Seventeen reasons not to go to confession during this Year of Mercy, a homily by Fr Stephen Wang. The YouTube audio is available here, and the text copied below:
Think about this scenario: Tomorrow lunchtime I send you a text. This is what it says, word for word: “Hey, I’m at Trafalgar Square. You’ll never believe it but Jesus is here. It’s amazing. There are hundreds of people crowded round, but he spends just a few moments with each person – a word of comfort, a touch, a smile, some encouragement or advice. There is an atmosphere of such joy. And everyone he meets seems utterly transformed, as if a huge burden has been lifted from their shoulders, as if they have found a peace that they have been looking for all their lives. You can see it on their faces. Quick. He’s sitting at the bottom of Nelson’s Column. You have to come down now”.
The question is: Do you go? Honestly, if it were true, would you go? Or would you text back saying, “OK, I’ll come later if I’ve got time” or “Sorry, I’ve got an essay to write” or “Thanks, but I’m not sure I’m that interested”. The reality is, if he were truly there, I don’t think we would all rush down Tottenham Court Road to meet the Lord. Because it brings to the surface so many questions and ambiguities that we all have about our own faith. What is my evidence for saying this? The practice of confession.
You know what we believe about this beautiful sacrament: That Jesus Christ is waiting there for us, in the ministry of the priest; not in Trafalgar Square, but in every one of our Catholic churches throughout the land, including the chapel here at Newman House. That he wants to touch our lives and transform them. To give us not just the forgiveness that is promised by John the Baptist in the Gospel today, but far, far more: To give us peace, consolation, healing, joy, and a sense of purpose and direction that we will never find unless we hand our lives over to God completely and ask him to walk with us. Jesus is there, in the sacrament of confession, and yet very often we walk past him, we are not interested. That’s why I wonder how we would really act in the Trafalgar Square scenario.
And there are so many reasons why we don’t go to meet him. This is my list. These are the thoughts that can flash through our heads when we consider going to confession. Don’t hold your breath – it’s a long list: “I’m too busy – I’ll go next week. I haven’t really done anything wrong. It’s been too long since I last went. I’m not ready. What will the priest think? Maybe he’ll tell someone. I’m too ashamed: my sins are too big. My sins are too small. My sins are unforgivable. My sins are not worth forgiving. What’s the point: I keep confessing the same sins and nothing seems to change. I’ve forgotten how to go; I’ve forgotten what to say. I’ll come back when Fr Smith is here instead of Fr Jones. I can say sorry to God without going to confession. I’m not sure I really want to change. I’m not sure if I really believe. And anyway, it’s raining outside.”
Now I can feel a tension in the air. You are afraid I am going to analyse all seventeen reasons on this list and we are going to be here for another 3 hours. Well relax; I’m not. And in fact it probably wouldn’t help. There are so many reasons not to go to confession. But if I shot down every single one of them, one by one, if you really didn’t want to go, then you would find another. So instead of analysing, I just want to encourage you.
Of course God forgives us in different ways, and we can pray to him and ask for his help wherever we are. But when we are struggling with life, as we all are; with sin, with failure, with confusion; there is no more powerful way for God’s love to touch our hearts than by going to confession. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest”. He wants to set us free. As St John Paul II wisely pointed out: “The worst prison would be a closed heart”, and confession is about setting our hearts free.
And Jesus says, “I have come so that you may have life, and have it to the full”. How often do we feel that something is missing from life? We long for peace and a new sense of purpose. We can only find this if we truly hand our lives over to God; if we stop pretending that we can solve everything by ourselves; if we let his mercy touch our hearts. We do this whenever we come to confession. What better way to begin the Year of Mercy than to let God’s mercy touch our lives, so that we can get on with the real work of sharing his mercy with others.
Don’t be afraid. Don’t get too complicated. Just believe that God wants to bless you in this way, and make the decision to come. Be brave. Pray for God’s help. Spend a few minutes in preparation: we’ll give you a sheet after Mass to help you. And then just come. The priest will help you with everything else. Some things you can’t understand until you have experienced them. Trust me when I say that it will change your life. You won’t regret it.
Let me finish with two testimonies. The first is my own. I made my first confession when I was 19 years old. (I wasn’t brought up Catholic and I was received into the Catholic Church just before I went to university.) It wasn’t easy, that first confession. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you my sins. But there was a lot of stuff piled up at that stage of my life. And to be honest, I didn’t feel much consolation afterwards. I knew I had done the right thing, and I knew in my head that I was at peace with God; but it was hard. But over the years, just as you come to know slowly someone over time, I have come to know the power and the beauty of the sacrament.
Sometimes, there has been a small, unexpected grace given to me; a word or a prayer that has helped me through the week in a simple way. Sometimes, there has been some personal crisis and I have been absolutely desperate to put things right in confession, I’ve rushed to the sacrament as soon as possible, and the sense of relief and gratitude afterwards has been indescribable. Nearly always, I have received a quiet sense of peace and consolation, the strength to move forward, the knowledge that God is with me.
The second testimony is from a young woman who came on a retreat earlier this year. It’s not confidential, she posted this on an online feedback page in March. I’ll read it out word for word.
“I experienced something so wonderful this weekend. I was at a reconciliation and healing service. Confession was going on around the room. Now I hadn’t been to confession for a number of years because of fear of what the priest and Jesus would think of me. I wanted to overcome that fear so I made the brave decision to go to confession. Over the years I have always tried to be perfect but I was reminded in confession of the words of Jesus: “I came not to call the virtuous but sinners”. This is Jesus’s way of saying to me “I don’t expect you to be perfect”. I felt Jesus speak to my heart and he said “I love you and I forgive you. Go in Peace”. When I came out I felt like the world had been lifted off my shoulders. That is how God speaks to your heart. All we have to do is listen. If there is anyone who has not yet been to confession I really would urge you to go and allow god to speak to your heart and give him the chance to stretch out his hand and touch you. I was afraid but I’m not anymore.”
[For practical help about how to make a good confession, see the post “How to go to confession: the basics“]