The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
Through the sacraments of Christian initiation, man receives the new life of Christ. Now we carry this life “in earthen vessels,” and it remains “hidden with Christ in God.” We are still in our “earthly tent,” subject to suffering, illness, and death. This new life as a child of God can be weakened and even lost by sin.
The Lord Jesus Christ, physician of our souls and bodies, who forgave the sins of the paralytic and restored him to bodily health, has willed that his Church continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, his work of healing and salvation, even among her own members. This is the purpose of the two sacraments of healing: the sacrament of Penance and the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. (CCC #1420, 1421)
The sections which follow provide instruction on the origins, purpose, efficacy and gift of this Sacrament, replete with references to the Bible, the Tradition of the Church and pastoral insights. Penance is a Sacrament of healing because it sets us free from the wounds of sin and makes us new, fresh. It is the continual invitation to begin again.
In the last chapter of his Autobiography, entitled The Man with a Golden Key, G. K. Chesterton wrote: “When people ask me, or indeed anybody else, ‘Why did you join the Church of Rome?’ the first essential answer, if it is partly an elliptical answer, is, ‘To get rid of my sins.’” He continues:
For there is no other religious system that does really profess to get rid of people’s sins. It is confirmed by the logic — which to many seems startling — by which the Church deduces that sin confessed and adequately repented is actually abolished; and that the sinner does really begin again as if he had never sinned.
When a Catholic comes from Confession, he does truly, by definition, step out again into that dawn of his own beginning and look with new eyes across the world to a Crystal Palace that is really of crystal. He believes that in that dim corner, and in that brief ritual, God has really remade him in His own image.
He is now a new experiment of the Creator. He is as much a new experiment as he was when he was really only five years old. He stands, as I said, in the white light at the worthy beginning of the life of a man. The accumulations of time can no longer terrify. He may be grey and gouty; but he is only five minutes old.
How well I understand the insight expressed by this giant of our history. Chesterton was a convert to the Catholic Church. I am a revert, a term now often used to refer to people who returned, often on a circuitous route, to the Church into which we were Baptized. For me, this Sacrament of freedom was instrumental in my return to the Church as a young man. I want to share my own story of rediscovering the Sacrament of Freedom.
I still remember the day as if it were yesterday. The sun drenched retreat grounds stretched out before my young eyes. I was eighteen years old, a new “revert” to the Catholic faith and living in Florida. I had registered to attend a spiritual retreat featuring a Benedictine Monk speaking on how to develop an intimate relationship with the Lord through prayer. I was ready.
Though I never “officially” left the Catholic Church, I had certainly lost my commitment to the faith and the Church into which I had been baptized. My return to a personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and my knowing, mature decision to embrace the full teaching of the Catholic Church is a type of conversion story. It is also a journey being played out in the lives of thousands in our day. It was my own experience of a New Evangelization because it was an encounter with the One who makes us new creations (2 Cor. 5:17).
The ancient but ever new Catholic Church is coming alive with the sons and daughters who are either rediscovering her beauty and depth or discovering both for the first time. Her sons and daughters coming home are founding new movements, ecclesial communities, ministries and works. Everything old is new again! An experience of a return home, a personal conversion to the Church often characterizes the journey home of so many Catholic Christians. I am one.
I had wandered far from the faith of my childhood during my adolescence and my teenage years. I was caught up, as were so many of my generation, in a passionate search for truth and meaning. Through what many would have seen as a misspent youth I was actually reaching out to answer the existential questions that were burning in my soul. I was sincere in my search for truth and the Lord knew it. The search eventually led me back to the One whom Himself claimed to be the Truth.
At the encouragement of a Jewish friend, who had become a Christian while traveling in Jerusalem, I re-examined the claims of Jesus Christ. This friend and I had wandered the pilgrim road of a spiritual journey for years together. Eventually, at the ripe age of seventeen, I set out hitchhiking across America on a pilgrimage of sorts and he did the same, choosing to backpack across Europe. He ended in Israel and I in California.
He wrote me from the Mount of Olives and told me — his Catholic friend — about an encounter with “Yeshua”, Jesus. He had dedicated the rest of his life to following Him. He quoted the Psalmist David in the opening paragraph of a letter that lasted for pages, “how can a young man keep his way pure?”
We began our journey together. He, raised in a nominally Jewish home, had hungered to find truth. He set out with a backpack and journeyed across Europe. He ended his search in the Holy Land, where he accepted the claims of Jesus Christ. Because of our friendship, he knew that he had to give this wonderful gift to me.
I realized as I read his powerful letter that I was also that “young man” of whom the Psalmist’s timeless words spoke. I longed to be made new again. I began to reflect on my life. I had been baptized a Catholic. In fact my family had a devout and real faith when I was very young.
However, a family tragedy shook our world when I was only ten years old and our practice of the faith grew nearly non-existent. That day I did not fully realize that my journey, like Dorothy in of the Wizard of Oz, would lead me all the way home to the Catholic Church because there truly is “no place like home.” I only knew I was no longer close to God. The letter made me remember former days.
I had fond memories of a time when I was very close to Him as a boy. Like when I served at the High Mass growing up in Dorchester, Massachusetts and when, because Sister William Patricia told me that Jesus was my friend, I visited Him in Church every day and even spoke openly to Him when I walked alone. I wanted Him again, even closer to me than in those days as a child.
So, on a beach in Santa Cruz, California, prompted by my friend’s invitation in that letter (forwarded to me from my worried parents) I, his gentile “nominally Catholic” friend, cried out to Jesus Christ. They were simple words from a pure and desperate young heart: “Jesus, I use to know you, I want to know you again, please come into my heart, forgive me of my sins, and be my Savior and Lord!” He heard my cry!
With that simple prayer of sincere contrition and acceptance, I gave myself back to the One, in whom and for whom I had been created and into whom I had been baptized as a child. It was a conversion moment, a personal New Evangelization of sorts. However, I would quickly discover, at a deep place inside of my heart, that the Lord had never left me. Years after that encounter, I read these timeless words of St. Augustine, taken from his Confessions:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me and I burned for your peace.
I began to understand more fully that this was my own experience. The same timeless Lord who called St. Augustine continues to remind all who will listen: “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). That summer, after returning from this cross-country pilgrimage, I moved in with two other young men my age. Both were evangelical Protestant Christians. I was a Christian, but not yet sure what kind.
Because I wanted to continue to grow in my walk with the Lord, I attended a prayer meeting with my new roommates and began to study the New Testament. My passionate love for the Sacred Scripture even prompted me to join one of them and enroll in a local Protestant Bible College as a student.
I was a fish out of water. The culture of the place was foreign to me. I was a Catholic guy from the inner city of Boston. I did not understand the odd popular language so many of the students and staff used when discussing their faith. I also could not understand why many of them prayed in a different language then they talked, using old English.
Or other simple things, like the seeming disdain for ordinary human enjoyment. Was I missing something? Did my newly rediscovered relationship with the One who was fully human, and fully divine, mean that I was to lose my own humanity? I knew that could not be true. I also missed the deep worship of my childhood where I experienced, in a profound way, the transcendent majesty of God, at the Altar in every Mass.
Because of my passionate hunger for truth I found myself, though respectful of the instructors, doubting and hungering for more than they were offering in their classes. I simply could not check my brain at the classroom door. I wanted answers and I never felt that my sincere inquiries should be cast aside as some sort of temptation. I began to discern that the road of conversion was a lifelong path.
I had a long way to travel. My pilgrimage was not over, but in fact, had only begun. The hunger for God, rekindled in my soul during that encounter on the beach, was insatiable. I also continued to experience the guilt of my wrong choices, my sins. Oh, I was aware that I had been forgiven. However, I didn’t feel forgiven. Something was missing.
I started pouring over the books in that Protestant Bible College library, wanting to know about the history of the Christian Church. I found an inconsistency in the literalist approach I was being taught in the New Testament class. It seemed that Jesus meant everything He said, except His explicit words concerning the Eucharist or the “Lord’s supper” as the instructor called it. Though Jesus Himself said it was His Body and Blood, right in the biblical text, the Professor intimated he somehow didn’t mean it. I could not accept this meager dismissal of something so profound.
I also began to hear increasing disparagement of the Catholic Church in some classes. It did not comport with my experience as a child, my growing convictions about the Christian life or my fledging study of Christian history. I hungered for the truth and continued, as had been my lifelong habit, to devour books. At that time, the Bible College library was stocked with the writings of the Protestant reformers. However, it was as though the Church stopped with the Apostles, or shortly thereafter, only to be rekindled by Martin Luther. I wanted to know the whole story!
I began to make daily visits to the Lakeland Florida Public library. There I probed early Church writings and began to question my way right back to my Catholic Christian faith. I discovered the early Christian writings, the Fathers and the wonderful truth about the early Christian Church, her early liturgy, her understanding of the “mysteries” (sacraments) and her hierarchical order. I sought out a priest and began my journey home to the Catholic Church.
Little did I realize then that this part of the journey would also lead me to find the freedom I longed for, through experiencing the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance). “Confession” was one of the practices of Catholic faith I no longer thought I “needed” and did not understand. However, though I knew the Lord was real and active in my life and I knew that He forgave me for my sins, my wrong choices and rebellion, I still felt somehow bound by them.
I wanted to be free. I also wanted more of God. I prayed, but I knew that I had only scratched the surface of His invitation to a relationship of communion. I knew it was more than the well intended little songs I had learned along the way. It was an invitation into His very life and a call to holiness. I read a flyer in the back of the parish Church I was attending about a retreat that was to occur in Southern Florida. The “Retreat Master” was a Benedictine Monk, (the “Abbot” or “Father” of a monastery). The theme was “intimacy with the Lord”.
I registered and went the next weekend. The retreat grounds were beautiful and called to mind my childhood experiences at similar places, “holy places,” set aside for encountering God. There I was, soaking in the sun, on these beautiful retreat grounds in sunny Southern Florida. I was eighteen years young. I had been intrigued by a flyer advertising the retreat at the back of the Catholic Church I began attending. The retreat promised to help all who attended experience a deeper intimacy with Jesus through developing an interior life.
By now, I had returned home to the Church of my childhood, the Catholic Church. I was back at Mass, the sacred liturgy, almost every day. I was reading the Sacred Scriptures (the Bible) and something from the Fathers of the Church or the lives of the Saints every day. I had fallen in love with the Church. Now I was a Catholic Christian, not only because I was raised that way, but also because I had doubted, questioned and prayed my way back home. Or rather, the Head of that Church had invited me and I had begun to hear His voice.
Oh, how I wanted to hear it even more deeply. I attended the retreat for that reason. That day, during the morning sessions, I was invited to focus on developing an interior life and deepen my relationship with Jesus Christ in prayer. Not only were the talks wonderful, but something much more profound was about to occur. After hearing an inspiring message on loving the Lord given by a holy Benedictine Abbott, an announcement was made that “Confession,” the Sacrament of Penance (or Reconciliation), would be available all afternoon for all participating in the retreat.
Frankly, I was afraid. Oh, I had overcome my misinformed opposition to the notion that “I didn’t need” such a thing. I found its roots in the Scriptures; its development in Church history and the tradition, and its confirmation in the contemporary proliferation of counselors, psychologists, and mental health practitioners substituting as “secular priests.” However, I had not been to the Sacrament since I was in the sixth grade. When I first re-embraced my faith, I did not quite understand why it was necessary.
However, through my study, I began to understand its extraordinary role as a resource in the ongoing call to holiness of life. I was at this retreat because I truly wanted to be holy and not just talk about it. My reading had unearthed an extraordinary connection in the lives of the great heroes of the faith, the saints, between holiness of life and frequent recourse to this sacrament.
I began with a quote from GK Chesterton. That day I would come to discover what he meant. In order to facilitate the crowd, the organizers of the retreat had set up chairs all over the lawn, one for the priest and one for the penitent. There were no confessionals, another form of the sacrament where the identity of the penitent is concealed, that would have at least been less frightening to me.
I felt not only embarrassed, but also ashamed and afraid. I thought back on the years I had been away from the Lord, all the wrong choices I had made, and the people I had hurt. Somehow, though I knew I had confessed my sins to the Lord, I still carried a sense of guilt and knew that my sin had wounded more people than myself. I recalled the Abbots’ talk that morning on the text from the Letter of James “confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16).
But the fear was crippling. I remembered a few occasions as a child when the experience in the confessional had not been a good one. Times when I was shamed and left the experience feeling worse than before I entered the confessional. I opened my Bible and my eyes fell upon the words of the Lord that followed the great healing of the woman with the hemorrhage and the sincere inquiry from the father whose daughter had died: “Do Not fear, only believe” said the Lord (Mark 5:36).
It was as though the Lord was speaking those words directly to me. I was learning to trust that this Church was indeed the continuing presence of the Body of Christ on earth, making His redemptive love available through all the channels of grace.
This was a Sacrament, an invitation to receive God’s grace. The definition I had learned as a child filled my head, “an outward sign instituted by God to give grace.” Who am I to reject the gift of God? I thought to myself. So, I overcame both the shame and the fear, walked right up to the priest and told him I hadn’t been to confession since the sixth grade. “Have a seat” he said, “the Lord has been waiting, he is eager to forgive and to heal.”
Like priming a pump I began to speak and the words flowed forth in a cathartic experience, complete with tears, a torrent of repentance. This wonderful priest of Jesus Christ looked at me with the compassion of His Lord and simply listened. I expressed my remorse and I asked the Lord for forgiveness. Then I heard those words I had not heard since I was a child: “I absolve you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” So certain. So firm. So personal. So liberating!
I experienced the weight of the world lifted from my drooping shoulders. I was young again. “Father,” I said, “thank you.”
“Thank Jesus,” he responded,” He loves you more than you know.”
Then I paused and asked, “Isn’t there a penance?”
“Oh yes,” he said. “Spend a good amount of time in prayer and then go, and love the Lord.”
I left that encounter with the servant of the Lord, the priest of Jesus the High Priest, a free man.
Over all these years I have tried to be faithful to his admonition, “Go, and love the Lord.” However, I have often failed, fallen short, or to use the literal translation of the word sin, missed the mark. Loving the Lord is a constant invitation to conversion. It invites all those who are serious about the way of discipleship, to a life of crucified love. From that day forward however, I know I have a place to go when the weight of my sin, my wrong choices and acts burden me- the Sacrament where I can continually be made new, forgiven, and healed. The place for meeting mercy Incarnate, where I can be born again and again and again and again.
I am older now. My hair has gone beyond gray to white, at least what is left of it. I am losing the spring in my step. But, I am wiser. I know my own weakness and frailty. It stares at me through the lines on my face every morning when I shave. It manifests itself in the face of my grandchildren, children and beloved wife when I fail to love as Jesus does. It’s funny. Unlike youth when you know everything, I have reached the point in life where I realize I know very little.
One thing I do know is that I am still trying to “keep my way pure.” And there is a balm for the inevitable wounds of life. I am a joyful penitent now because I know that there is a Sacrament, a place where I can always encounter the never-ending mercy of Jesus Christ, in a real and incarnational way. Through His priest I can always here those wonderful words, “I absolve you.” And I can again commit myself to “go and love the Lord.”
I may no longer be a teenager, but I am still a pilgrim and what a wonderful journey this life of faith truly has become. It has been made richer since that wonderful day when, as a teenage pilgrim, I rediscovered the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance) and my journey to freedom continued. The Sacrament of Penance is the Sacrament of my New Evangelization and it can become yours as well.