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The Most Difficult Sacrament

From Bishop Boyce's Homily at Knock

KNOCK, Ireland, SEPT. 27, 2006 (Zenit) - Here is an excerpt from a homily delivered by Bishop Philip Boyce during the Raphoe Diocesan Pilgrimage to the Marian shrine at Knock last month. The excerpt focuses on the sacrament of reconciliation.

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Confession is the most challenging and difficult of the sacraments, because in it we lay bare our inmost thoughts, our weaknesses and sins that shame us, our deepest motives. This we do to another human person, a priest who, we know in faith, takes the place of God. It can be very humiliating. And yet we get untold benefits of freedom, forgiveness, peace, healing and strength from this sacrament. We sin as individuals. We also have to make an individual confession. It does us good to go on our knees, put our sinful deeds into words before an ordained priest, face up to the truth about ourselves and entrust our lives to God's merciful and just love.

Indeed, in a Synod for Europe held in 1991, the bishops saw the sacrament of reconciliation playing a fundamental role in the recovery of hope for our ancient continent. They said: "One of the roots of the helplessness that assails many people today is found in their inability to see themselves as sinners and to allow themselves to be forgiven, an inability often resulting from the isolation of those who, by living as if God did not exist, have no one from whom they can seek forgiveness" (John Paul II, "Ecclesia in Europa," No. 76). In some ways they are among those whom St. Paul describes as "having no hope and without God in this world" (Ephesians 2:10).

Thanks be to God, we should say, for our faith and for the sacrament of confession!

At times we do not appreciate the treasures we have in our Catholic faith. At other times we take them for granted. Yet many are those who experience the spiritual benefits of confession. The first effect and principal purpose of this sacrament is reconciliation with God. Anyone who makes a good confession with a contrite heart and a firm purpose of amendment is sure that God has blotted out the sin that weighed on his conscience. That person is certain of having been restored to God's friendship and to the blessings of a child of God.

A silent weight is lifted off the mind as a result of a good confession. The gnawing worry caused by a troubled conscience gives way to peace of soul. As our Catechism says: "For those who receive the sacrament of Penance with contrite heart and religious disposition, reconciliation is usually followed by peace and serenity of conscience with strong spiritual consolation. Indeed the sacrament of Reconciliation with God brings about a true 'spiritual resurrection,' restoration of the dignity and blessings of the life of the children of God, of which the most precious is friendship with God" (CCC 1468).

I remember one time I visited a Marian shrine on mainland Europe, in Belgium. One evening as I walked around I met a lady who was looking for the confessional area and may not have been receiving the sacraments very often. "Father, could you tell me where I could get the sacrament of ..." and she hesitated for a minute. Then she continued: "Where I could get the sacrament of resurrection." I thought it was a very good description of confession. For that is what it truly is: a sacrament that gives a true spiritual resurrection from sin to friendship with God, from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light.

If we have committed a grave or mortal sin, we must go to individual confession before receiving holy Communion. But we need not be great sinners or be away from the sacrament for years or have grave sins on our conscience to go to confession. In fact, the Church asks those who wish to make progress in holiness, or who are more deeply united to God in the religious or consecrated life, to avail of the sacrament of reconciliation more frequently -- not because they are greater sinners but because they need more grace and strength to live a holy life. "The purpose of the sacrament of penance is to make saints as well as to save sinners" (L. Trese). In fact the grace of this sacrament gives strength for the journey ahead; it inoculates against temptation and heals the wounds we receive in the good fight of every day against the weaknesses and selfish inclinations of our fallen nature.

Confession is indeed the sacrament of pardon and of new life. It is often a forum where a soul receives advice, encouragement, counsel and direction. This sacrament accompanies a Christian on the way to perfection. "It would be an illusion to want to strive for holiness in accordance with the vocation that God has given to each one of us without frequently and fervently receiving this sacrament of conversion and sanctification" (John Paul II, March 27, 2004). In fact, it contains limitless possibilities of healing and growth.

Moreover, this sacrament reconciles us not only with God, but also with others whom our sin has wounded or against whom our sinful ways have set up a barrier of discord or enmity. Here we are reconciled with the Church whose life our sin had weakened. We are reconciled with our brothers and sisters with whom our fraternal communion was damaged by our sinful actions. We are also reconciled with ourselves in our inmost heart and regain our peace of conscience.

A famous convert, John Henry Cardinal Newman, who knew what it was to be deprived of sacramental confession and then who experienced its benefits, once wrote:

"How many are the souls, in distress, anxiety or loneliness, whose one need is to find a being to whom they can pour out their feelings unheard by the world? Tell them out they must; they cannot tell them out to those whom they see every hour. They want to tell them and not to tell them; and they want to tell them out, yet be as if they be not told; they wish to tell them to one who is strong enough to bear them, yet not too strong to despise them; they wish to tell them to one who can at once advise and can sympathize with them; they wish to relieve themselves of a load, to gain a solace, to receive the assurance that there is one who thinks of them, and one to whom in thought they can recur, to whom they can betake themselves, if necessary, from time to time, while they are in world" ("The Present Position of Catholics," p. 351).

And later he added the phrase in a sermon: "Happy all Catholics, if they knew their happiness" (Sermon Notes, p. 200).

Although the sacrament of penance may be "laborious" at times, it has been seen since the first centuries of Christianity as a "second plank following shipwreck" (Tertullian), that is, another chance to have sins committed after baptism forgiven and a broken or weakened friendship with Christ restored. In a world threatened by sin, it is a sacrament given to us to enable us to grow in the spiritual life and reach union with God.

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