A few years ago, as I served as a sponsor for our parish’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, our class watched a video on the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Although the piece was interesting in terms of its historical content, I felt it missed a great opportunity. The film reviewed proper procedure and obligation, but not once did it mention what a gift the Sacrament of Reconciliation can be for Catholics.
As a convert myself, I always thought confession seemed a confusing and intimidating practice of the Catholic faith. What was the purpose of those dark little rooms where you whispered the unthinkable to a total stranger? I didn’t even like to think about sin, much less talk about it. It was only through the grace of God – literally – that I finally came to appreciate the beauty and significance of this life-giving sacrament.
Out of a Formal and Routine Past
In the Lutheran church of my youth, confession of was handled in a rather tidy manner. The congregation would stand and, together with the pastor, face the altar and read aloud a statement of confession. The pastor would then turn to face the congregation and read a response that essentially told us we were forgiven.
I don’t remember feeling heartily sorry for my sins – or heartily forgiven, for that matter — it was just a part of our Sunday worship. I suppose I must have talked to God privately about my sins growing up, but forgiveness and reconciliation do not hold strong memories for me.
I was a catechumen in 1983 as a young adult preparing for marriage. When our RCIA class broached the subject of confession, the priest arranged to meet with each of us privately. I remember feeling incredibly nervous.
My faith was not yet strong enough to see beyond the man sitting across from me. I couldn’t comprehend that it was Jesus and His forgiveness I was encountering in this sacrament. The priest was helpful and patient, taking me through the Ten Commandments one by one.
I squeamishly admitted my faults, looking to him for clues or approval. The next thing I knew, the priest absolved me and sent me on my way. I didn’t feel any different and wondered if maybe I hadn’t done it right. Puzzled, I decided that this part of Catholicism was going to be a learning process for me.
As I entered the Church formally and began receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation on a somewhat regular basis, I still found myself immersed in the “sin” part of the equation. I was focused on how terrible I was, how unforgivable, and completely missed out on the benefit of forgiveness.
I dreaded having to bare my soul to a man who, in my opinion, must be almost sinless (after all he was a priest, wasn’t he?!) I was still concerned about what he would think of me, not only in the confessional, but every time we crossed paths. It was not uncommon for me, therefore, to go to other parishes when it was time to make a confession.
At the same time, however, something significant was happening. I was beginning to realize that once I made a confession, I truly felt better. Forcing myself to verbalize and take responsibility for my offenses and ask pardon for them really did make a difference in how I felt afterward. It was harder than my Lutheran way, but I was starting to see the benefits.
My biggest stumbling block remained not being able to forgive myself. I used to come out of the confessional disappointed by the Act of Penance – to say an Our Father or something easy like that. I would have much rather been told to take ten laps around the church property. Still seeing things from a purely human point of view, I was unable to grasp God’s ready and complete forgiveness.
Then, I experienced a miracle.
Miracle of Mercy
It occurred during Lent, not long before Easter. I had just read the writings of a young Polish nun, the recently canonized Sister Faustina, and I was really excited about her message of God’s divine mercy. I was praying the Divine Mercy novena and had planned to go to confession on Divine Mercy Sunday for a complete pardon of sins as promised.
Inspired to share her story with my prayer group, I located a video about Sister Faustina and prepared a little presentation. All in all, things were going quite well. That’s when disaster struck, and I committed the most regrettable sin of my life.
A continual string of sleepless nights caring for my newborn was taking a serious toll on my patience level and rational thinking ability. One bleary morning, I lost what was left of my emotional control and raged against my four-year-old in a way that filled me with profound shame and regret. I was devastated and shocked at how such an unbridled outburst could occur during the holiest time of the year.
When I regained my composure, I immediately sought forgiveness from my son and, soon after, from my husband. I knew, however, that most importantly I had to reconcile with God. A part of me wondered if I could be forgiven at all.
The following day was Palm Sunday. As the Church prepared for its most holy celebration, I felt as if I should be counted among the ranks of Judas and Peter. Ashamed and unable to live with myself, I went to my parish to make a confession. My plan was to talk to a retired priest who heard confessions, because I was too embarrassed to talk with my pastor.
When I arrived at church, however, I saw 25 people on line for the retired priest, and only three waiting to speak with the pastor. Humbled, I joined the shorter line. God wasn’t going to make this easy for me.
Inside the confessional, it all came out. Between sobs, I told the pastor the unpleasant details of my crime. He was very understanding and said pretty much what I expected, then he administered absolution. I still felt terrible.
As I was leaving the confessional, however, an amazing thing happened. I experienced an incredible, tangible sensation – as if someone were pouring a bucket of water over my head. I felt washed clean, tingling all the way down to my feet, and feather-light, like the weight of the world was just lifted off my shoulders. I had never experienced anything like this before.
I recognized at once that God was giving me a hit over the head, an unmistakably clear sign that I was truly forgiven. He saw how my heart was breaking and how genuinely contrite I was, and he was happy to welcome me back.
His words, as given to Sister Faustina, occurred to me, “Let not even the weak and sinful fear to approach me, even though their sins be as numerous as the sands of the earth, all will vanish in the fathomless pit of my Mercy.”
If forgiveness from God were always to come as tangibly as I was privileged to experience it that day, I’m sure the lines for confession would be far longer. But I suppose that’s where our faith must come into play.
Divine Dimension Holds Sway
God works signs and wonders in our lives according to our needs. Evidently, on that day, I needed something pretty significant to get my attention. From that experience, I was finally able to learn how to let go of my sins and truly forgive myself.
Today, when I receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I no longer drag my feet, focusing only on my sins. Now, I look forward to receiving God’s mercy. Even though I don’t feel it in that same tangible way, I know it’s happening just the same. I look forward to being unburdened, and feeling close to Our Lord once again.
Instead of seeking out priests I don’t know, I can now go comfortably to any of the clergy in my own parish. Each priest has his own style, but the absolution is always the same because it comes from God.
Through the years, I’ve developed a special relationship with one of our priests by making him my primary confessor. This way, he’s better equipped to help me overcome obstacles in my spiritual growth as I live out my vocation as wife and mother.
For me, an adult convert, the Sacrament of Reconciliation has become a way of encountering Christ intimately and meaningfully, second only to receiving Him in the Eucharist. At last, I experience confession the way I believe God has always intended it: as a great gift. Forgive me, Father, for not recognizing this gift sooner.
Published in St. Anthony Messenger, March 2003
Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Ficocelli