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A Treasury of Arkansas Writers Discussing the Catholic Faith
Official Website of the
Catholic Diocese of Little Rock
Published: July 13, 2019
By Brother Roch McClellan, OSB
As a non-denominational convert baptized into the Catholic Church at the age of 43, I can say that the biggest obstacle I faced in my early faith journey was that of confession. But it wasn’t for any of the typical reasons.
In studying the Catholic faith, I never doubted the legitimacy of the sacrament of reconciliation. It made perfect sense to me. We know that after the resurrection, Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:22-23) This power was then passed on by the apostles to their successors and is conferred to bishops and priests by the laying on of hands.
We are ashamed and afraid to confess our sins out loud before another person because it makes us feel weak and vulnerable.
The biggest obstacle most people have with the sacrament of reconciliation seems to be, to borrow a term made famous by the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, “Fear and trembling.” Put bluntly, it scares us silly. We are ashamed and afraid to confess our sins out loud before another person because it makes us feel weak and vulnerable.
I discovered that repeating Isaiah 41:10 before entering the confessional to be of great value: “Do not fear: I am with you; do not be anxious: I am your God.”
Some individuals struggle with verbally confessing sins to another person, a priest, rather than self-confessing directly to God. Proverbs 12:15 says, “The way of fools is right in their own eyes, but those who listen to advice are the wise.” There is great power in verbalization. Pope Benedict XVI said “… whatever the sin committed, if it is humbly recognized and the person involved turns with trust to the priest-confessor, he or she never fails to experience the soothing joy of God’s forgiveness.”
And that “soothing joy” was my obstacle. I’ve heard many people describe the feelings of their first confession as a great spiritual and emotional relief; the lifting of a great burden. I didn’t feel that in my first confessions. My head knew, but my heart just didn’t get it. St. Ambrose speaks of two conversions in the Church: “there are water and tears; the water of baptism and the tears of repentance.” I had experienced the former, but not the latter.
But God is patient and remarkable and he speaks to each of us in ways that are unique and personal. For me, God uses film. In this particular case, God used David Lean’s 1945 romantic drama “Brief Encounter.”
At the end of that film, a woman sits in a chair. Her husband knows that she has gone through a traumatic experience, but doesn’t know the details. He kneels beside her and speaks the last lines of the film: “You’ve been a long way away. Thank you for coming back to me.” Then both break down in tears.
I had seen this film several times before, but this time was different. Psalm 119:18 implores God to “Open my eyes to see clearly the wonders of your law” and that is exactly what he did for me. In that one scene, in those two lines of dialogue, God opened my heart to the blessed miracle that God performs in the confessional. Now, at the end of every sacrament of reconciliation, I feel Jesus leaning forward and whispering those lines from “Brief Encounter” in my soul: “You’ve been a long way away. Thank you for coming back to me.”