This Friday Pope Francis has asked all parishes to have 24 hours of confessions as part of the ‘Year of Mercy’. So all over the world people are being invited to take the time to go to confession. Here we will start at noon on Friday until 11pm and then 9am on Saturday until noon. Why has the Lord put this idea into Pope Francis’ mind? Perhaps because it is something we have neglected and we need to take more seriously. Let me try and make sense of why it is so important to confess.
Any time I visit people in the hospital or anywhere I always offer to prayer with them. One thing that I nearly always pray for is peace of mind. It is one of the things that people always want to hear, because most of us are not fully at peace. Many of us need God’s forgiveness, to know that we are forgiven, no matter what it’s for. For me as a priest it is always wonderful to see what a relief it is for people when they know they have been forgiven through the priest. Their face is different, they are healed. There is an interesting connection between forgiveness and healing. We look for physical healing all the time and that’s good, but we also look for spiritual healing all the time too, unknown to ourselves.
Jesus was able to work miracles of physical healing, amazing miracles, but that wasn’t his main task. His main task was spiritual healing. Helping people to discover God in their midst, helping people know the healing power of God’s forgiveness so that they wouldn’t be carrying great burdens of guilt. So He taught people about God, about how to live by God’s laws so that they could be better people, healthier, happier people. This is what He spent most of his time doing, helping people put God at the center. ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and everything else will follow.’ The miracles that he worked were signs to help people believe that he was genuine.
One of the many accounts of Jesus healing someone involves a paralysed man who is brought before him on a stretcher (Luke 5:18ff) and an interesting thing happens when he does. First it says that Jesus was preaching the word of God to the people. That’s why they were listening. Then they brought this paralysed man to him. The first thing Jesus said to him was, ‘Your sins are forgiven’. Now I’m sure if you were there, you’d have been thinking, ‘Who cares about his sins being forgiven, let’s just see him healed’! But Jesus did this deliberately to show us that forgiveness leads to healing, and it is more important than physical healing. What happens to the spirit is more important than what happens to the body. The body is going to get sick and die eventually anyway, but the spirit will live on. Then he says to the people, ‘But to prove to you that I have authority to forgive sins’, in other words, ‘To prove to you that I’m not kidding…’ and then He healed him.
God has passed on this authority to forgive sins to his priests, so that we can all avail of God’s forgiveness and the healing that comes with it. It is God’s gift to us. It is there to help us, because God wants us to be at peace and to be happy.
Now there are two tricks that Satan plays on us to prevent us from receiving this forgiveness. Satan hates the human race and does everything he can to destroy it. He is at war with God’s creation. That is why the Church is constantly under such attack, because it’s where God’s gifts are most powerful. So he attacks it and tries to discredit it continually. Jesus speaks about him many times in the Gospels.
The first things that Satan tells us is that our sin is too big, or too terrible to be forgiven and therefore that we shouldn’t go to Communion any more either. He tries to shame us. He tries to get many people to become separated from God this way. ‘I couldn’t tell that to a priest.’ God never makes people ashamed. Sin does that and Satan exaggerates it. He also tries to discourage us. ‘There’s no point in continually confessing because you’re not getting any better anyway. You are no good.’
The second thing is this. He says, ‘Why should you confess to a priest? You don’t need to tell a priest. Who is he anyway, what would he know? You can just tell God you are sorry yourself.’ This is pride. Yes priests are just ordinary people, but they are the ones God has chosen to offer his forgiveness through. Jesus said to the disciples, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whoever’s sins you forgive they are forgiven. Whoever’s sins you retain they are retained’ (John 20:23ff).
The Lord also gives us a concrete way to experience his forgiveness because He knows we need it. Listen to the chat shows on the TV and radio. You continually hear people confessing their sins. We have a psychological need to tell someone what we have done wrong. So don’t let anyone or anything come between you and the forgiveness God offers you. God wants us to be healed and this is one of the most powerful means that He uses. Make the most of it.
Look at the first reading today where Moses sees this strange sign of the burning bush. When he goes to approach it, the Lord tells him to take off his shoes because the ground on which he is standing is holy. It is holy ground because God is there. The Lord is telling us not to be casual about coming into his presence; not to be casual about receiving him in the Eucharist. If you got a chance to personally meet Pope Francis, or someone really important, would you make any effort to prepare for it? Of course you would. Well here at each mass we get a chance to receive Jesus, the Son of God, into our very bodies. The very least we should do is prepare as well as possible because we are approaching the ultimate holiness of God. We must never be casual about it. The best possible way we can prepare to come close to God is by confessing regularly; humbling ourselves before God. That is also why we begin every mass by acknowledging that we are sinners. Confessing once a year is the absolute minimum we are required to do as Catholics. Who lives a relationship at the absolute minimum level?
Forgiveness and healing go together. It’s not always easy to go through with treatment for a disease, but it is necessary if we want healing. It is not easy to admit that we are wrong and to confess, but it is essential if we want to be forgiven. It is God’s gift to you. Don’t let anyone deprive you of it.
‘Whoever’s sins you forgive, they are forgiven.
Whoever’s sins you retain, they are retained.’