You may sometimes wonder what it's like on the other side. I don't mean eternity, but the other side of a coruessional or penance room, where the priest sits. After thirty-three years of priesthood, I'm here to tell you. It is a humbling, joyful experience to hear another person's coruession and, in spite of my unworthiness, to forgive sins in the Person of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. I experience that humble joy over and over again whether I am hearing a so-called "routine" coruession or whether it is a homecoming for a Catholic who has carried a heavy burden for many years.
I gather I'm in good company. In this "Year for Priests" Pope Benedict XVI has held up for the whole Church the example of St. John Vianney. From 1818 until his death in 1858, he served as parish priest of a small village church in Ars, France. In the last ten years of his life, he spent as many as sixteen hours a day in the coruessional. Thousands of people from all walks of life came to seek his wise advice, his sound instruction, and his deep understanding of the interior life.
Most of us know of St. Padre Pio, a Capuchin priest who died in 1968 and who was canonized in 2002. Like St. John Vianney, St. Padre Pio also spent many hours hearing coruessions. People came to him from all over the world. Both St. Padre Pio and St. John Viarmey had such spiritual insight that they could often tell when a penitent withheld a sin that needed to be forgiven. Both of these holy men dedicated themselves to the Sacrament of Penance, a sacramental ministry at the very heart of the priesthood.
In this Year for Priests, the Diocese of Bridgeport is once again conducting a Lenten Coruession Campaign. Through the generosity of priests throughout Fairfield County, the Sacrament of Penance will once again be offered from 7:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. each Tuesday in Lent in all the parishes of the Diocese. The idea behind the campaign is simple: you can walk into any Catholic Church in the county on Tuesday evening to receive the Sacrament. If you'd prefer not to go to your home parish you can easily do so. By making the sacrament so widely and easily available the hope is that many who are hesitant to go to coruession will find it easier. I am very grateful to my brother priests for their pastoral generosity and love in making the Sacrament of Reconciliation so abundantly available during Lent. It is, in a very real sense, a sacrament of joy -both for the priest who has the privilege of reconciling others to God and for penitents who experience the depth of the Father's love and freedom from the shackles of sin.
In fact, I decided to repeat the Lenten Coruession Campaign in 2010 upon the recommendation of the Presbyteral Council, a representative group of priest advisors. While last year's campaign involved considerable sacrifice on the part of many priests, it also bore much fruit. More than a few priests told me that they received a tremendous response. Manypeople who had not been to confession for years came back. Some returned to the practice of their faith. Many were freed of heavy burdens. Others received direction for coping with daily problems and growing in the spiritual life. All received the joy of God's own reconciling love.
Going to confession is not always easy. For example, people who have been away from the sacrament for a long time may have forgotten how to go. They imagine themselves fumbling for words they mayor may not have learned as children. That is why the Diocese will distribute in all our parishes simple guides on how to participate in the Sacrament of Penance. These are published both in English and in Spanish and come to us courtesy of the Knights of Columbus. The so-called"mechanics" are not difficult: 1) Make a careful examination of conscience based on the 10 Commandments and the Beatitudes; 2) Confess one's sin to the priest —all mortal sins not yet confessed as well as one's venial sins; 3) Make a sincere act of contrition, a sorrow for sin motivated by God's love; 4) Fulfill the acts of penance which the confessor assigns (see Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 303-304).
There's another reason why people hesitate to receive the Sacrament of Penance: they are embarrassed to confess their sins to the priest. If that's your situation, here are a few thoughts that might be helpful. First, as a penitent you can remain anonymous if you so chose. Second, the priest has the strict obligation to maintain absolute secrecy regarding the contents of confessions. Third, the priest is to listen attentively and compassionately to what is confessed and to help penitents to open their hearts to the Lord's mercy, to amend their lives, and to grow in discipleship. Fourth, when the priest says the words of absolution, our sins are forgiven. And please don't forget -we priests are humbled and joyful to hear your confessions —to be the instruments of divine mercy. It's one of the best ways we can serve you and it always brings us back to the very roots of our priestly vocation.
The Sacrament of Penance brings about the forgiveness of our sins; we are reconciled with God and the Church. There is joy in heaven and on earth when sinners repent -the whole Body of Christ is strengthened! Penitents who have lost the state of grace are restored to friendship with God. The eternal punishment due to moral sin is taken away. Although the sin is forgiven, the lingering damage of sin in our lives needs ongoing repair. Thus we need to maintain an ongoing stance of repentance before God through prayers, voluntary acts of penance, and good works. Constantly we must hear the voice of the Lord calling us: "Repent and believe in the Gospel!" (Mark 1:14).
If, in a spirit of genuine openness to the Lord's love, we take part in the Sacrament of Penance during this season of Lent, we will experience that peace, serenity, joy, and strength we need for living the Gospel!
May God bless and keep us in His love!