Many of us will at one time or another have been confronted by the following question: 'But why do we have to go to Confession?' Certainly I can remember asking it as a child, and as a priest I have heard various people wonder just why it is necessary -- and anyway, as some people go on to inquire, 'Just who thought of it in the first place?'
The bare bones of an answer to that second question are quoted in today's Gospel passage: 'For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.'
The Church teaches us that Confession is one of the Sacraments and that we should go to Confession; article 1458 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that
Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us to form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit.
So we are being reminded of just some of the benefits that we will accrue through the practice of regular attendance at Confession. And if that is the case, then why don't more people go to Confession so that they too might benefit by growing closer to God and his love?
In the light of the above quote on Confession and our subsequent reflections on the sacrament we could perhaps take the opportunity either to re-examine our own practices, or even discuss confession with our acquaintances or friends.
But what might we reflect on? How can we examine what we are doing if we are not doing it much or at all? Do we, for example, understand what each of the reasons the Catechism gives really means, and what its consequences are for our everyday lives?
First of all: 'to form our conscience'. How often are we not entirely sure what to do in a particular situation? How often do we really know what to do or say, and why? And without having access to a nearby catechism, or perhaps a priest, sister or religious, how often can we with confidence know what to do and be sure that we are acting in accordance with God's will and our true best interests?
Secondly: 'to fight against evil tendencies'. From our own experiences of attending confession we all know only too well what our weak points are. And however much it seems that we pick ourselves up only to fall again, each time that we do indeed pick ourselves up with the help of the sacraments, the fall (if it happens again) may not be so far.
Thirdly: 'let ourselves be healed by Christ'. We may not feel wounded, or perhaps we may feel perfectly happy with our lives, but healing can deal with all sorts of areas of our lives that need Christ's intervention or healing. We may not be consciously aware of everything in our lives that needs Christ's healing help -- but in submitting to this piece of teaching we are laying ourselves open to whatever actions God would like to be wrought within us. So let us have faith in what we are taught!
Fourthly: 'progress in the life of the Spirit'. The Holy Spirit is sometimes called 'the forgotten person of the Trinity'. Many Christians are happy to speak about the Father or Jesus, but when it comes to speaking knowledgeably and prophetically about the Holy Spirit, they are at a loss for words. So here we need to read or know more about the life of the Spirit before we realize what tremendous benefits can come to us. And that will be surely be a spur to more frequent encounters with this Sacrament.
So as we move towards Pentecost, we might remember that there is literally no better time to prepare for an increased awareness and participation in the life of the Spirit.