The sacrament of Confession: sermon on Low Sunday

“Receive ye the Holy Ghost; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them.”

This Sunday has come in recent years to be called Divine Mercy Sunday; but it might equally well be called Confession Sunday. I should like now to think about this unique institution known as the sacrament of Confession.

The Council of Trent, which was the Council held in the sixteenth century, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, defined the Church’s doctrine about the seven sacraments in a very clear way. When the Council came to speak about the sacrament of Confession or Penance, it began with some striking words: 

“If those who are re-born in baptism had such gratitude toward God that they carefully preserved the justice that they had received from His bounty, then there would be no need of a sacrament for forgiving sins other than baptism itself. But because God, who is rich in mercy, knows of what we are made, He has also bestowed a life-giving remedy for those who, after their baptism, give themselves again into the slavery of sin and into the power of the devil. This remedy is the sacrament of penance, by which the benefit of Christ’s death is applied to those who have fallen.”

In other words, Confession ought really not to exist. If from the moment that we were baptised — or, for those of us baptised as infants, from the moment that we came to the use of reason — we had kept steadily before our eyes the goodness of God in freeing us from original sin and adopting us as His beloved children, then we would want never to offend Him, and so we would not need any new remedy for sin. And doing this is not impossible, as is shown by the example of those saints who have always preserved their baptismal innocence unimpaired. St Therese of Lisieux once said that ever since she had been a little child, she did not think that she had refused God anything that He had asked of her. But unfortunately, there are few people who can honestly say this; even those Christians who make good and sincere resolutions are often inconstant in keeping them. As Job says in the Old Testament, “Man born of a woman, fleeth as a shadow, and never continueth in the same state.” This is why, as the Council of Trent puts it, “God who is rich in mercy has bestowed a life-giving remedy on those who after their baptism give themselves again into the slavery of sin.” 

Now, there has never been a time when God was unwilling to help a sinner who desires to put his life right and to begin again. When the first murder was committed, by Cain, who hated his brother Abel and murdered him, God spoke to Cain. He did not immediately condemn him to hell; He gave Cain the opportunity to confess his sin, and to ask forgiveness. Later on, God says to the whole people of Israel, through the prophet Ezekiel, “Is it my will that a sinner should die, and not that he should be converted from his ways, and live?” And when God gave the Law to Moses for the Jews, He included different sacrifices that the people had to offer for different kinds of offence: calves, lambs, doves and even flour. Yet all those sacrifices were more a way for the people to express their desire for the forgiveness of their sins than actually to obtain it.

And so, it is only with the coming of our Lord in Person that the sacrament of Confession begins. This is what He tells the ten apostles today, as soon as He has returned from the dead. It is ten apostles, not twelve, because Judas has already gone, and Thomas is away. Jesus is standing once more with the apostles in the Upper Room, and as soon as He has greeted them and they believe that it is really Him, the first thing that He says is, “Receive the Holy Ghost; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them.” And why should we be surprised that this is the first thing that He says? He endured His death precisely in order that human beings might have their sins forgiven. Why should He not wish to give the apostles straightaway the good news that from now on, they have the power to forgive them? Baptism they already knew about, since He had taught them to baptise even during His earthly ministry; but now He institutes the life-giving remedy, the sacrament of Confession, for those who would not live up to their baptismal grace.

And it is a remedy for all sins. In the early centuries of the Church, there was a man called Novatian who said that there were certain sins, like murder and adultery, that the Church could not forgive. He didn’t say that God would never forgive these sins; he thought that people should pray for those who had fallen into such sins, after baptism. But Novatian thought that the Church herself did not have the power to absolve them. And he won over quite a few people to his way of thinking. But the Church herself rejected Novatian’s ideas. The Church says that our Lord meant exactly what He said, when He told the apostles, “Whoever’s sins you forgive, they are forgiven.” To think otherwise would be to suppose that our sins can be greater than the mercy of God, which is ridiculous.

What then does God require of us? He asks us to have sorrow for our sins and to make an honest effort to confess them. Sometimes people say, “I find it difficult to feel really sorry for sin.” But the question is, are you resolved for the love of God, or at least because you hope for heaven, not to commit the same sins in the future as you have in the past? If so, you have a sufficient sorrow for sin, even if your emotions are not stirred up. Perhaps one day God will also give you strong feelings of sorrow, and if so, that will be something to be grateful for, but that is not the essential thing. 

And then as well as sorrow, we are asked to make an honest attempt to confess our sins in the sacrament. It is not always easy, because sometimes we forget things, and sometimes we are not even sure whether something was a sin or not. But as the Council of Trent said, God knows of what we are made, referencing Psalm 102: “He remembereth that we are dust.” And the priest is there precisely to help the penitent to make a good and complete Confession. We should take some time beforehand, of course, to prepare, especially if it has been a long while since we last received this sacrament. But in fact, there are not all that many different kinds of sins that human beings can commit. With a good preparation, it is possible by quite a short Confession for a person to be freed even of sins committed during a period of decades. 

Because this sacrament of mercy is not given to us to be a burden but to be a liberation. It is sin that is the burden, and how many people there are in our world, even Catholics, who carry this burden around with them unnecessarily! Our Lord went through death for us to set us free, and if we take Him at His word, we shall be free. As St John says, “These things are written that we may believe, and that believing, we may have life in his name.”