We are approaching Monday of Holy Week—Reconciliation Monday here in the New York metropolitan area, when virtually all parishes are open for confessions throughout the entire day.
This tradition was started in our Diocese of Rockville Centre more than two decades ago, and instituted shortly thereafter in the Brooklyn Diocese and Archdiocese of New York. It is a wonderful way to begin this holiest of weeks in the Church calendar, availing ourselves of the spiritual cleansing and reconciliation offered through the sacrament of Penance, uniting our own atonement with that which Christ offered on our behalf, as we prepare to celebrate the glory of His Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
It is a truism that virtually every Catholic who has lapsed in their practice of the faith has that “bad confession story”—a priest who was cross or impatient during a childhood confession, or a confessor who seemed insensitive or judgmental as an adult grappled with serious or troubling issues in the confessional. That such stories are often repeated not from personal experience but second or third hand makes them no less damaging in turning people away from this vital, healing sacrament.
A few years ago, prior to Reconciliation Monday, several women allowed me to use the pages of The Long Island Catholic magazine to share their inspiring stories of spiritually uplifting confession experiences. In that same spirit, allow me to now recall several of my own very positive experiences with the sacrament of Reconciliation and the priestly guidance I was blessed to receive.
Some years back, I felt that my colleagues and I were being treated unjustly in a workplace situation. Heading home after a Saturday in the office, and filled with anger, I decided—was led, I am sure, by the Holy Spirit, or perhaps my guardian angel—to stop at a parish that I knew had confessions before its 5 p.m. Mass.
I expressed, in confession, my anger and frustration at this perceived injustice, and my inability to forgive those responsible. The priest hearing my confession directed me, as penance, to spend a few minutes before the First Station of the Cross, where Pilate condemns Jesus to death, and meditate on the injustice that our Lord willingly endured.
I hadn’t shared the particulars of my work situation with Father, and he hadn’t asked. He was making no judgements about the validity of my complaints. He just wanted me to contrast the level of injustice I felt my colleagues and I were subjected to—and my inability to forgive it—with the unspeakable injustice that Jesus endured, and His extraordinary witness to forgiveness from the Cross—asking, while in the throes of crucifixion, the Father’s forgiveness of those who had put Him there.
At that time, I focused on our Lord’s forgiveness of His immediate persecutors—the Jewish high priests who accused Him, Pilate who condemned Him, the Roman soldiers who crucified Him.
But now I am thinking of how Jesus’ words on the Cross—“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”—pertain to all of us, to all humanity, across all of human history. For we too put the sinless Christ on the Cross, to atone for all of our sinful transgressions, against God and against each other.
Several weeks ago at daily Mass, we heard the parable of the servant who, having been forgiven an enormous debt by his master, refuses to forgive a much smaller debt owed to him, and instead has the offender thrown in prison.
Now, reflecting on how Jesus willingly endured such horrible—and unmerited—suffering because of our wrongdoing—and asked God to forgive us for it—I think, as the master thought of his ungrateful servant, how dare I refuse to forgive another person for a perceived, and certainly less grave, wrong done to me.
And still, I struggle to do so. In a more recent confession, speaking more generally, I explained to a different priest that while I know I should forgive others, and I tell myself that I have, I don’t really feel forgiveness in my heart when I recall some particularly painful past hurts.
In another insightful penance assignment, Father told me to think of one person I seemed unable to forgive—and offer a prayer for that person. I did—and it gave me a sense, a true feeling, of forgiveness, not only toward that person, but toward others I have found it difficult to forgive. More than that, it caused me to reflect on the many persons—more than I could even think of, let alone count—from whom I need forgiveness.
Both those confessions, besides filling me with the peace and reconciliation that come with God’s mercy and forgiveness, also fortified me—thanks to the wisdom and inspired guidance of my priest confessors—with tools to employ in my continued struggles to forgive others and to humbly seek forgiveness from those I have wronged.
And so I would invite everyone—particularly those who may have been away from confession for an extended period—to give yourself the opportunity, on this Reconciliation Monday, to experience what I have been blessed to experience: the graces and healing of this penitential sacrament; the richness of God’s love and mercy; and the wisdom and inspired guidance that await you from our caring, faith-filled Catholic priests.