TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A 20
“Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Within this general mandate of the Lord to the apostles in today’s gospel, there is the other specific mandate which Christ gave later the night of his resurrection in his appearance to his apostles, which is: “Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain they are retained.” This more specific mandate of forgiving sins covers the sacrament of confession, which is what I want to talk about today.
Confession is the sacrament of conversion. I will bet you have never thought of it that way. But that is what the CCC calls it. The reality is that original sin has left us all with weak wills. Only with grace can we become pleasing to our Lord and holy. We cannot do it on our own.
This is not what men in our culture are taught. Men are taught that they are supposed to be strong and be able to handle things on their own. It is weakness to ask for help. What everyone should be taught is that everyone helps, and everyone needs help, man, woman, or child.
I ask men who confess on retreat looking at pornography, “Are you praying for purity?” More than one has said to me, “Oh, I never thought of that.” This reveals once again that we think we are not manly if we must ask for help. Prayer is asking for help. It is manly. It is only when we accept our weakness and pray for help that Christ can begin to purify our souls of our sins. Checkout the first two steps of AA.
Prayer (and lots of it—not one “Hail, Mary” once in a while!), mortification, and frequent confession are how we ask for help. St. Augustine tells us that mortification added to prayer intensifies the power of our prayer. Those who embrace prayer, mortification and frequent confession find their desire for virtue begins to deepen. When God, not us, sees our desire is deep enough, he gives us purity—and it is a sheer gift. We know it was not our doing. It does not happen overnight. God is the timekeeper, not us. But it does happen when we ask for God’s help.
Maybe you did not read the fine print on your baptismal certificate, but lifelong conversion is what we pledge when we embrace our baptism. The Lord understands our weakness. He knows that after our first conversion we need many other small conversions the rest of our lives if we are to become like Him. When we inevitably fail on our own, not to worry, he has our back: he gave us confession.
We celebrate the First Coming of Christ at Christmas in a big way but in our hearts we put the Second Coming of Christ and our Last judgment in a box hidden away in a closet. It’s not on our bucket list. We fear the loss of health or income more than we fear the Last Judgment. God does indeed love us the way we are, but he loves us so much he will not let us stay that way. We need to dispose of the garbage of our sins frequently before it backs up on us. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. An ounce of confession is worth a pound of purgatory.
Protestants do not believe in confession. They believe that conversion and therefore forgiveness is between God and the individual just as they believe everyone interprets the bible for himself. We believe Christ founded a community of believers and gave His apostles the authority to forgive the sins of his faith community. We have both an individual and a community relationship to Jesus. It is not either/or. It is both/and. No one questioned confession until the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.
Protestants do not believe that Christ could authorize men he has chosen to dispense his forgiveness. We are Catholics. We believe he can. He’s God. He invented “authority.” Authority is an everyday human experience. Delegation of authority happens all the time. “Hon, take out the trash.” If you are timid about going to the priest because he is a man; think how you will feel when you are going before Almighty God.
If we do not go to confession, for all practical purposes, we do not believe in it. We must task then, why on earth then did Christ take the trouble to give us a sacrament we didn’t need? The Council of Trent defined for our belief that there are seven sacraments, confession being one of them. Why would we be ungrateful for a sacrament of mercy and forgiveness? It does not make sense. We say God is love and then refuse his love in confession.
We preachers must accept the guilt for not having preached the gospel of conversion and confession. We settle for comforting you rather than challenging you. In the first reading, however, the Lord speaks to the prophet Ezekiel: If you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.” I get the jitters when I hear that. More of us clergy need to pay a lot more attention to those marching orders.
I love the saying, “When all else fails, read the directions.” The directions for holiness are revealed in the lives of the saints. Someone said, “I’d rather see a homily than hear one.” If you mean that, read the lives, the walking homilies, of the saints. Google “Ten secrets of the saints” and one of them is always frequent confession.
On her deathbed, St. Therese, did not want to trouble the convent sisters for a drink of water such was her deep thoughtfulness for others. The point is that to the very end she was striving to be more like Christ. St. Augustine, one of our greatest saints, on his deathbed meditated on the Penitential Psalms. Many of us quit conversion a long time ago and now we think we are on easy street. We’re on cruise control to heaven. We have become soft. There is no easy street. Prayer, mortification, and confession are the way to holiness and to heaven. It’s a narrow road not a broad highway.
Fr. Benedict Groeschel, of happy memory, a well-known authority on spirituality, wrote in 1995, “It’s worth noting at this silly time, the twentieth century,” he writes, “that the struggle with vice is almost ignored even by genuinely religious people. Often the sincerely devout of our time seem to have little or no qualms of conscience about uncharitableness, detraction, calumny, and impatience especially if these vices have become part of the functioning of their personality.” End of quote. What he means is, that we excuse ourselves saying, “That’s just who I am.” You can be offended by those words or you can take them to heart as a challenge, an invitation to “come up higher.” House cleaning is not done until you do the dusting. It’s the same with the soul.
St. Augustine wrote, “Lord, reveal me to myself.” He realized that he ignored things that kept him from Christ. He once prayed: “Lord, give me chastity—but not yet.” Our Lord reveals us to ourselves every time we make an examination of conscience.
I am a card-carrying member of the “Sinner’s Club.” Christ came to save sinners. So, I value my membership. Christ came to me in humility, I must come to him in humility. In fact, it is the only way we can come to him. Confession is an act of humility. Avoidance of confession is an act of pride.
Jesus said, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Confession is an act of humility.
I go to confession every three weeks but if you must ask, “how often to go,” you really do not understand what confession is about. Or, for that matter, the cross.
Fr. H. James Hutchins (Fr. Jim to those who know and love him) – retired but active pastor and chaplain to The Kings Men and The Samson, Emmaus and Into The Wild Weekend Catholic men’s retreats