Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Sacrament of Forgiveness

Since I have recommended that the Sacrament of Confession, Penance, Reconciliation be called the Sacrament of Forgiveness, and because the sacrament gives me happiness, I should perhaps say more about it. As befitting my situation, I take a very low view based on the translation of the Bible I usually quote.

Forgive us our debts.
— Matthew 6:12 (KJV)

Suppose you received a credit card bill that you don't have to pay — ever. What if you’ve been receiving and not paying bills for 5, 15, 20 years and hear about a way to get the credit card company to erase the debt and the accumulated interest and fines? Now don’t tell me you want to pay, you would feel guilty if you didn't pay. We are talking about forgiveness: the credit card company won’t take your money: if you feel guilty, give the money to the poor and follow Christ.

But don’t go to the credit card company and ask them to explain debt forgiveness. They have the power to forgive your debt and they will have you understand that they have the power. Didn’t Simone Weil write about “the superb indifference that the powerful have for the weak"? Yes, they do promote the plan, in a way that today hardly anybody takes advantage of it. I am writing about the management. The person you actually meet will be as happy to forgive as you will be to be forgiven — but he will be very professional about it.

You may have trouble thinking about your debt. This is not surprising, especially if you have been ignoring the bills. Who goes over a bill unless he intends to pay it? You may have a vague ominous feeling of something building up, or you may even deny that anything is building up. Poor soul: In the spiritual economy the rich (saints) know their many debts.

Surely you are not embarrassed by your lack of debt — that you don’t go to confession because you would have to say, Bless me, Father, for I have not sinned? You are Catholic?

Or do you think that you are forgiven, whether or not you use the sacrament of forgiveness? Then why are you still reading this post? Shouldn’t you be rereading The Da Vinci Code?

But possibly you are not skilled at examining your debts. You are embarrassed, or feel you may be embarrassed, but you don’t know to quite what extent and perhaps don’t want find out. Or you think that after you’re forgiven you’ll just acquire more debt — what’s more, the same kind of debt — what’s the use? The use is, Someone wants to forgive you, Someone died to forgive you, Someone will forgive you as much and as often as you need to be forgiven. The important thing, if you have not been forgiven in many years, is to be forgiven as soon as possible. Then the next time you will have fewer entries to look at.

So if you have something or some things you know you owe to God or neighbor, start with those. Otherwise say: “My last confession was x years ago. These are my sins: I have avoided confession and have forgotten how to confess my sins” and ask the priest to help you through the rest. Some items may come up that you may not consider debts — disputed claims, so to speak — don’t argue: just say whether you did or omitted to do: you will be forgiven if they are debts, you lose nothing if they aren’t; and besides, if you haven’t examined your bills in many years, who are you to play expert about your debts (see about saints above)? Just sign the papers (say you’re sorry): the priest will do what he is ordained to do, and you will leave a free man or woman. Your confession will be good, and you will have relearned how to confess. Do your penance. Thank God.


1. If you haven’t been to confession in years, go to a priest who doesn’t know you, perhaps in another parish, another town, another state, perhaps at a day of prayer or some other religious event. Do a face-to-face confession; be as matter-of-fact as possible (it may not be possible).

2. Get a “confession card” like Fr. Pat Umberger’s Credit Card to Heaven. Read it before the sacrament, take it with you into the sacrament. It has the words you start with and the act of contrition you end with. Knowing you can read them will give you courage.

3. When perfect strangers or imperfect friends ask you why you seem so happy, just tell them, “I go to Confession!”


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