The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of my favorites (because I can relate to the prodigal son and have experienced the Father’s love & mercy) and one that is the spring board for my RCIA talk on the Sacrament of Penance (from my parish days). I use this parable for that purpose because it’s important for adult faith formation that we illustrate God’s love and mercy especially with a sacrament as beautiful, powerful, grace-filled, welcoming and embracing as the Sacrament of Penance is. I speak from the perspective of an adult convert, and now as a priest who is both Confessor and Penitent: that the Sacrament of Penance embodies the elements of the relationship of the Prodigal Son and Father in the parable and that we must embrace it this way and trust that this is what God wants for each one of us, each time we receive this sacrament.
I believe we are moving into a time where more and more of us are once again embracing the Sacrament of Penance (aka Sacrament of Reconciliation, Sacrament of Confession) passing a time when it was becoming less and less common for the everyday Catholic Christian to receive it. The Church requires it of us once a year, but this is a minimal guide. Many receive the sacrament frequently and regularly. It’s not only important for our souls, but also our disposition as penitential Christians who recognize how quickly we can become misguided in our thoughts and actions and how necessary it is for us to rid ourselves of these things and to give ourselves to the right things, of sharing our lives in Christ with others. If we are often and abundantly aware of God’s love and mercy extended to us, we then will develop habits of extending love and mercy towards others too.
In my role now as Vocation Director, I speak about this with those discerning and with seminarians. Although most have spiritual directors who give them advice on how often they should go to confession based on what they struggle with and how they struggle (balancing a good practice but not wanting a scrupulous devotion), it is important that men who are to one day (God willing) become confessors be first good penitents. They too need God’s love and mercy in abundance and to have a sense of how our heart’s anguish is immediately and powerfully overcome by God’s embrace.
Confession is an act of faith and trust in the Lord plain and simple. There are Catholics and non-Catholics out there who question this sacrament because we needn’t confess our sins to a priest, and in their considerations and reflections, place too much focus and emphasis on the priest. I also know as a priest that I cannot allow myself to get in the way of Jesus’ salvific work. My counsel is less important than the grace; the love and mercy poured forth. The words of absolution and healing are God’s, not mine. Stories perpetuate themselves and too many adults especially have heard the stories of the priests who are harsh and judgmental-seeming in the confessional. I share with RCIA groups my one experience but amid the thousands of times I have now gone to confession. Even in that one time, God’s love and mercy were received as I did my Act of Contrition and penance, I knew I was perfect in my relationship with God again. I do not tell people that how the priest treated me was right or okay, but I reiterate for them that I needed to remind myself through my bruised ego that my mind and focus needs to be on God and not on the priest, who may have his own issues or even just had a bad day. To place any more focus on the priest in good confessions or bad experiences is missing the point of the Sacrament of Penance and what we are there for.
Let us all take some time today to consider the blessings we receive when we approach the Sacrament of Penance with a contrite and ready heart and let us focus on the life we are prepared to live after we go: that is the Joy of the Gospel!!