Reconciliation, also called Confession or Penance, lavishly benefits the one who confesses. It requires little time and costs nothing. Yet recent surveys show that many Catholics only rarely if ever go. Why?
While I was waiting to board an airplane one day, a young man told me that he had been raised Catholic – “more or less” – and he wanted to ask me about Confession or, as he put it, that Catholic way of “getting rid of excess baggage.” He told me ruefully that he just didn’t “know how to use it” – no one had ever really told him the facts, nor had he ever had a chance to experience the grace of having his burdens lifted.
That young man is hardly unique. Whenever I visit parishes or schools, give talks, and even when I am traveling, people ask me questions. They ask about the Church, about the Pope, about our Catholic faith. Many of the questions I receive are about Confession. Clearly, part of the reason so many do not go is a simple lack of knowledge.
In this season of Lent, as the Church calls us to conversion, I prepared a small book entitled The Light is On for You: The Life-Changing Power of Confession, which I hope might help with a renewed appreciation of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
In this book, The Light is On for You, I address many of the questions that people ask: Why should someone go to Confession? What do you get out of it? Why confess to a priest, rather than simply ask God to forgive us directly? By what authority does the Church claim the power to pronounce people absolved of sin? How do you “go to Confession”? What do you say? What do you do?
Confession serves a real human need that has not diminished with the passage of time. The human race has, unfortunately, not outgrown its tendency to sin. Pope Francis famously admitted that he is a sinner. So am I. So are you. Everyone sins, and I for one am grateful that I can make that admission in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It makes for a happier life. That is the promise of Jesus. It is the experience of the saints; it is the message of the Church. And it is the subject of this new book, which I hope can be a practical guide, with stories to make the Church’s principles clear and more memorable, including personal stories of everyday Catholics at the end of each chapter.
The love of the Lord is greater than our sinfulness and this sacrament of mercy is a consolation and joy. However, our joy is complete only when others know of this mercy as well. In his Message for Lent, which I also commend to your reading, Pope Francis implores us to bring the liberating news of forgiveness to others. “The Lord asks us to be joyous heralds of this message of mercy and hope! It is thrilling to experience the joy of spreading this good news, sharing the treasure entrusted to us, consoling broken hearts and offering hope to our brothers and sisters experiencing darkness.”
The need to tell people about the great gift of God’s forgiveness in Confession – and provide opportunities to receive that mercy – was also the impetus for the “Light is ON for You” Lenten pastoral initiative, which we began here in the Washington DC metropolitan area in 2007. In addition to regularly scheduled times for Confession, under this program, every Catholic church throughout the Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Arlington is offering the Sacrament of Reconciliation every Wednesday evening during Lent.
It is because of the darkness in people’s lives that the light is on. “Leaving the light on” is what family members do for one another. If someone is out, the light stays on until they arrive home, no matter how late. The light is a beacon of love, care, concern and safety – the good things we associate with home. The light says to everyone that God and family are there inside, ready and waiting to embrace you and welcome you home.