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Before we know it, November 21, 2016 will be upon us and the Jubilee Year of Mercy will be over. Time passes by so quickly that we cannot afford to procrastinate and not put into action what Pope Francis has requested all Catholics all over the world to perform during this Jubilee Year. He made it clear that the most important focus in our celebrating the Year of Mercy is the Sacrament of Penance (also called the Sacrament of Reconciliation). To put it in plain language, each Catholic should go to confession as frequently as possible during this year and convince our relatives and friends to do likewise. As an article in the Financial Times reported, the Pope has reinforced his message by writing a book that was published recently entitled “The Name of God Is Mercy.” The book has “a powerful message for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. We are all sinners, he is saying, all guilty; but God’s mercy is infinite and so is the mercy of God’s church.”
From the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has not stopped to emphasize the importance of confession in helping all of us sinners to struggle against our evil inclinations, whether they be sins of the flesh, of greed (corruption), or of pride. He is only following the example of the recent Popes, especially St. John Paul II who preached a lot about the practice of frequent confession. Especially for the enlightenment of business men and other professionals who may have stopped going to confession under the pretext that “they confess their sins directly to God,” let me summarize here the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as explained by St. John Paul II in a series of addresses during Lent 1984. In answer to those who claim that they do not want to confess to a mere man, St. John Paul II made it very clear that It is Christ who forgives in the priest: “We know that Christ fulfilled the promise (of the ministry of Peter and his successors on behalf of the People of God) after his resurrection, when he ordered Peter, ‘Feed my lambs; feed my sheep.’ We know also that the lord Jesus entrusted in a singular way, ‘with Peter and under Peter the power to bind and to loose also to the other Apostles and their successors, the bishops; and this power is connected to some degree, and through participation, also to priests.”
It is clear that the priest acts in the person of Christ. It cannot be denied that the man who absolves is a brother who himself also goes to confession because, despite the commitment to personal sanctification, he is subject to the limitations of human frailty. I vividly remember how the late Cardinal Jaime Sin almost shocked some visiting American ladies when he told them that there are times that he went to confession every day. He assured his listeners that he was no more nor less a sinner than ordinary Christians. But he explained that as the Pastor of millions of souls in Manila, he had to make sure that as he took a daily shower to remove accumulated dust and sweat during the day, he needed the spiritual shower of the Sacrament of Penance to remove the spiritual dust that one gathers in the daily struggle for sanctity. Not everyone has that heavy responsibility of leading millions of souls to heaven. That is why he did not recommend his practice to an ordinary Christian. The practice of monthly confession could, however, be realistic for anyone of us who is serious about attaining Christian perfection in the middle of the world. Changing the metaphor, a monthly confession could be likened to the recharging of our spiritual battery after a full month overcoming temptations and striving for holiness.
As St. John Paul II explained, “the man who absolves is not offering forgiveness of sins, in the name of his personal holiness. Hopefully, he is concerned to become even more welcoming and capable of transmitting the hope that springs from a total belonging to Christ. But when he raises his hand in blessing and pronounces the world of absolution he acts in ‘persona Christi’, not only as a representative, but also and above all as a human instrument in which the Lord Jesus ‘God-with-us’, who died and rose again and lives for our salvation, is present and acting in a mysterious and real way.” This Jubilee Year of Mercy should be an occasion for the ordinary Christian to value the frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance, even for the forgiveness of only venal sins. This Sacrament, prepared for by daily examination of conscience, greatly fosters the necessary turning of the heart toward the love of the Father of mercies. In the Introduction to the new Rite of penance, it says: ‘Even for venial sins regular and frequent recourse to the sacrament of penance is very useful. It is not, indeed, a matter of a mere ritual repetition of or of a kind of psychological exercise, but rather a constant and renewed commitment to refine the grace of baptism so that, while we carry about in our bodies the dying of Jesus, his life may be ever more revealed in us. Thus, for my predecessor Paul VI, ‘frequent confession remains a privileged source of holiness, peace and joy.’
One cannot underestimate the harm done on the soul by venial sins. St. John Paul II declared that “Venial sin, in fact, is an act of disordinate attachment to created goods, committed without full awareness or without grave matter, so that friendship with God continues in the person, even if in varying degrees it becomes somewhat marred. Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that venial sins can inflict dangerous wounds in the sinner.” The confession of venial sins is very salutary to the soul: “The confessions of these (venial sins) singularly helps us grow aware of our condition as sinners before God in order to make amends: it appeals to us to rediscover in a very personal way the mediating role of the Church, which acts as an instrument of Christ present for our reception: it offers sacramental grace, that is an original conformation to the Lord Jesus as the conqueror of sin in all its manifestations, along with a help for the penitent to perceive and have the strength to practice fully the ethical lines of development that God has inscribed upon his heart.
St. John Paul II ends his “Thoughts on Confession” by referring to spiritual guidance. Now that it is very fashionable in business for junior executives to be mentored by more experienced business people, it should not come as a surprise that in the struggle for sanctity a professional should seek spiritual guidance from his confessor. This implies that as much as possible, one should have a regular confessor who can also act as one’s spiritual adviser. As St. John Paul II said: “Certainly, spiritual direction can be carried out even outside the context of the sacrament of penance and even by someone who is not endowed with hoody order. However, it cannot be denied that this function—insufficient, it is done only within a group, without a personal relationship—is in fact frequently and happily linked to the sacrament of reconciliation and is done by a teacher of life, by a spiritual, by a doctor.” This Year of Mercy could be a very opportune time to start the practice of spiritual guidance or direction. (To be continued)