Sunday, September 11, 2016

Three Ways to Make Confession Easier

(Twenty-fourth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 11, 2016, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ex 32: 7-14; 1 Timothy 1: 12-17; Luke 15: 1-32.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fourth Sunday 2016]

The title of my homily today is, “Three Ways to Make Confession Easier.”

That’s easier for you—and easier for the priest!

Obviously the theme of all our Scripture readings today is the same: the awesome and boundless mercy of God.

In the first reading Moses intercedes for the disobedient and hard-hearted Israelites, and God responds by showing them mercy.

In the second reading St. Paul talks about the radical change that took place in him once he became a Christian.  That change was the work of God’s mercy—a fact which Paul explicitly acknowledges in the passage.

And then we have the story of the prodigal son as our gospel reading today—a story that Pope Francis has rightly described as “the parable of the merciful father”.

Because at its core that’s really what the parable is all about.

God’s mercy is boundless, and is always available to us.  But like Moses—and St. Paul—we need to reach out to the Lord in order to receive it.

And the way we reach out is through repentance—and by expressing that repentance in the confessional, especially if we have serious, mortal sins on our souls.

Recall once again my mercy equation: Recognition plus Repentance equals Reception

Recognition of sin combined with repentance for sin leads to the reception of mercy.

When a person goes to confession with the right disposition of heart, that mercy equation is fulfilled and his sins are taken away.

But recognition and repentance are not easy—especially regarding serious sins—which is why confession can be a very difficult experience for us at times.

And yet, there are some things we can do to make it a bit easier.  I’ll share three of them with you briefly this morning.

First of all, we can make the experience of going to confession easier and more pleasant by knowing what our sins are before we go into the confessional.  Many people get nervous about going to confession because they’re worried about remembering the Act of Contrition, or the opening formula (“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned …”)—but the priest can help you easily enough with details like those.  What he can’t tell you is what your sins are—unless, of course, he has the ability to “read souls” like Padre Pio and John Vianney did!  They could sometimes tell people their sins before they confessed them—or when they purposely neglected to confess them.

Don’t worry.  I think you’re safe with Fr. Najim and me!

But this means you need to examine your conscience thoroughly beforehand, so that you don’t leave out any serious sins that need to be confessed.

If you don’t have a list of questions to help you do this properly you can always get one from a priest.  You can even find some good examinations of conscience online.  There’s an excellent one, for example, on the Knights of Columbus web site.

And, if your memory is poor, feel free to write some notes to yourself as you go over the examination of conscience questions, and then use those notes during your confession.

Just make sure you don’t forget to destroy the notes afterward!

The second thing we can do to make the experience of going to confession easier and more pleasant is to remember to confess any and all mortal sins according to “kind” AND “number”.  In other words, if you commit a mortal sin, you not only need to identify the sin itself, you also need to let the priest know how often you committed it.  With a venial sin it’s sufficient to mention the sin and leave it at that.  For example, it’s fine for a little boy to come to confession and say, “I argued with my brother”.  That’s an acceptable way to confess that sin because it’s venial.  But if that same boy grows up, gets married, has an affair, then eventually repents and goes to confession, it will not be enough for him to say, “I committed adultery”; he will also need to say how many times he committed that sin.

Now here, in all honesty, is where it can get very uncomfortable for the penitent AND THE PRIEST!  If you confess a serious sexual sin like adultery but don’t tell the priest how often you committed it, he will probably ask you that question—even though it makes him very uncomfortable doing so (at least it always makes me uncomfortable!).

If that ever happens to you, please understand something: It’s not that Father wants all the sordid details!  It’s not that he’s prying into your affairs (pardon the pun!).  He just wants to help you to make a good confession and get rid of the sin in your life!

Now someone might say, “But, Fr. Ray, I’ve been away from the sacraments for 20 years.  I know that missing Sunday Mass is a serious sin just like adultery is, but I have no idea EXACTLY how many times I’ve missed Mass during the last 2 decades!”

In cases like that, when you don’t know the exact number, it’s sufficient to say that you committed the sin “many times” or “frequently”, or to say that you missed almost every Sunday and Holy Day Mass for the last 20 years.

The bottom line is: In some way the frequency of the sin needs to be mentioned whenever the sin is mortal.

Which brings us to the final thing we can do to make the experience of going to confession easier and more pleasant: Relax about the Act of Contrition!

Some people stay away from confession, or have a meltdown whenever they go to confession, because they either don’t know the Act of Contrition or they’re afraid they’re going to forget it when the priest asks them to say it (which, of course, usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: they get nervous about forgetting, which causes them to forget!).

Many Catholics don’t realize that there’s a lot of flexibility in this part of a confession.  You have some options.  For example, if you want to, you can say one of the standard Act of Contrition prayers, like the one that begins, “Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you …”

But you don’t have to!

You can use your own words, if you wish—and many people do.  Most of these prayers are simple—nothing fancy: “Dear Jesus, I’m sorry I’ve hurt you and others by my sins.  Help me to be better in the future.  Amen.”

You can even use the one-line prayer of the humble tax collector whom Jesus talked about in Luke 18: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

That’s all you have to say!

“Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

That’s a simple prayer that says a lot—when it’s spoken from the heart.

So there you have it, three things you can do to make the experience of going to confession easier and more pleasant: know your sins when you go into the confessional; confess any mortal sins you may have according to kind and number; and don’t get uptight about the Act of Contrition.

And remember, to make it more convenient for you to receive the sacrament on a regular basis, we’ve begun to offer confessions every Wednesday evening here at St. Pius from 5 to 6pm (in addition to our regular time on Saturday afternoons).

Wow—how much easier can it get?