How fitting it is that Jesus established the Sacrament of his Mercy on Easter Sunday!
Another essential aspect to a Catholic plan of life that has a particularly Lenten relevance is frequent recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance. The 40-day pilgrimage of Lent is a return, like the Prodigal Son, to the Father's House. The way we participate most fully in the joy of Jesus' resurrection on Easter is through receiving the Father's mercy.
Jesus seemed to emphasize the connection between reconciliation and resurrection both in what he said in that parable and what he did on the evening of the day he rose from the dead.
In the Parable, he has the Father say at the return of his son, "My son was dead and has come back to life again." And we know that the first thing that Jesus did on Easter Sunday evening, when he came through the closed doors of the Upper Room, was to found the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
He first wished the apostles "peace," and the peace he was extending was the definitive peace between God and us through the forgiveness of sins. Then he said, "Just as the Father sent me, I send you," and we know that the Father sent Jesus as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world. Third, he breathed on them the power of the Holy Spirit -- because only God can forgive sins against Him -- and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. Those whose sins you forgive are forgiven. Those whose sins you retain are retained." And, since the apostles didn't receive from Jesus the ability to read everyone's soul and heart, the only way they would know which sins to forgive and which not to pardon would be if people told them their sins.
How fitting it is that Jesus established the Sacrament of his Mercy on Easter Sunday! He had come to save us from eternal death -- and so on the day he rose from the dead he established the essential foundation and structure of the Sacrament that remedies what causes eternal death, namely, unrepented and unforgiven sin. Heaven rejoices more, Jesus stressed, for one repentant sinner than for 99 who never needed to repent, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation allows us to enter into that Easter joy.
It's unsurprising that if the forgiveness of sins is so central to the mystery of our redemption, the devil would do everything he can to try to persuade people not to go to confession.
There are some he has duped into thinking they're as sinless as the Blessed Virgin or just commit peccadilloes that really don't need to be confessed and pardoned.
There are others who know they're sinners whom the devil has seduced into thinking they can confess their sins "directly to God," but the God to whom they're confessing those sins really isn't the God Jesus Christ revealed, because that God sent his Son to establish on Easter the Sacrament of Reconciliation!
There are others who confess their sins, but rarely, sometimes only once a year, so that they receive so little of what God wants to give through this Sacrament. Church law is, indeed, that one has to confess any serious sins at least once a year, but the devil has hoodwinked many to believe that the minimum ought to be their maximum, because through that infrequency, they'll abide under the devil's domain in their sins longer and almost certainly not confess nearly as well -- because their examination will more superficial, their sorrow more shallow profound, and their resolution weaker -- when they eventually go.
Few would ever think that the Church's minimal requirement that we should receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist worthily once a year should be the maximum, but that's what many believe about the other Sacrament we can and ought to receive frequently. Like a parent who cleans and feeds a child, so God through these two sacraments cleans and feeds us.
The Church routinely has recommended to us to receive the Sacrament of Penance frequently. "Without being strictly necessary," the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church." It stresses confession of venial sins because it presumes that if we have committed a mortal sin, we would have recourse to the Sacrament without delay. But priests know that if people are not coming to the Sacrament regularly, they often wait for months to confess even mortal sins.
St. John Paul emphasized that we're deceived if we think we can become holy without it. "It would be an illusion to seek after holiness, according to the vocation one has received from God, without partaking frequently of this Sacrament of conversion and reconciliation," he said in 2004. "Those who go to Confession frequently, and do so with the desire to make progress, will notice the strides that they make in their spiritual lives."
Blessed Pope Paul VI described that transformation: "Frequent and reverent recourse to this sacrament, even when only venial sin is in question, is of great value. Frequent Confession is not mere ritual repetition, nor is it merely a psychological exercise. Rather it is a constant effort to bring to perfection the grace of our Baptism, so that we carry about in our bodies the death of Jesus Christ who died; so that the life Jesus Christ lives may be more and more manifested in us."
Pope Francis has been calling all of us to a renewed appreciation for, and reception of, the Sacrament of Penance. He has said on numerous occasions that he goes to confession every two weeks, because "the Pope, too, is a sinner." On this score at least, I practice what I preach (and write): I see my confessor every week.
While the Church has never officially defined how frequently someone seeking holiness should partake of the Sacrament of Mercy, it has implied that, like Pope Francis, we should be going at least every two weeks. We glimpse this in the way it handles the conditions necessary for receiving plenary indulgences, where it teaches that to receive such an indulgence, we need to have gone to confession within eight days prior or after.
If we are going to confession at least every other week, then we would always be open to receiving a plenary indulgence, either for ourselves or for others. Why wouldn't we want to be in that state of receptivity always?
Next week, we'll discuss in far greater the spiritual benefits within the context of a whole plan of life of frequent confession.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.