Tonight, I’ll be preparing the young people for the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (next Monday). I like to take this opportunity to deal with the question that is foremost on their minds: “why do I have to tell my sins to the priest?”
To answer this, it’s best to put this one sacrament in the context of our entire sacramental outlook as Catholics. To be sacramental is to see the presence of God reflected in the physical world. Catholics rely on the visible – signs, symbols, and gestures – to recognize and encounter the invisible God. The old Baltimore Catechism definition of a sacrament hits the nail on the head when it refers to them as outward signs.
To get the kids thinking in this direction, I like to remind them of the Dr. Seuss story, How The Grinch Stole Christmas. In this story, the Grinch who despises Christmas, decides to “steal” it from the Whos who live in Whoville…pleasant little folks who celebrate Christmas with a myriad of outward signs, symbols, and gestures. The Grinch succeeds in stealing all of the outward signs and then waits to hear the cries and sobs of the Whos in Whoville. To his surprise, he hears the Whos celebrating the arrival of Christmas anyway, despite the loss of all their outward signs: the inner reality could not be taken away.
I then propose to the young people that if some Grinch tried to steal the outward signs of the sacraments (water, oil, fire, bread, wine), that we would still celebrate the inner reality of Christ’s saving grace within (think of Fr. Martin Lawrence Jenco being held hostage for several years and being deprived of the outward signs of the sacraments…Christ was still with him and he continued to celebrate that presence with his fellow hostages).
For us Catholics, the inner world and the outer world are intimately connected. In the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, the outward sign is the encounter of two human beings speaking words. Contrition, forgiveness, and mercy are all inner realities. However, we encounter these realities more deeply by externalizing them. To confess sins to another person (the priest, who represents Jesus and the Church) is much more powerful than doing so privately in our own heart. Unless spoken, we run the risk of not truly dealing with our sins (ask anyone in a Twelve Step program).
To hear the words of forgiveness and absolution actually spoken by the priest is a powerful experience. Could any relationship survive without both people actually speaking words of contrition and forgiveness? We human beings need our outward realities and our inner realities to connect. In the Sacraments, we Catholics have this unity, allowing us to encounter the living Christ deep within and all around us.
P.S. the link above on the Grinch takes you to a YouTube piece that features a song written and performed by my good friend Charlie Johnson (we went to high school together!)