A few years ago I spent three weeks in Lourdes hearing confessions and the following year I spent two. Nothing else, just hearing confessions. Many friends of mine were surprised to hear me say that it was one of the most beautiful experiences I have had as a priest so far. That may sound strange, but it is true. The Lord showed me two things through this time of hearing confessions. The first is that the human race is sick, or suffering from sickness, if you like. I listened to people from every part of the English speaking world, and many from other countries too, and they were all confessing the same things: adultery, injustice at work, broken relationships, dishonesty, abortions, everything. All the same things in spite of different countries and different cultures. In one way you could see it is a horrible picture, but that’s not what I saw. What I saw was the sickness of the human race, but more importantly the mercy of God. If this is how we are as a race, the mercy of God must be enormous to put up with us; and of course it is. What I experienced more than anything else was the compassion of God for all these people, because God drew them (and me) to come back to him again in confession, many people coming after several decades.
I know there are a million reasons we can think of for not going to confession, but God keeps drawing people to him through this extraordinary gift. And that’s what it is, a gift. Sadly many of us have come to see it as a burden, as something we have to do, or something that is inflicted on us. It is in fact the complete opposite. It is a tool that God has given us to help us, so that we can be at peace, so that when we make a mess of things we can come back to God knowing that we are forgiven.
Now I know that you may say, ‘why can’t I just go and tell God that I am sorry myself, without going to a priest?’ Well of course you can if you want, but it is not the same thing. First of all the Lord knows what we are like and that we need a concrete way of being able to relate to him. That’s also one of the reasons why He gives himself to us in the form of bread and wine. It’s something we can see and touch and taste. The same is true with confession. We seem to have a psychological need to confess what we have done wrong to another person. And if you don’t believe me just listen to the chat shows on TV and radio at the moment where you will regularly hear people confessing their sins, and confessing to the whole country too! That is why the Lord gives us a means of confessing in complete secrecy, to someone he has specially appointed for this. It doesn’t mean that priests are holier than anyone else, as we well know, but the Lord has given us this gift through the priesthood, just as He has given us the gift of the Eucharist through the priesthood. Jesus said to Peter, and the Apostles:
Receive the Holy Spirit. Whatever sins you forgive, they are forgiven. Whatever sins you retain they are retained (John 20:23).
He also said to them:
Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me, and those who reject me reject the one who sent me (Lk 10:16).
In other words it is God who forgives through the priest. The Lord has given us this because he knows how much we need it. Sadly many of us have neglected it and come to see it as a burden rather than as something the Lord gave us to help us. I have also heard the argument: ‘Why should I go to a priest when we see what some of them have done?’ That is a false argument, because if we are to reject the gift of the Lord’s forgiveness because he gives it to us through the priesthood, then we should reject the Eucharist for the same reason. If the Lord God offers us his forgiveness through the priesthood then He does it for a particular reason. And we priests all have to go to confession too, don’t forget.
Now I know that we have these reconciliation services at Christmas and Easter, and they are a help, but they are not the same as individual confession, because you don’t have the time to listen or talk in the same way. The weeks that I spent hearing confessions in Lourdes and other places are where I saw real miracles. They were real miracles because I saw people being relieved of great burdens of guilt and shame and being able to leave in peace again with God. That is a tremendous gift.
In today’s readings the Lord reminds us first of all that He loves everything He has created. He also reminds us that He is continually calling us to repent and come back to him. May we recognise his forgiveness as the gift of healing that it is.
‘Yet you are merciful to all, because you can do all things
and overlook people’s sins so that they can repent’