By Dr. Judy Bullock
On Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis will begin the Jubilee Year of Mercy with the opening of a Holy Door of Mercy.
The main focus of this Year of Mercy is twofold:
- The recognition and appreciation of God’s forgiveness and mercy for us.
- The acceptance of our role as the visible face of God’s mercy in the world.
In this column, the focus will be on the first — God’s forgiveness and mercy offered to us.
One primary way we can experience God’s mercy is through the sacrament of reconciliation or penance. Yet this sacrament is perhaps the one least celebrated by most Catholics. With his example and teaching, Pope Francis has brought this sacrament to the attention of the entire world.
Why do we need it?
Some may think that the only real need we have for reconciliation is when we need to confess serious sin. Yet dismissing less serious sin on a regular basis can be damaging to our spiritual lives. One theologian compared it to the build-up of cholesterol in the arteries. He warned that “a series of minor transgressions can create enough spiritual havoc that moral resistance is weakened.”
It is important to keep in mind that the sacrament of reconciliation is not just about giving a list of sins for which we want pardon. This sacrament is focused on helping us to make a change in our lives to avoid these sins in the future. Regular celebration of this sacrament helps one confront one’s conscience and keep the mind attuned to the need for moral rehabilitation and spiritual healing.
What to expect when you go to confession
For many, just the mention of the word confession causes a certain level of anxiety. Perhaps some of this stems from the manner in which we may have confessed our sins as a child, or just an aversion to confronting our sinfulness.
It is important to remember today that no matter how long it has been since you went to confession and no matter how little you know about the procedure, you can be sure that you will be assisted and welcomed to this sacrament. In fact, there are usually cards available that give the order and any texts you might need.
The reconciliation room or confessional
In most Catholic churches the areas designated for this sacrament have the priest seated in a position which allows penitents to choose whether they wish to be face to face with the priest or to be behind a screen.
The penitent should have some time to prepare for this sacrament, praying for God’s forgiveness and thoughtfully comparing his or her life to the example of Christ, using the commandments and the beatitudes as guides.
Celebration of the sacrament
When the penitent enters the reconciliation room, the priest will welcome him or her and together they will make the sign of the cross. The penitent may give the time of his or her last confession and perhaps offer some personal information so that the confessor may be better able to assist them. A brief passage from Scripture may be read by the priest or penitent.
Then the penitent confesses his or her sins. The priest may offer some advice and will give the penitent an act of penance which may be prayer, self-denial or works of mercy.
The penitent then expresses sorrow for sin and resolves to sin no more using an act of contrition or prayer provided by the priest.
The priest gives the prayer of absolution, making the sign of the cross over the head of the penitent. A short acclamation of praise and dismissal conclude the rite.
Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.