I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but there is a video that has begun making the rounds of Pope Francis performing what looks like an impromptu deliverance on a young man in a wheelchair. What starts as a blessing turns into something rather terrifying:
Whether you believe that what you are seeing is the Holy Father confronting something demonic in a man, or perhaps just the physical reaction of someone who is ill, it underscores a fundamental and often-overlooked truth: evil exists, Satan is real, and we need help to be freed from his grasp and the chains of our own sinfulness. We cannot do it alone.
It will come as no great surprise to you that I am a sinner. Like all who suffer Adam’s curse, the ravages of concupiscence, and fallen human nature, I am a serial repeat offender. I sin. I repent. I beg God to help me to be stronger. I do better for a while, but then temptation rises when I least expect it and…back to the confessional I go.
It is the sacrament of confession that is the healing balm, that knits the bones of conscience and the wounds of soul. It is confession that makes us feel new, the meager penances we receive that give us confidence that God’s mercy transcends His justice. As we kneel before the crucifix, we are reminded that these sins of ours are bought and paid for, and their reparation can thus be satisfied as easily by three Hail Marys as by a year of fasting.
On the uniqueness and effect of confession, Chesterton wrote:
When people ask me, or indeed anybody else, “Why did you join the Church of Rome?” the first essential answer, if it is partly an elliptical answer, is, “To get rid of my sins.” For there is no other religious system that does really profess to get rid of people’s sins. It is confirmed by the logic, which to many seems startling, by which the Church deduces that sin confessed and adequately repented is actually abolished; and that the sinner does really begin again as if he had never sinned.
[W]hen a Catholic comes from Confession, he does truly, by definition, step out again into that dawn of his own beginning and look with new eyes across the world to a Crystal Palace that is really of crystal. He believes that in that dim corner, and in that brief ritual, God has really remade him in His own image. He is now a new experiment of the Creator. He is as much a new experiment as he was when he was really only five years old. He stands, as I said, in the white light at the worthy beginning of the life of a man. The accumulations of time can no longer terrify. He may be grey and gouty; but he is only five minutes old.
A pastor of mine once lamented during a homily that the lines for confession were far too short considering how long the lines for communion were. He was right. But that’s a two-way street.
As essential as this sacrament is to a healthy spiritual life and essential Christian living, it is all-too-often hard to find. In many parishes, confessions are available for somewhere between 30-60 minutes on Saturday afternoons, on what is for many families their busiest day of the week. As a father of six, we do much of our house cleaning, errand-running, grocery shopping, and recreational outings as a family on Saturdays. When we’re not doing that, we’re often working, since our family business requires no few weekend hours. Making it to confession on Saturday in the small window allotted is sometimes possible, but rarely without setting some other important task aside.
At the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, confessions are available 35 hours a week. It has often been the case that I have driven there and made my penance, despite the distance, simply because it was so readily available. But the drive is long – two hours round trip – and as we’ve moved further out from the city and I face more responsibilities at work and at home, I make it there less and less frequently.
I often find myself wishing that parishes, too, would offer confessions on weekdays at an hour suitable for office workers to take a lunch break, or in the evenings, so that commuters can stop in and reconcile with God before plunging into their evening routines. In the times during Lent or Advent when confessions have at times been made more widely available on weekdays, I’ve nearly always taken advantage of it.
If you offer it, we will come.
I know that priests are busy too. Parishes are often under-staffed and dioceses across the country have faced a vocation shortage over the years. But our world is steeped in darkness, and Confession is a profound weapon to bring light into people’s lives. St. John Vianney is said to have heard confessions for as many as 18 hours a day, with pilgrims coming from all around to receive his unique gift – the ability to read souls, to see their true state, to identify sins left unconfessed. I have been to his little parish in Ars, and I must say that for people to have traveled so far to such an unremarkable place, the man himself must have been very remarkable indeed. And surely, he saw the true value of confession. He wrote:
My children, we cannot comprehend the goodness of God towards us in instituting this great Sacrament of Penance. If we had had a favour to ask of Our Lord, we should never have thought of asking Him that. But He foresaw our frailty and our inconstancy in well-doing, and His love induced Him to do what we should not have dared to ask. If one said to those poor lost souls that have been so long in Hell, “We are going to place a priest at the gate of Hell: all those who wish to confess have only to go out, ” do you think, my children, that a single one would remain? The most guilty would not be afraid of telling their sins, nor even of telling them before all the world. Oh, how soon Hell would be a desert, and how Heaven would be peopled! Well, we have the time and the means, which those poor lost souls have not. And I am quite sure that those wretched ones say in Hell, “O accursed priest! If I had never known you, I should not be so guilty!”
No one expects our priests to have the spiritual gifts or the supernatural fortitude of the Cure d’Ars. I would never ask a priest to spend his every waking hour in the confessional, day after day. That is a unique vocation. But imagine if more priests would spend even an hour a day there. Imagine if you could take your lunch hour and visit a local parish, make a good confession, and a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. Imagine if every Sunday, before the only Mass all week that many of us have the opportunity to attend, the confessional light was on. Even if at first, no one came, how might it affect the faithful to know that the option was available to them?
Would you go to confession more often? I would.
So I make my humble plea to our priests: offer us more times for Confession. I beg our bishops: encourage your priests to do this for the faithful of your diocese. This sacrament is transformative, and we need it more than ever.
And if you are a priest or bishop who already provides frequent opportunities for Confession, thank you. If you are a parishioner and your parish provides this, thank your pastor. Thank him every time. Let him know that the sacrifice he makes to be in the confessional means the world to you. Tell him how it has brought you closer to God, and has better prepared you to receive Him in the Eucharist.
And let’s all pray for our confessors. They bear, like Christ, the heavy burden of our sins. They hear all the evil that we do, and while I’ve heard priests say they are consoled by our repentance, they and their intentions should also be supported by our intercessions. I used to always make a habit of doing my penance twice: once for my sins, and once for the priest who prescribed it. (I never told them that, lest they assign me a 54-day rosary novena.)
However you do it, let them know that you appreciate their vocation, their sacrifice, and their dedication to making the sacraments available. Then take them to Our Lord in prayer, and let Him know how much you appreciate them too.