The words that close the gospel reading today are the same words spoken to each of us as we received ashes on our heads: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” As I mentioned on Wednesday, Lent is a time for us to take on the ascetical practices of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. And in addition to these traditions of giving something up, fasting from food, increasing our prayer and our charitable works, we also are ever aware that Lent is a season of repentance.
Repentance means to turn away from sin and to turn towards God. It is a necessary part of Christian life. For, if we are paying attention to our own spiritual health, we all recognize in ourselves a gradual weakening of the will and the tendency to let vices creep into our lives.
Oftentimes, we don’t even perceive it. Have you ever gone on a road trip thru hilly or mountainous terrain? I remember, as a child, riding thru the Texas Hill Country to go visit my relatives. As we got near Junction and Kerrville, the highway made sudden drops and rises, and as we changed elevation quickly, the air pressure changed suddenly. I knew we had descended quickly because my ears would pop. But then there were other times, like when I would go hiking in the mountains as a Boy Scout, and there I don’t remember my ears popping. That’s because the change in air pressure was so gradual. Such is the road to sin— gradual, easy, and imperceptible.
All too often, I have heard the excuse, “But father, I don’t really have any sins to confess. I mean, I’m not Hitler or anything.” Well, then, my friend, the bar for holiness must be very low! It’s as if we believe that everyone goes to Heaven unless you’re Hitler. This is a very dangerous attitude to take towards sin, because it means we have given ourselves over to mediocrity. It means we have become lukewarm Christians, slothful when it comes to the spiritual life.
Even St. Teresa of Avila thought of herself as a lukewarm Christian, and that she was even in danger of going to Hell. And this, coming from a saintly nun living in a convent! What sin could she possibly have committed?
For St. Teresa, her temptation was to get too comfortable, to let herself go, in a sense. It is all too easy, even in the convent, to grow slack in prayer and lazy in one’s pursuit of holiness. When St. Teresa realized her slothfulness, she had a major change in her life, and she eventually went on to reform the Carmelite religious order. She took them from a comfortable, luxurious way of life to a life of evangelical witness, living the counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
But it never would have happened without some self-examination. The book of Proverbs says, “Though the just fall seven times, they rise again .” Yes, even the righteous fall from time to time, but the difference between righteous and the wicked is that the righteous get back up, while the wicked are content to stay locked in their sins.
The key is this: if we are seriously on the path to holiness, we begin to examine even the tiny nooks and crannies in our lives. The closer we get to the light of Christ, the more clearly we begin to see the smaller imperfections in our souls. This is the realization that St. Teresa had. If we find ourselves saying, “I haven’t sinned,” WATCH OUT. The Devil’s got you right where he wants you—away from the confessional.
I think it’s easy to see the Sacrament of Penance as a burden, a chore, or a punishment. But the truth is that the Sacrament of Penance is a beautiful gift. It is the gift of freedom. To hear the words of the priest forgiving us is to be assured of the grace of God. To be told, by God’s minister, that you are forgiven! To be reminded of your dignity as a beloved son/daughter of God! When we see confession as a gift and not a burden, it is a wonder why there isn’t a line out the door each and every week!
And that brings up a good question: How often should I go to confession? The precepts of the Church say that every Catholic is obligated to confess at least once per year, during the Lenten season. Think of it as getting your car tuned. If you let it go more than a year, some little problem is going to go unnoticed, and it’s gonna cost you a lot more to get it fixed. But why settle for the bare minimum? How often do you get your oil changed? Every 5,000 miles, right? For most of us, that’s at least twice a year. Five or six times if you’re a country priest. I say that we should be going to confession at least as often as we get our oil changed. Better to be certain you’re in a state of grace than to risk compounding your sin by letting it fester.
Have you ever forgotten to take the trash out? I have a friend who used to live in an apartment, and she had to carry the trash all the way to the dumpster. So, she would usually put the bag in the trunk of her car and drive it to the dumpster on her way to work. But one day, when she put the bag of trash in the trunk, she completely forgot about it. She left town to visit relatives, driving all across the state and back. She parked her car in the hot sun, and didn’t open her trunk again for about a week. It was then that her car started to smell real bad. She thought she had hit an animal or something, until she finally remembered—THE TRASH IS IN THE TRUNK! When we fail to go to confession, our souls become like that smelly trunk, full of festering garbage! It doesn’t go away if we ignore it.
Lent is a time to take the junk out of the trunk. It’s a time for us to examine the nooks and crannies of our souls. It’s a time to spend a half an hour doing a serious, thorough examination of conscience. There are hundreds of examinations of conscience out there, and anyone with Internet can find one that’s appropriate for your age and your state in life. An examination of conscience for a child will be different from one for a teenager, or a single adult, or a married adult, or a senior citizen.
Now, I love hearing confessions. The sacrament of Penance has meant so much to me. I know the healing power of the words, “I absolve you of your sins.” It is such a relief to hear a priest say those words, knowing that God has forgiven me. At this early stage in my priesthood, I can say I’ve spent many more years on the other side of the confessional screen, and I know how hard it can be to work up the courage to come. When I hear confessions, I am so grateful for the Father’s mercy, and I’m overwhelmed that the Lord would give me this precious gift, the ability to forgive sins in God’s name. It is so encouraging to me, personally, when I hear a good confession, one from the heart, a heart contrite and humbled. When the penitent has obviously prayed and examined his/her conscience well, and names specific sins, I know that this person desires the healing power of God.
Still, there are times when I hear confessions that are ill-prepared, and these are laborious and discouraging. So, since for most of us it has been a while since our first penance class, allow me to list the do’s and don’ts of making a good confession.
- DO: spend at least ten minutes in prayer before entering the confessional. Examine your conscience well and know what you’re going to say.
- DON’T: be too vague. But…
- DO: be specific. Instead of saying, “I need to be a better person, ” say, “I cheated on my exams twice, I insulted a relative out of spite once, I gossiped about a co-worker three times, I missed two holy days of obligation.” When we say the actual sin and the number of times, it shows that we have really examined our consciences. It expresses our humility before God, and the grace of forgiveness can bear more fruit in our lives.
- DON’T: confess other people’s sins. This is about YOUR failings, not what other people did to you.
- DO: be completely honest. No priest will ever reveal anything you say in the confessional. What’s more, every priest knows that he is a sinner too. It is not the priest’s place to judge you. He is to be a generous distributor of God’s grace. He is a minister of mercy.
- DON’T: hold any sins back. The confession is only fruitful if you confess all the sins you can remember. If you’re not sure if it’s a grave sin, confess it anyway.
- DO: be thorough, but brief, especially if others are waiting.
- DON’T: put off your confession. Receiving the Eucharist in a state of sin only makes matters worse.
- DO: end your confession by saying, “For these sins, and for all those I can’t remember, I ask forgiveness.” That covers your bases, because we all forget some of the things we’ve done.
- Finally, if it’s been a very long time since your last confession, and you don’t remember what to do, simply tell the priest, “I don’t know how this goes,” or “I don’t remember what to say.” The priest will help you. He wants you to make a good confession and be freed from your sins.
We’re having a penance service this Monday after the 6pm Mass in Abbott. There’s one in Hillsboro on the evening of Friday, March 2nd. And we always have confessions available right here every Saturday from 4:30-5:15, and Sunday mornings just before Mass. If that’s not long enough, I’ll stay after Mass until we’re all done! It’s what I promised on the day of my ordination.
This Lent, hear the words of Jesus: repent, and believe in the gospel. Believe that God’s mercy is right here waiting for you. Believe that he has come to save sinners, if only we have the humility to admit that we have sinned. It is for this reason that Jesus came. When we repent, we say to Jesus that we love him, and that he did not die for nothing.
 Proverbs 24:16
 cf. 1 Peter 4:10