If we go back to the beginning, back to the Garden of Eden, consider the first thing Adam and Eve did after they ate of the fruit?
They hid from God.
And when God walked through the garden, He called to them, calling them to conversion. Make no mistake; God knew what they had done, but He respected their free will, for he was not going to reneg on his gift of freedom. Would they accept or reject His love? They had a choice, and so God called to them, "Where are you?"
When God did confront them and asked them what they had done, indeed, He knew. But how did Adam and Eve respond?
They blamed each other. They blamed God. So we see that sin drives a wedge in between ourselves and each other, and between ourselves and God.
Maybe this has happened at your house. Maybe, for example, you left your children safely seated in front of Veggie Tales as you ran next door with soup for a sick neighbor. But upon your return, 10 minutes later, the dog or cat had mysteriously colorful markings that looked suspiciously like finger paint. And the dolls were all bald. And the four-year-old's hair was all over the kitchen floor.
And the house is strangely silent.
What's the first thing you say? Might I suggest:
"WHO DID THIS!?"
You already know who did it, or at least have a pretty darn good idea. And if they haven't already been hiding by that point, they likely did when they heard your tone. Or perhaps they are back in front of Veggie Tales pretending to be innocent with all their might.
And so you confront them directly. "What did you do?" (Even though what they did was apparent given the evidence of the fingerpaint stained hands and clothing, not to mention the dog, and the badly-shorn head of the 4 year old, and the scissors in the hand of her brother.)
What do they say?
"HE DID IT! SHE DID IT! THE DOG DID IT! IT'S YOUR FAULT, YOU shouldn't have left." And they look at you balefully.
Are you buying it? Not so much.
But there's good news in spite of all of this, because you love your children, and you want them to be reconciled to you, and so you help that process along.
That's how God responded, too. He loves us all so much, that even though we constantly reject his love and act in disobedience, He works to reconcile us to him.
Consider the ministry of Jesus; it was all about forgiveness. Bartimaeus the blind man, the sinful woman at the Pharisee's home, and the paralytic lowered down to Jesus for healing. Indeed, he healed them all by forgiving their sins, but acknowledging what was unseen.
Jesus drew the line in between pious acts with no internal correlation, and brought to the forefront the need of an interior conversion. He recognized, in other words, not what was on the outside, but what was on the inside; repentance, shame, contrition, devotion, faith...all of those things. All that was unseen. Jesus could see what was in the heart.
Just a you can see, when your children come to you with true contrition. You can tell, can't you, when they really are repentant, when they recognize that they have offended, when they have done something wrong? You can see when they are truly sorry, as opposed to when they just look at their sibling and say "I'm sorry" and don't mean it. God can see that, too. Just as you can see when your kids are fudging, God can see when we're fudging.
So that was the mission of Jesus Christ...to reconcile us, and he didn't leave us alone, but passed on his ministry to the Apostles, and that ministry is still alive and well today.
Consider this; twice in the Bible, God "breathes". In Genesis 2, God breathes life into Adam, and in John 20:22-23, He breathes on the Apostles, saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained." In this way, Jesus passed his authority specifically onto the Apostles, and this ministry has been passed down through Holy Orders since that time.
I'm going to jump back to the Old Testament for a moment. Consider this; the Bible is a love story. If you really read it, you see that it's all about love, it's all about mercy, and it's all about salvation. Throughout history, it has always been we who turned away from God. God never abandoned His people; the people always turned from Him, sinning against him in rejecting his love and his covenant. Over and over again, God made a new covenant, and each time, people broke that covenant. Finally, God definitively restored our dignity by coming to us in the flesh, by sending his own Son to die in our place. Justice has been served, in a redemptive act of mercy. If that isn't a love story, I don't know what is.
So we see clearly that God offers Mercy...how do we respond? We have a choice, to accept or reject. The first step is to become aware of the ways we have offended God, and we do this through an examination of conscience. Once we are aware, we get ourselves to a priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and there, we admit to God our personal failings, and resolve to do better, because we love Him.
So when we go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation (also called Confession, Penance, the Sacrament of Healing, Forgiveness, and Mercy), we meet not just the priest, but Jesus himself. We are alone before God, we are confessing to Him through the priest. Just as the priest stands in persona christi, that is, "in the person of Christ" at the consecration of the Mass, so he is during the sacrament of Confession. And no matter what we say, he can never reveal what we have said; priests have gone to their deaths rather than ever reveal what was said to them in Confession.
You will never hear me say that this Sacrament is necessarily easy, and in fact, it's hard. It's really difficult, especially if you've been away for a long time. And so I think it's appropriate that I share with you my own Confession story, because I used to hate this Sacrament, I didn't believe in it, and in fact, I really wasn't much of a Catholic, either. Call me Bartimaeus. Because this gospel describes me, I'm going to post it here:
They came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus, sat by the roadside begging. 47 On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, "Jesus, son of David, have pity on me." 48 And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he kept calling out all the more, "Son of David, have pity on me."
49 Jesus stopped and said, "Call him." So they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take courage; get up, he is calling you." 50 He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus. 51 Jesus said to him in reply, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man replied to him, "Master, I want to see."
52 Jesus told him, "Go your way; your faith has saved you." Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way
I was raised Catholic, was very involved in my faith in High School, but when I went to college, for different reasons, I lost my faith. More of the story is here and here. (For the purpose of length, I'm summarizing. Regular readers know this part of the story well.)
In any case, so it was that I realized it was time to come home. I thought I was unholy. I thought that if I went to Mass, I was the most unholy person there so I remained in the back of the church, not wanting to come closer for fear anyone would be able to see through me and see how awful I was. I avoided priests, because I was afraid they could REALLY see how bad I was and make me go to Confession. Because I didn't want to go to Confession. It was my biggest sticking point. God had an answer, though, because he threw a priest across my path; I went to a friend's home one day, and there he was, visiting her family. He and I had a wonderful conversation and there was not a single point where he indicated that he realized how terrible I was as a human being. So I began to think that maybe I could at least go talk to him, maybe make my confession. But every time I picked up the phone to call him, I hung up quickly. So finally I resolved to go one Saturday. I got into my car, I drove to the church...and as soon as I saw it I hit the gas and got out of there! It was a few years before I finally got to the point that I couldn't take living in that darkness anymore. There I was, at the roadside, at the back of the church, praying, "God, please don't give up on me. Jesus, have pity on me!"
And all the while, Jesus was calling. And I fled, just like Adam and Eve. I hid. But God is faithful, and he never gave up on me.
So a Holy Week came, and I wanted to receive Jesus worthily on Easter. I wanted the blindness lifted. I wanted to come home.
So I found a church I would likely never go to again, and attended a penance service. The reading was, of course, all about the Prodigal Son. And as I listened, tears coursing down my cheeks, I held the examination of conscience, and convicted myself of everything on it, even sins I hadn't committed! At the end of the service, they announced where each priest would be, and where to go if desirous of an anonymous confession. Realizing that the line was immediately 2 weeks long, I opted to jump into a closer line, for a face-to face confession. Because I had toiled so long to get here, and fought every moment not to flee again. So I got in line, crying, unable to stop. I stood there for 45 minutes or so, trying to hide my tears, but no one was fooled; but they were sensitive enough not to say anything. Tears are common, more so than you may realize.
Finally it was my turn, and to this day I feel so bad for that poor priest! When he saw my condition he said, "Oh my!"
I didn't remember what to do or say, so I only choked out, "Father, it's been 12 years...." And I waited for my punishment.
"12 YEARS! THAT'S GREAT! THAT'S WONDERFUL! You're the PRODIGAL DAUGHTER! WELCOME HOME!"
He stopped just short of hugging me, although he likely wanted to, and really, it would have been appropriate. He heard my confession, although he likely couldn't understand me, but nodded while listening, understanding I was doing the best I could. And I will never in a thousand years be able to describe that experience of mercy. I will never be able to tell you adequately what it was like to be absolved, 12 years of...YUCK...gone. And I could finally see again.
We cannot free ourselves from our sin; we need God's grace. We need help. But God doen't just come when we call; He answers, but asks us to take a step. Bartimaeus threw aside his cloak, symbolic of casting off his sin, and he walked to Jesus himself. We are called to come to Jesus in the Sacrament of Reconciliation; we have to cooperate with grace.
All of the sacraments are a personal encounter. In the Gospel, Jesus did not heal en masse...he had a very direct and personal encounter with each individual. That has not changed. Of the 3 forms of the sacrament, all require individal grace, even the extreme "General Absolution", used only in emergencies or mission territories. If we survive the emergency, we are STILL required to go meet Jesus personally in the sacrament. In most dioceses, including our own, the Archbishop has declared that the conditions do not exist to validate a General Absolution. While it does happen here, I will not comment; it is between that parish and the Archibishop. We must act according to what we know, and follow what is right. And who doesn't want that personal encounter with Christ?
But it's so important to know that faith begins at home; faith is learned at home. Parents are the foundation. In 20 years, your children will not remember their catechists, their teachers in school, or the sacramental books they have to write in. But they WILL remember your lived faith, and in later years, that's what makes the difference.
Even though I rebelled, and I had no problem criticizing the Church, I could not criticize Mom...not with regard to her faith. She lived it out, and she revealed through action, no matter what disasters were happening, Mass and Confession had priority in her life. So I saw Truth there. And in the face of that, I knew there were answers to my questions and doubts.
Remember; it is YOUR job to instruct your children in the faith. While it is learned and reinforced in school also, it is truly learned at home. If you have questions and don't know the answers, don't worry! None of us knows everything! But there are resources. We all want our children to be as intimite with Jesus Christ as possible; we all want them to experience the joy and the forgiveness and relationship with Jesus we have all had through this sacrament.
When First Reconciliations come up, there will be several priests available, and we encourage all of you to attend with your children. Just as you help them prepare and share your own joy, it's even better if you go to the sacrament as a family, then keep that habit. We are given the ability and grace to become saints; but that road begins in the home, and I'm living proof of the importance of that example. John Paul II and Mother Teresa, both spiritual giants, went to Confession DAILY. I have to wonder; what are the rest of us missing that we don't?
The best way to become a Saint is to live like one; today is the day we should start, and pray that the children follow our example.