense — before she brings us to the Doctor. She tells us hush, Jesus will be gentle, he has always been gentle. Hush.

I get that warm fuzzy feeling, imagining our Mother Mary smiling proudly, seeing her sons and daughters reunited to God in Confession.