Tuesday, 2 March 2010


I can remember discussing the Sacrament of Confession or Reconciliation with a group of teenagers. They were surprised to learn that we priests needed to go to confession. That discovery came as a relief to them. Not that they were glad we were sinners, but because they thought this should make us more able to understand what it was like for them to have to confess their sins.

I've told them that we priests felt the same sense of shame, guilt and embarrassment as they did when we have to admit to another person that we have done wrong. Hopefully we will show the penitent the same understanding and compassion we would yearn to receive when we have to confess our sins.

Through the Sacrament of Reconciliation I have met God in a very special way, both in hearing confessions and in making my own. It is in this sacrament that we experience the wonderful power of God's healing mercy. Though we may approach this sacrament with fear and embarrassment, we should leave it with joy in our hearts, as we realize that a great burden of guilt has been removed from our shoulders. God has put our sins behind him and us. He picks us up when we have fallen, so that with his grace we can make a fresh start.

The most wonderful words we can hear are those spoken by the priest in the name and power of Christ, "May the Lord give you pardon and peace. I absolve you from your sins..." "Pardon and peace," or better still, "peace through pardon." Peacemaking -that's what this sacrament is all about. God restoring peace between himself and us, when we've rebelled against him by sinning. God giving us peace of mind after we've been tormented by shame and guilt.

When I hear confessions I'm filled with a sense of wonder as I witness the grace of God at work. It's most humbling fro me, as a priest, to realize that the penitent, is, in fact, primarily confessing his sins to Almighty God, and only secondarily to me, Isidore Clarke, his minister. And it's God who does the forgiving not me.
I am the witness to an amazing grace -the very fact that, after perhaps many years' absence, God has prompted someone to come and seek forgiveness. Then I'm struck by the humble honesty with which people confess their sins. Even though they may fumble in expressing themselves there's no attempt at deception. Rather than being shocked when people confess a very serious sin, we priests rejoice at their repentance and our being able to help them find forgiveness from God.

I've found that the penitent holds up a mirror to my own life whenever I hear a confession. As I look at myself I have to ask myself whether I'm guilty of the same faults. God uses the repentant sinner to inspire me to question my own life and seek forgiveness. Any advice I may give I must apply to myself. And when I do advise, it is God prompting me to say just the right thing, taking me by surprise.

We priests should always presume that everyone who comes to confession knows he's done wrong and is sorry for his sins. Otherwise he wouldn't bother to come. What he seeks is forgiveness. Any advice we give should build him up, not humiliate and crush him with angry recriminations. This Sacrament of Reconciliation is meant to make forgiveness, not sinning, easy for those genuinely repentant sinners, who really want to make a fresh start. When Jesus forgave repentant sinners He combined firmness in saying, "sin no more" with the compassionate words, "your sins are forgiven." He is the model for every priest hearing confessions.

Though it's a great privilege for a priest to be the minister of God's mercy it can also be very exhausting and tedious. Being human, we may sometimes become impatient or irritable. When we are, we need the penitent's understanding and forgiveness, just as much as he needs ours.

After being a penitent for about seventy years and a priest for over fifty I have learnt that this peacemaking sacrament is the most wonderful way of meeting God, even though we may find it painful to confess our sins. Through this sacrament we most directly experience the saving power of our crucified and risen Lord. Christ enables us to make our peace with God; our baptismal commitment to Him is renewed, as we die to sin and rise once again to new life.

The Gospels tell us God rejoices with the angels as he welcomes back the repentant sinner. When the Prodigal Son returned home his Father rejoiced with the words, "My son was dead and is now alive again; he was lost and is now found." No wonder they celebrated with a banquet!

Isidore O.P.

Next week Fr Peter will reflect on Meeting God through "Abraham, My Mentor"

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