Sunday, February 21, 2021

1st Sunday of Lent, Year B (Gospel: Mark 1:12-15) Healing and the forgiveness of sins



In my work as a priest over the last twenty-two years, I have come across many people who have told me about miracles of healing, which they or someone close to them, have experienced. A close friend of mine by the name of Sandra, who is married with 6 children, saw one of her own children miraculously healed at Lourdes a few years ago. Her son Joe, who was about 7 at the time, was suffering with severe eczema all over his body. It meant that his skin was raw and bleeding a lot of the time. He had to be covered in wet bandages from head to toe which took his mother an hour and twenty minutes to put on each time. They decided to bring him on pilgrimage to Lourdes to pray for him. Lourdes is an international Marian shrine in the south of France where Our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette in 1858. Thousands of sick people are brought there each year and many physical healings have taken place.


While they were there he was brought to the ‘baths’ which is where many of the sick are brought in order to bathe in the healing waters of Lourdes as Our Lady told Bernadette to do. After he had been to the baths he started to say, ‘Mom, I’ve been healed!’ She paid no attention to him as he was often playing up, as little boys will. But then he started to say it to others on the bus and eventually he said, ‘Mom I’ve been healed. Why don’t you believe me?’ She started to get suspicious at this point and said, ‘I do believe you.’ When they went back to the hotel she took off the bandages and his eczema was almost completely gone. That is just one of many stories of physical healing that I have heard and I’m sure there are many of you here who could tell me more.


Why is it that we don’t see more miracles of healing? Jesus healed many people during his time on earth, so why doesn’t God seem to heal more today?


For two summers I worked as a confessor in Lourdes; just hearing confessions, nothing else.  It was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve had as a priest so far, although it was exhausting. People are amazed when I say that hearing confessions for hours could be such a wonderful experience as most people couldn’t imagine anything more boring. However, the reason it was so great was because it is where a huge number of miracles take place every day and very real miracles too. When people are given the grace to be able to confess sins they have been burdened with for years, you can physically see a change in their faces.  They are being healed and it is usually a much deeper healing that a purely physical healing. The body needs healing, but the healing of the spirit is more important because it affects us much more. Many people came to me and the other priests and confessed sins they were carrying, often for 20, 30 and even 40 years. It is a very moving thing to watch the transformation in people’s faces when they realize they have been forgiven.  A weight is lifted from them and they are made free. I saw this happen right before my eyes many times and you know straight away that this is the healing power of God at work. 


The greatest healing ministry of the Church is the forgiveness of sins. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus was about the forgiveness of sins. In each mass at the consecration the priest holds up the chalice and says, ‘This is the cup of my blood, which will be poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.’  The mass is all about the forgiveness of sins, because at each mass we are at the event of Calvary when Jesus was killed. This was all done so that our sins could be forgiven. That is why the mass is so powerful and that is why we pray for everyone and everything in each mass. God the Son is offered to God the Father, so that sins may be forgiven.


Because of the way we are made with body and spirit we need concrete ways of relating to each other and we need concrete ways of being able to understand God. That is one of the reasons why Jesus gives us his body and blood in the form of bread and wine. They are things we can see and touch and taste. We can relate to them. When it comes to the forgiveness of sins Jesus has given us the gift of confession. Through confession we have a definite way of being able to confess our sins to another person in total secrecy and so to be healed. Confession is an extraordinary gift of healing which the Lord offers us, because He knows how much we need it.  It’s not just about confessing everything so that we can be good enough for God, because we can never be good enough for God.  This is a gift that God has given us for our benefit, so that we can be healed and not be dragging around the mistakes of our past with us. The Lord wants us to be free and to be able to enjoy our lives and this is one of the wonderful ways that the Lord has done this.


But why can’t I just tell God I’m sorry myself?’ Well you can if you want to and I’m sure that the Lord forgives us when we do that, but God knows that in our humanity we have a psychological need to confess to another person. If you don’t believe me listen to the TV and radio shows where you find people ‘confessing’ their sins to the whole world every day.  We have a need to confess, because that is what helps us to heal. It is also an act of humility to come before God in confession and confess and that is what the Lord has asked us to do; to go to one of his priests, whom He has anointed, to confess and receive his grace.


Jesus said to his Apostles, ‘‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:21–23).  Jesus was saying that He would be working in and through them, since it is only God who forgives sins, but the Lord made it in such a way that He would offer his forgiveness through his priests. That is why we have the gift of confession. It is meant to be a gift, not a burden, but Satan is quick to convince us that we don’t need it; that we can go to God ourselves. Why should we have to confess to a priest when he is just a sinner too? Of course priests are sinners like anyone else, but this is the gift that God has given us through the priesthood, in order to help us, to heal us and to help us be free. If the Lord has given us this gift, who are we to say we don’t need it?


The most important thing about confession is the very act of going there in sincerity and confessing whatever you can remember. It is a way of saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner. This is all I can remember.’ The very act of doing that is a beautiful thing. Just telling God I am sorry myself, does not show any humility and it is just convenient for us. Taking the time and going out of the way to confess is an act of humility and the only way we can every come before God is in humility is knowing that He is everything and we are nothing.


Many people carry burdens of sins from the past that they have not been able to confess because of guilt or shame. Remember God never shames us. That’s what Satan does. Jesus called him ‘the accuser’ and that’s what he does. The Lord is always the one to help us back on our feet and that is what confession is about. The Lord is giving us his reassurance and grace to begin again.


People continually ask me why past sins keep coming up in their mind, even after they have been confessed. That is because when we sin, it does damage and leaves scars. Those scars remain as memories. So just as when you see a scar on your arm you remember the wound, although it is now healed, in the same way we see the scars of our past sins, which remain as memories. When they come to mind, that is the time to thank God for his mercy, rather than wondering are they really forgiven.


Not long ago I told you the story of Marino Restreppo, the Hollywood producer who had been very successful, but was living a very sinful and ungodly life. Then one day while visiting his home in Columbia he was captured by FARC rebels and held in the jungle for six months. One night during this terrible ordeal, he had an illumination of conscience. God showed him everything that had happened in his life and all the sins he had committed. It went on for about eight hours. He knew that if he had died at that moment he would have gone to hell, because he had totally rejected God by the way he was living. But what I thought was especially interesting was that at the end of this experience, which completely changed him, he knew he had to go to confession. Even though he knew he had been forgiven, he also knew that he had to confess to a priest.


The Lord has given us confession for a reason and He wants us to use it. Of all the things you do during Lent, nothing could be more important than going to confession. And if you still find yourself thinking that you don’t need to go to a priest, because you can tell God you are sorry yourself, ask yourself one question. Who told you that, because it did not come from God. Who else would want you to stay away from confession, where you receive God’s grace? Satan knows how powerful it is and that’s why he tries to convince us that we don’t need it.


The greatest healing ministry of the Church is the forgiveness of sins.

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