Cardinal Joachim Meisner, Archbishop of Cologne, stated recently that 'one of the most tragic failings that the Church suffered in the second half of the 20th century was to have neglected the gift of the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Penance … amongst priests this has caused tremendous loss of spiritual profile'. He goes on to say that when the priest is no longer a confessor he becomes a social worker of a religious kind. From this remark, I was left wondering about parish noticeboards and Parish Bulletin which advertise: 'Confessions – by appointment'. It is becoming rare to see the traditional notice: 'Confessions 4.00pm – 6.00pm Saturday afternoon before the Vigil Mass.' Fifteen and twenty minute slots appear to suffice.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is a wonderful reflection on the Sacrament of Penance when the young prodigal wakes up to himself, leaves his sins behind, and goes to his father confessing: 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.' The father welcomed him with open arms and a great celebration followed. This scene reflects beautifully the return of the sinner to God and the welcoming forgiveness which awaits him.
The Sacrament of Penance is a natural outcome of the overwhelming mercy of God, for it enables us to encounter the mercy of God dispensed through the ministry of a priest as communicated by Jesus Himself: 'Receive the Holy Spirit. For whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain they are retained.' (Jn. 20:22-23) But one needs to be aware of the need for conversion, to awaken one's consciousness of sin, to develop an understanding which includes the social dimensions of sin, together with the realization, given by St Paul, that 'however great the number of sins committed, grace is even greater' (Rom. 5:21).
The Holy Spirit who brings sin to light is also the Consoler disposing the human heart to be open to the grace of repentance and conversion. We cannot turn our world around on our own strength, we need Christian hope to help us desire the Kingdom of God and eternal life. This by placing our trust in Christ's promises, not in our own strength but in the help and the grace of the Holy Spirit.' (CCC 18:17)
An incisive way to prepare for a good Confession is to remember that the Holy Spirit came to convict the world of sin, to convict, not condemn. When the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, we still cannot but feel ashamed of what we have done, but, at the same time, we feel so loved by God that we desire God's mercy immediately.
So, my purpose in writing is to encourage you to call sin what it really is, take ownership for your actions as they really are. No matter if it has been ten, twenty or even forty years don't be afraid to go to Confession for you are going to meet One who has waited lovingly for you to come to experience his mercy.
My final words are an expression of gratitude to brother priests who zealously and lovingly dispense the mercy of God by making available frequent opportunities for the faithful to access the sacrament of penance in the spirit of St John Vianney, a true model of a confessor.
Kevin Manning is Bishop Emeritus of Parramatta.
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