One of the most beautiful experiences of my priesthood so far, was during two summers when I spent a few weeks working as a confessor in Lourdes. I spent up to five hours each day hearing confessions. People are often surprised when I say this, because they couldn’t imagine anything more boring than hearing confessions for hours on end. But it was an extraordinary experience because what I witnessed was not so much people confessing sins, as the mercy of God at work. Every day you would see many miracles in the confessional, and they are just as real as physical miracles, but much more important: people coming back to God after 10, 20, or 30 years. To me it was an education in the mercy of God, which I will never forget.
There is an interesting connection between forgiveness and healing. We look for physical healing all the time, which is good and important, but spiritual healing is much more important. Jesus worked amazing miracles of physical healing, but that wasn’t his main task. His main task was spiritual healing. Helping people to discover God in their midst, helping people know forgiveness, so that they wouldn’t be carrying great burdens of guilt. This is what he spent most of his time doing, helping people put God at the very center. ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and everything else will follow.’ The miracles that he worked were signs, to help people believe who he was. It says in the Acts of the Apostles, that their preaching was accompanied by signs and wonders, to help people believe in the message they were preaching.
There is a passage in St. Matthew’s Gospel which describes an extraordinary miracle where Jesus heals a man totally paralyzed (9:1-8):
Jesus got back into the boat, crossed the water and came to his own town. Then some people appeared, bringing him a paralytic stretched out on a bed. Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic, ‘Courage, my child, your sins are forgiven’. And at this some scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming’. Knowing what was in their minds Jesus said, ‘Why do you have such wicked thoughts in your hearts? Now, which of these is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But to prove to you that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,’—he said to the paralytic— ‘get up, pick up your bed and go off home’. And the man got up and went home. A feeling of awe came over the crowd when they saw this, and they praised God for giving such power to men.
An interesting thing happens in this account of the man who was healed. First, Jesus was preaching the word of God to the people. That’s why they were listening. Then they brought this paralyzed man to him. But the first thing he said to him was, ‘Your sins are forgiven’. Now I’m sure if you were there, you would have been thinking, ‘Who cares about his sins being forgiven, if you can make him walk’! 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 not die. If you think of all the people that Jesus healed and even brought back to life; later they all died. And then Jesus says, ‘But to prove to you that I have authority to forgive sins’, in other words, ‘To prove to you that I can forgive’, he healed him physically as well.
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 because God wants us to be at peace. Sadly, many people have come to see it in a negative way, as a burden, or something inflicted on us. But in fact it is a beautiful gift that God has given us, so that we can be at peace with him and ourselves; so that when we make a mess of things, we can begin again and not be dragging the past around after us. The Lord has given this to us, because He knows how much we need it. The greatest healing ministry of the Church is the forgiveness of sins.
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 people. That is why the Church is constantly under such attack, because it is where God’s gifts are most powerful. So he attacks it and continually tries to discredit it.
The first thing that Satan tells us, is that our sin is too big, or too terrible to be forgiven. He shames us. So he manages to get many people to become separated from God this way. ‘You couldn’t tell that to a priest.’ God never makes people ashamed. Sin does that and Satan exaggerates it. Look at how Jesus dealt with all the people he met; compassion, mercy and encouragement. He always encouraged people who were struggling.
The second thing Satan tries to convince us of is this: He says, ‘You don’t need to tell a priest. Who is he anyway, what would he know? Look what they are like!’ This is pride. Priests are just ordinary people, true, but it is through his priests that God has chosen to offer his forgiveness. Jesus said to the Apostles:
'Receive the Holy Spirit:
For those whose sins you forgive they are forgiven;
for those whose sins you retain
they are retained' (Jn 20:22-23).
Why did Jesus choose to do it this way? I don’t know. Ask him when you get to heaven, but the fact is that he did. This is not something we made up.
We seem to have a psychological need to tell someone else when we have done something wrong. If you don’t believe me, listen to all the chat shows on the radio and TV. You constantly hear people confessing what they have done wrong, and it’s to the whole country! Through confession the Lord meets us in a way that we can relate to, through another human being, whom He has blessed in a special way. He gives us the gifts that we need to help us, and He knows exactly what we need. He offers us forgiveness, as often as we care to receive it.
Personally I try to go to confession quite often, because I need it. I need to be able to begin again and to receive the strength that God offers me through confession, in order to live as a priest. As a priest, I need all the help I can get and it is there for me if I want it: the Eucharist, God’s forgiveness through confession and his Word in the Scriptures. He has given us so much to help us, there is nothing that we need be afraid of.
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 means that he uses.
The greatest healing ministry of the Church is the forgiveness of sins.