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A Treasury of Arkansas Writers Discussing the Catholic Faith
Official Website of the
Catholic Diocese of Little Rock
Published: August 10, 2002
By Judy Hoelzeman
When my mother started getting forgetful in her early 80s, she sometimes asked me to help her write a list of sins before she received the sacrament of reconciliation. Her idea of what was sinful and mine didn’t match, of course, so we didn’t collaborate very well on this project.
Remembering this humorous experience made me reflect on the “confession” aspect of the sacrament of reconciliation. The primary work of the sacrament — forgiving, healing, renewing God’s life of grace within us — is God’s work. At the same time, it dovetails perfectly with everyday human experience. The confession (or disclosure) of sins, from a human point of view, frees us and makes our reconciliation with others easier. When we admit our sins, we look squarely at them and take responsibility for them. It works in life; it works in God’s sacrament of reconciliation.
Have you ever had someone apologize by saying, “I hope I didn’t do anything to hurt you,” or “If I hurt you, I apologize”? Somehow, an apology that does not admit a wrong does not ring true. It’s easier to say, “a mistake was made,” or “I wasn’t thinking.”
It’s much harder state simply that we did wrong. “I know I hurt you when I (fill in the blank) and I am very sorry.” The Church asks us to do just that in the sacrament when we name our sin and the frequency of it. Jesus gives us a perfect example in Luke’s Gospel when the Prodigal Son returns to his father and admits, “Father, I have sinned ...; I no longer deserve to be called your son” (Lk 15:21a, c).
“The Catechism of the Catholic Church” tells us that conversion is accomplished in daily life by several things, including gestures of reconciliation and the admission of our faults to another. The catechism also reminds us that our sins have wider social implications. When I routinely act out my feelings of jealousy or insecurity by refusing to cooperate with one person, by refusing to adapt to another, by saying unkind things about a third, I am refusing to love. Each time I continue this behavior, the life of the body of Christ is made a little less healthy. (1435, 1440) In the same way, the renewal experienced in the sacrament of reconciliation does not simply heal the one who sinned. The catechism says it has a revitalizing effect on the life of the whole Christian community which suffered from the sin of one of her members. (1469)
In an Apostolic Exhortation on Reconciliation and Penance written in 1984, Pope John Paul puts it this way: “... this reconciliation with God leads, as it were, to other reconciliations, which repair the other breaches caused by sin.”
The most compelling teaching about admitting our sin is found in Matthew’s Gospel. “If you bring your gift to the altar and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, go first to be reconciled ... then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:24).
Jesus actually tells us not to put it off another minute. The longer we deny our “sin” the more likely that we won’t be able to recognize what we’re doing. This Gospel leaves no doubt what Jesus would have us do. If we followed Jesus’ teaching literally, we truly could transform the world into God’s kingdom.
Judy Hoelzeman is a member of St. Edward Parish in Little Rock.