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Go to Confession? Me? Really?

by Fr. Benjamin Hawley, S.J.

Yes. Really. You. And me. All of us.

Unfortunately, this liberating experience of Jesus’ mystical love has been misused for millennia. The communal nature of sin and of God’s liberation that we inherited from Judaism became individual Confession in the 5th Century, and in the High Middle Ages Jesus’ healing became Extreme Unction, understood as confession just before death in preparation for the Beatific Vision. Individual “Confession” became a laundry list of “sins” detached from personal reality. Absolution from “sins” led to an abstract “state of grace” that said nothing of the fullness of life that Jesus promises (John 10:10, 15:11).

Psychology has provided us invaluable clarity into what “Confession” might be. And yet psychology itself can mislead us by divorcing our internal sense of ourselves from the spiritual and moral life by making personal “happiness” and “self-realization” the centerpieces of human life.

Such a shame! So, how might we find a middle way? We might start by acknowledging that the sin we do often arises from the sin done to us, where the violence of the sin done to us is often much worse than the sin we have done. If we know that God will heal this greater hurt, we can be the more ready to confess the wrong we have done. So, ideally, a rethought Sacrament of Confession should be rolled into one with the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

What else might we do? Tell your story as a matter of truth and honesty. Name the feelings, intuitions, and motivations. Affirm your good qualities as a balance to your failings. I often ask confessees to name three good qualities they possess, and, astonishingly, many are stumped, though these qualities are gifts from God. I hear things like, I’m a good driver. Ok. But, what qualities? Are you generous? Are you just? Are you honest?

Answers tend to be, “I try to be,” “Sometimes,” “For some people.” These answers, vague as they are, point a way forward: ask Jesus who loves you to help you be more generous, more honest, more just in the specific interactions of your life, and ask him to help you build on your good qualities.

Also, we might come to think of confession as a part of a learning experience: What mistakes have I made? How do these mistakes help me learn about myself, my behavior, and relationships and so point a way forward in my growth? Ask Jesus to help you learn.

Sacraments are encounters with God, and divine love heals our wounds, restores our souls, renews our hope. Remember: God has a vested interest in our success as human beings. So, give God a chance.

On a final note let me add that every Friday I upload a video homily rather like this one to the parish website and Holy Trinity’s YouTube channel. I shoot these videos in places around Washington that evoke our history and the readings of the day. Please tune in.


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