Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Bolton

Stay with us, Lord, on our journey

Lent and Easter

God loved the world so much that He gave his only Son

 

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"Father, I have sinned"

 

Easter is rapidly approaching. We recall the invitation of Ash Wednesday to "turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel" and we look forward to celebrating Easter "with mind and heart renewed". It could be a good time, then, for us to be thinking about one further aspect of our preparation for Easter.

In his mercy our Lord left us a special sacrament that recognises that we do not become saints overnight. We may still be sinners but we are not rejected. We are weak but not written off. We may have failed in many ways but we need not be without hope. Through his Church, our Lord has given us the sacrament of penance. It is the sacrament of healing and forgiveness, of pardon and peace, the sacrament of reconciliation and renewed conversion. Yes, we can rise up from our past sins and make a fresh start.

St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, once began a sermon by saying he was going to speak "about that which is most precious in the life of a Catholic - the sacrament of confession". Judging by present attitudes and practice it would hardly be recognised as such today. Something has changed within the life of the Church, and in the lives and in the practice of many people. Perhaps it is time for us to take a fresh look at this sacrament.

Jesus spent the whole of his public life teaching people of the abundant love of God. He presented God as a Prodigal Father who reaches out to rescue us sinners. The Good News he preached is that God so loved the world that he sent his own Son to bring us freedom and new life. The source of our conversion is not what we do. No, it is the work of God our Father who loves us and who calls us back. It is he who reconciles us to himself and with others.

Without this rich setting of God's saving and forgiving love, there would be no foundation for our effort to make a fresh start. The invitation of Jesus was not simply to "repent", but to "repent and believe the good news". Without that "good news" about God, there is no cause for repentance.

Maybe this is what has been missing in our appreciation of this sacrament. Clearly something has been lacking in our traditional approach for it to have been abandoned by so many. Is it just possible that we have put so much emphasis on searching out our sins, on making sure we have confessed them all, and on feeling all manner of guilt, that we have left God in the background? Could it be that, in our approach to this sacrament, we have focused all our attention on ourselves and on our weakness and sin, rather than paying attention primarily to God and to his goodness to us? Might we have been so concerned about "making a good confession" that we experienced more anxiety than peace?

Many people have been asking for years how we can revitalise the celebration of this sacrament. It may well be that we have the clue to that in the very word just used. Have people experienced this sacrament truly as a celebration, a rich, joyful and peace-giving celebration, of God's mercy and love? And beyond that, there may be an even deeper question to face: do we yet fully believe all that Jesus has told us about the Father's unconditional love for all His children? That is the starting point.

What is at the very heart of the words and deeds of our Lord, what is at the very core of the gospels and of the letters of the New Testament is this conviction: even when we sin, God the Father is still our Father. Even when we sin we do not just say "God"; we say "Father". Like the prodigal son, our prayer is "Father, I have sinned". And even before we have said it, like the prodigal father, God is reaching out to us with a welcoming embrace.

And what is more, whenever we do address God sincerely as our Father, we are not alone. It is always through the Holy Spirit inspiring, deepening and forming us that we pray. So, the prayer "Father, I have sinned" is not entirely of our own doing. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Even before we have owned up to our sins, the Holy Spirit is already working within us. It is the Holy Spirit who guides us, who helps us realise that we have sinned, and who draws us on to be reconciled.

Everything about this sacrament, therefore, is an expression of God's gracious gift to us. We need to see the sacrament more as a confession of God's goodness than of our failures. Then we will realise more readily that, as with all the sacraments, also this sacrament is before all else an act of God. It celebrates God's gift of reconciliation. We will also recognise that, as with all the sacraments, it is truly an act of worship, an act of trust in God's mercy and of thanksgiving for his grace.

We need also to remember that, as with all the sacraments, this sacrament is always a celebration of the whole community of the Church. We are a community of sinners reconciled by God's grace. We are also a community which has received the mission to proclaim and hand on his saving grace. We are to be both reconciled and reconciling. We are involved in this together. We reach out to each other, therefore, supporting and supported by one another, as we rejoice in celebrating and sharing God's gifts of pardon and peace. We reach out to each other, needing and needed by one another, as we continue together along the path of conversion.

This is the spirit in which to approach this sacrament; and truly, there is something here that is, indeed, most precious.