Father Britto Berchmans, a former Salesian of Don Bosco and now a diocesan priest serving a vibrant parish in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, envisions the ideal Catholic parish to be a community of disciples who seek to live the example of Jesus. Contrition, confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation, all part of the sacrament of Reconciliation, are key ingredients to living the Christian life. He explains to VISION why he hopes to see more Catholics embrace this life-giving encounter with Christ.
Why is the sacrament of Reconciliation important?
|Wooden confessionals set up at El Retiro Park
in Madrid for World Youth Day, 2011.
As Saint Paul wrote in his Letter to the Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We all need reconciliation and God’s forgiveness, but how do we obtain it? Catholics have been given a special gift: the privilege to be able to participate in the sacrament of Reconciliation.
We are also given a guarantee that God will forgive us because Jesus gave the power to forgive sins to the church through the apostles. At the end of John’s gospel Jesus says to the disciples after the Resurrection: “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:22-23).
Reconciliation, though, is not only about reciting a list of sins but also looking at the direction of your life, and so in Confession you meet with the priest face-to-face and have a conversation about your life. I think it can be very meaningful that way, but still many people prefer the privacy, the anonymity of being behind a screen, and that’s also an option.
However you confess, when you leave the confessional, when the priest says, “Go in peace, change your life,” you can go with the guarantee that you are forgiven. You can have that serenity and peace that you have been forgiven. Why do you think Reconciliation has fallen out of favor with many Catholics?
For one thing, a lot of people have lost the sense of sin. If you lose that, then you don’t feel the need to go and ask for forgiveness. Unfortunately, however, until you realize that you sin, conversion doesn’t happen and you do not really grow in holiness.
Catholics believe in the sacramental nature of salvation—that God works through material signs. But it’s hard to see the reason for sacraments like Reconciliation if you have also lost the sense of the sacramentality of life. In relationships you know that if you love somebody it’s not enough to have love in your heart; you have to express it to the person through tangible signs.
That is how humans are, and God knows that, so God gives us sacraments that on the surface look like external actions but also create an effect that is spiritual and internal. Just as when a man and a woman pronounce their vows before God and God’s people, it is not only two people expressing their love for each other but also an indissoluble bond that reflects the bond between Christ and the church as well. The sacrament of Reconciliation also calls for something external and something internal.
A third thing has been the sex abuse scandals and the way they were handled. I think some people have lost faith in or at least feel justified in losing faith in the priesthood.
Finally, we have become so this-worldly. Once upon a time there was a much deeper sense of heaven and hell and eternal destiny, but today people don’t think much about it. Once upon a time people used to think about death and the next world, but today we keep death out of sight. If you understand that, you live in a different way. People are so caught up with the busyness of everyday life that they lose sight of that. What are the benefits of Reconciliation?
Probably the most important is a spiritual benefit. Saint Augustine was once asked: What is the secret of holiness? He said it is humility
. Then he said the second and the third secrets of holiness are also humility. In order to grow in holiness you need humility, and there is no better way to become humble than go to Confession.
Sin is predominantly an act of pride. So forgiveness comes from the opposite: being humble. There is no greater act of humility than to say, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” And that brings about God’s grace. Just going to Confession and acknowledging that does something for you. No matter what the priest says or doesn’t say, that is a great act of humility.
Another benefit of every sacrament is an encounter with Christ. A sacrament is meaningful because it echoes what Jesus did. Jesus healed people, and we have the sacrament of anointing. Jesus fed people, and we have the Eucharist. All the sacraments resonate with the actions of Jesus, and one of the greatest things that Jesus did was forgive sinners. That was a huge part of his ministry. When you go to Reconciliation you are encountering the same Christ who forgave Peter and so many others in the gospels and who welcomed Matthew the tax collector and the other disciples even though they had let him down during his hour of suffering.
Reconciliation is a personal encounter with Jesus who is full of mercy and compassion, and there is no greater way to experience God’s love than to experience God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness is not something people deserve. Forgiveness is a gift, and God keeps forgiving us over and over again. When you genuinely celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation, you genuinely touch the love of this God, and I think that is the most beautiful thing about it. View VISION’s three-part series on Reconciliation featuring Fr. Britto Berchmans at www.youtube.com/VisionVocationGuide.