The Journey to Freedom: Reconciliation
By: Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
Some time back, I had lunch with an old friend who is a law professor at a local evangelical institution. A wonderful Christian, he has been living his Christian faith outside of full communion with the Catholic Church for a number of years. He has, in his own words, had "problems" with "the Church." He called and invited me to have lunch to "discuss some things."
I was not sure what to expect.
Though raised a Catholic Christian, my friend, like me, had fallen away from the Catholic Church as a teenager. It was during his twenties, while in College that he was once again presented with the claims of Jesus Christ within the context of a dynamic campus outreach run by a well known "para-church" evangelical outreach.
Since then he had "wandered", in a sense looking for the "perfect church". He has been through the "non-denominational" approach, the "we need to rebuild the "New Testament" church" approach, the "we need to restore the five fold ministry approach" and so many other of the enthusiastic groups that sprung from the "renewal" movements of the latter part of the twentieth century .
He had also "wandered" through many of the churches, ecclesial communities and movements which descend from the protestant reformation. He had most recently begun down the "Canterbury trail" toward the promised "Via Media" or "middle way" of the Anglican Communion. None of these encounters were satisfying his hunger. They were not the destination and resting place that his journey cried out for. He was being drawn to the Catholic Church again.
An article that I had written, entitled "Church shopping", had helped him on this journey. Also, a book entitled "Surprised by Truth" (a wonderful compilation of faith journeys back to the Catholic Church) had grabbed he and his wife by the heart and they could not shake the effect. He wanted to take me to lunch and ask a lot of questions. How well I understand the pilgrimage.
Struggling through Catholic "issues", this friend is clearly being drawn back "home" to the Church into which he was baptized- the Catholic Church.
He sought me out because he heard that I had returned to Southeastern Virginia from Northern Virginia. He had a lot of questions and wanted to share his story. Some of what he told me has become familiar over the years but it is always new and fresh.
One of the topics we discussed was the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance) It was clear that he was ready to revisit the Sacrament and he asked for help in finding a priest to "hear his confession".
It was a wonderful lunch. I needed the inspiration and welcomed the opportunity to help another pilgrim along the way. I heard again the fresh love story that continues to unfold in this new millennium, as more and more of the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church "come home."
His story made me reflect on my own pilgrimage and in particular on an event that was a part of the process, the day I discovered the beauty of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance). I shared it with him and now I share it with you.
I remember the day as if it were yesterday.
The sun drenched retreat grounds stretched out before my young eyes. I was eighteen years old, a new "revert" to the Catholic faith and living in Florida. I had registered to attend a spiritual retreat featuring a Benedictine Monk speaking on how to develop an intimate relationship with the Lord through prayer. I was ready.
A priest I know well coined the term "revert". He uses it to explain what has occurred in my life, and the lives of countless others. Though I never "officially" left the Catholic Church, I had certainly lost my commitment to the faith and the Church into which I had been baptized.
My return to a personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ- and my knowing, mature decision to embrace the full teaching of the Catholic Church -was an extraordinary event - a genuine time and type of conversion story. It is a journey being played out in the lives of thousands in our day.
The ancient Catholic Church is coming alive with the sons and daughters who are either rediscovering her beauty and depth or discovering both for the first time. Her sons and daughters coming home are founding new movements, ecclesial communities, ministries and works. Everything old is new again!
An experience of a return home, a personal conversion to the Church often characterizes the journey home of many Catholic Christians. Even those who have similar encounters and choose another Christian church- often later come back to the Catholic Church. There is something about the Catholic Church and about coming home.
I had wandered far from the faith of my childhood during my adolescence and my teenage years.
I was caught up, as were so many of my generation, in a passionate search for truth and meaning. Through what many would have seen as a misspent youth I was actually reaching out to answer the existential questions that were burning in my soul. I was sincere in my search for truth and the Lord knew it. The search eventually led me back to the One whom Himself claimed to be the Truth.
At the encouragement of a Jewish friend, who had become a Christian while traveling in Jerusalem, I re-examined the claims of Jesus Christ. This friend and I had wandered the pilgrim road of a spiritual journey for years together. Eventually, at the ripe age of seventeen, I set out hitchhiking across America on a pilgrimage of sorts and he did the same, choosing to backpack across Europe. He ended in Israel and I in California.
He wrote me from the Mount of Olives and told me--his Catholic friend---about an encounter with "Yeshua", Jesus. He had dedicated the rest of his life to following Him. He quoted the Psalmist David: "how can a young man keep his way pure..." in the opening paragraph of a letter that lasted for pages.
We had begun our journey together. He, raised in a nominally Jewish home, had hungered to find truth. He set out with a backpack and journeyed across Europe. He ended his search in the Holy Land, where he accepted the claims of Jesus Christ. Because of our friendship, he knew that he had to give this wonderful gift to me.
I realized as I read his powerful letter that I was that "young man" of whom the Psalmist's timeless words spoke. I longed to be made new again. I began to reflect on my life. I had been baptized a Catholic. In fact my family had a devout and real faith when I was very young. However, a family tragedy shook our world when I was only ten years old and our practice of the faith grew nearly non-existent.
I had become a "cultural Catholic." That day, when I read that letter, I did not fully realize that my journey, like Dorothy in of the Wizard of Oz, would lead me all the way home to the Catholic Church because there truly is "no place like home." I only knew I was no longer close to God. The letter made me remember former days.
I had fond memories of a time when I was very close to Him. Like when I served as an altar boy at the High Mass, and when, because Sister William Patricia told me that Jesus was my friend. I visited Him in Church every day and even spoke openly to Him when I walked alone. I wanted Him again.... even closer today.
On a beach in Santa Cruz, California, prompted by my friend's invitation in that letter, (forwarded to me from my worried parents), I, his gentile "nominally Catholic" friend, cried out to Jesus Christ. They were simple words from a pure and desperate young heart- "Jesus, I use to know you, I want to know you again, please come into my heart, forgive me of my sins, and be my Savior and Lord!" He heard my cry!
With that simple prayer of sincere contrition and acceptance, I gave myself back to the One, in whom and for whom I had been created and into whom I had been baptized as a child. It was a conversion moment. However, I would quickly discover, at a deep place inside of my heart, that He had never left me.
Years after this encounter, I would read these timeless words of St. Augustine, taken from his Confessions:
"Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me and I burned for your peace."
I would only then understand that this was my own experience of the same timeless Lord who continues to remind all who will listen: "You did not choose me, but I chose you..." (John 15:16)
That summer, after returning from this cross-country pilgrimage, I moved in with two other young men my age. Both were evangelical Protestant Christians. I was a Christian---but not yet sure what kind.
Because I wanted to continue to grow in my walk with the Lord, I attended a prayer meeting with my new roommates and began to study the New Testament. My passionate love for the Sacred Scripture even prompted me to join one of them and enroll in a local Protestant Bible College as a student.
I quickly discovered that I was a fish out of water.
The culture of the place was foreign to me. I was a Catholic guy from the inner city of Boston. I did not understand the odd popular language so many of the students and staff used when discussing their faith. I also could not understand why many of them prayed in a different language then they talked. Or other simple things, like the seeming disdain for ordinary human enjoyment.
Was I missing something? Did my newly rediscovered relationship with the One who was fully human, and fully divine, mean that I was to lose my humanity?
I also missed the worship of my childhood where I experienced, in a profound way, the transcendent majesty of God, at the Altar.
Because of my passionate hunger for truth I found myself, though respectful of the instructors, doubting and hungering for more than they were offering in the classes. I simply could not check my brain at the classroom door. I wanted answers and I never felt that my sincere inquiries should be cast aside as some sort of temptation.
I began to discern that the road of conversion was a lifelong path. I had a long way to travel. My pilgrimage was not over, but in fact, had only begun. The hunger for God, rekindled in my soul during that encounter on the beach, was insatiable. I also continued to experience the guilt of my wrong choices, my sins. Oh, I was aware that I had been forgiven. However, I didn't feel forgiven.
Something was missing.
I started pouring over the books in the Bible College library -wanting to know about the history of the whole Christian Church. I found a certain inconsistency present in the literalist approach I was being taught in the New Testament class. It seemed that Jesus meant everything He said except His explicit words concerning the Eucharist, the "Lord's supper" as the instructor called it. Though Jesus Himself said it was His Body and Blood, right in the biblical text, He somehow didn't mean it. I could not accept this meager dismissal of something so profound.
I also began to hear increasing disparagement of the Catholic Church in some classes. It did not comport with my own experience as a child, nor my growing convictions about the Christian life. I hungered for the truth and continued, as had been my lifelong habit, to devour books. At that time, the Bible College library was stocked with the writings of the Protestant reformers. However, it was as though the Church stopped with the Apostles, or shortly thereafter, only to be rekindled by Martin Luther.
I wanted to know the whole story!
I began to make daily visits to the Lakeland Florida Public library. There I probed early Church writings and began to question my way right back to my Catholic Christian faith. I discovered the early Christian writings, the Fathers and the wonderful truth about the early Christian Church, her early liturgy, her understanding of the "mysteries" (sacraments) and her hierarchical order.
I sought out a priest and began my journey home to the Catholic Church. Little did I realize then that this part of the journey would also lead me to find the freedom I longed for... through experiencing the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance).
"Confession" was one of the practices of Catholic faith I no longer thought I "needed" and did not understand. However, though I knew the Lord was real and active in my life and I knew that He forgave me for my sins, my wrong choices and rebellion, I still felt bound by them.
I wanted to be free. I also wanted more of God. I prayed - but I knew that I had only scratched the surface of His invitation to a relationship of communion. I knew it was more than the well intended little songs I had learned along the way. It was an invitation into His very life and a call to holiness.
I read a flyer in the back of the parish Church I was attending about a retreat that was to occur in Southern Florida. The "Retreat Master" was a Benedictine Monk, (the "Abbot" or "Father" of a monastery). The theme was "intimacy with the Lord". I registered and went the next weekend.
The retreat grounds were beautiful and called to mind my childhood experiences at similar places- "holy places" set aside for encountering God.
There I was, soaking in the sun, on these beautiful retreat grounds in sunny Southern Florida. I was eighteen years young. I had been intrigued by a flyer advertising the retreat at the back of the Catholic Church I began attending. The retreat promised to help all who attended experience a deeper intimacy with Jesus through developing an interior life.
By now, I had returned home to the Church of my childhood, the Catholic Church. I was back at Mass, the sacred liturgy, almost every day. I was reading the Sacred Scriptures (the Bible) and something from the Fathers of the Church, or the lives of the Saints every day. I had fallen in love with the Church.
Now I was a Catholic Christian, not only because I was raised that way, but also because I had doubted, questioned and prayed my way back home. Or rather, the Head of that Church had invited me and I had begun to hear His voice. Oh, how I wanted to hear it even more deeply. I attended the retreat for that reason.
That day, during the morning sessions, I was invited to focus on developing an interior life and deepen my relationship with Jesus Christ in prayer. Not only were the talks wonderful, but something much more profound was about to occur.
After hearing an inspiring message on loving the Lord given by a holy Benedictine Abbott, an announcement was made that "Confession", the Sacrament of Penance (or Reconciliation), would be available all afternoon for all retreatants.
Frankly, I was afraid.
Oh, I had overcome my misinformed opposition to the notion that "I didn't need" such a thing. I found its roots in the Scriptures; it's development in Church history and the tradition, and its confirmation in the contemporary proliferation of counselors, psychologists, and mental health practitioners substituting as "secular priests."
I had not been to this Sacrament since I was in the sixth grade. When I first re-embraced my faith, I did not quite understand why it was necessary. However, through my study, I began to understand its extraordinary role as a resource in the ongoing call to holiness of life. I was at this retreat because I truly wanted to be holy and not just talk about it.
My reading had unearthed an extraordinary connection in the lives of the great heroes of the faith, the saints, between holiness of life and frequent recourse to this sacrament. The late and great G.K. Chesterton was once asked why he became a Catholic. He responded, "the forgiveness of sins."
That day I would discover what he meant.
In order to facilitate the crowd, the organizers of the retreat had set up chairs all over the lawn---one for the priest and one for the penitent. There were no confessionals --another form of the sacrament where the identity of the penitent is concealed- that would have at least been less frightening to me. I felt not only embarrassed, but also ashamed and afraid. I thought back on the years I had been away from the Lord, all the wrong choices I had made, and the people I had hurt.
Somehow, though I knew I had confessed my sins to the Lord, I still carried a sense of guilt and knew that my sin had wounded more people than myself. I recalled the Abbots' talk that morning on the text from the Letter of James "confess your sins to one another..." But the fear was crippling.
I remembered a few occasions as a child when the experience in the confessional had not been a good one. Times when I was shamed and left the experience feeling worse than before I entered the confessional. Now, there was no confessional, it was face to face!
I opened my Bible and my eyes fell upon the words of the Lord that followed the great healing of the woman with the hemorrhage and the sincere inquiry from the father whose daughter had died: "Do Not fear, only believe." (Mark 5:36) said the Lord. It was as though He was speaking those words directly to me.
I was learning to trust that this Church was indeed the continuing presence of the Body of Christ on earth, making His redemptive love available through all the channels of grace. This was a "Sacrament", an invitation. The definition I had learned as a child filled my head, "an outward sign instituted by God to give grace."
"Who am I to reject the gift of God?" I thought to myself.
So, I overcame both the shame and the fear, walked right up to the very young, handsome priest and told him I hadn't been to confession since the sixth grade. "Have a seat" he said, "the Lord has been waiting, he is eager to forgive and to heal."
Like priming a pump I began to speak and the words flowed forth in a cathartic experience, complete with tears- a torrent of repentance. This wonderful priest of Jesus Christ looked at me with the compassion of His Lord and simply listened. I expressed my remorse and I asked the Lord for forgiveness.
Then I heard those words: "I absolve you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit"... so certain, so firm, so personal... I experienced the weight of the world lifted from my drooping shoulders. I was young again.
"Father," I said, "thank you." "Thank Jesus" he responded," He loves you more than you know." Then I paused and asked, "... Isn't there a penance?"
"Oh Yes" he said, "Go, and love the Lord"
I left that encounter with the servant of the Lord a free man.
Over all these years I have tried to be faithful to his admonition, "Go, and love the Lord." However, I have often failed, fallen short, or to use the literal translation of the word sin, missed the mark. Loving the Lord is a constant invitation to conversion. It invites all those who are serious about the way of discipleship, to a life of crucified love.
From that day forward however, I knew I had a place to go when the weight of my sin, my wrong choices and acts burdened me- the sacrament where I can continually be made new, forgiven, and healed. The place of meeting mercy- where I can be born again and again and again and again...
I am older now- my hair has grayed. I am losing the spring in my step. But, I am wiser.
I know my own weakness and frailty. It stares at me through the lines on my face every morning when I shave, and manifests itself in the faces of my children and my wife when I fail to love as Jesus does. It's funny, unlike youth when you know everything; I have finally reached the stage in life where I realize that I know less and less.
One thing I do know is that I am still trying to "keep my way pure"- and there is a balm for the inevitable wounds of life.
I am a joyful penitent now because I know that there is a Sacrament, a place where I can always encounter the never-ending mercy of Jesus Christ, in a real and incarnational way. Through His priest I can always here those wonderful words "I absolve you..." and I can again commit myself to "go and love the Lord."
I may no longer be a teenager, but I am still a pilgrim, and what a wonderful journey this life of faith truly has become.
It has been made richer since that wonderful day when, as a teenage pilgrim, I rediscovered the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance) and my journey home continued.
The Journey Continues
My friend's story over lunch was so unique- yet filled with so much that was familiar -to me and to countless others who are coming back to the Catholic Church these days. He has found his home again and he wants to live now as a son of the Catholic Church.
He needed counsel and he hungered for a deeper encounter with forgiving grace. I ended our lunch encouraging him to seek out sacramental confession. I also embraced him and said, "Welcome home."
Many others are following this path home. In so doing they are discovering the truth so wonderfully expressed by our ancient brother Cyprian, the first century Bishop of Carthage who wrote "for no-one can have God for His father who does not have the Church for his mother."
The Church is not an optional "extra" in the Christian life. We were baptized into her. She is the Body of Christ and we are members. She is the Ark of Salvation and we are the passengers and crew. She is the Vine and we are the branches. She is the home of the whole human race beckoning all who have lost their way through the rebellion of sin to come home through the redemption found at the Cross of her Bridegroom. She is the seed of the Kingdom to come. She is the new humanity.
Our task is simply to point the way home to all those who hear the invitation. Their numbers are increasing now that we have crossed the threshold into this new millennium. A gift on their journey to freedom is the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Deacon Fournier is a Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia serving at St. Benedict's Catholic Church, a dynamically orthodox Roman Catholic Parish, dedicated to fidelity to the Magisterium and faithfulness to the Church's mission of sanctification, evangelization and transformation. He holds degrees from Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and is currently a PHD student at the Catholic University of America. His latest book is entitled, "The Prayer of Mary: Living the Surrendered Life".
http://www.catholic.org VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Executive Editor, 757 546-9580
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