Do you want to know the problem in the Church today? It is simple, a lack of sinners.
When I first arrived at seminary, one of the first events was the annual retreat we attend each year. I was particularly privileged that, in my first year, Archbishop Hughes, the retired archbishop of New Orleans preached our retreat. He would go on to guide me through formation as my spiritual director, but that one statement from him has stuck with me: the biggest problem facing the Church today is a lack of sinners.
I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining that what he meant was not that we need more sinners, but, rather, we need to do a better job of recognizing the sin in our own lives, those times when we act less than Christian. Luckily, I see the lines before Mass here at the confessionals. I’m glad we don’t have that problem here. At the same time, I wonder if it might be even more dangerous at times when we know we are sinners and constantly approach the sacrament every week.
How many of us have the same sin we bring to confession every week? How many of us keep sinning in the same way because we are all too human, but, at the same time, because, in the back of our minds, we know we can go to confession and receive the Lord on Sunday? At the other extreme, do we ever focus so much on our sinfulness that we forget the mercy of God – so God has become and angry abusive father whose wrath can be averted if we just approach the sacrament.
Don’t get me wrong. The sacrament of penance, of reconciliation, of confession is a good thing. It is an amazing gift from God to his beloved children so that He can rekindle in us the life of the spirit. But, if we approach the sacrament without properly understanding the necessity of amending our lives after we confess, we make a mockery of God’s mercy and love; we simply take advantage of him and treat the sacrament as magic. At the same time, If we focus so much on our sins that we only think of them and treat confession as the only way we can be forgiven, we have insulted God’s mercy.
If you are confused right now about where I could possibly be going, good. I meant to do that. I wanted to trick you into listening to my whole homily rather than tuning out after a couple minutes. I have set up a few questions that should be in your mind right now: What is confession for? What is the sin that requires the sacrament? How much can I repeat a sin after confessing it? These are the questions I want to reflect upon taking the words of Saint Paul and our Lord as the key.
What is confession for?
Jesus accused those following him of doing so because they had gotten a good free meal instead of following him to learn from him and to acquire everlasting life. (I know he didn’t use those words, but we know what he was pointing to.) So, each time we go to confession, we have to ask ourselves: am I going to confession to wash up because I “offend…God, who is…deserving of all my love” or because “I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell”? Believe it or not, the latter is enough for confession, but we are falling short of God’s desire for us if we stay there. We must constantly strive to respond to our own sins and shortcomings from love of God, not from fear of punishment. That is the way of perfection.
What is the sin that requires the sacrament?
I want to touch on this because it is imperative that we understand the gift of forgiveness that God offers in other ways. Just in coming here to attend Mass in a spirit of heartfelt repentance, venial sins – the little ones (if any offense to God’s love can really be called little) – are forgiven. When you walk in the door and bless yourself from that holy water font: forgiven. When we say the Confiteor and receive the absolution from the priest in the Penitential Act of the Mass: forgiven. When we receive the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord in the Eucharist: forgiven. All three of these forgive venial sins, and we grow in the spiritual life from them. So, what sins require confession as the ordinary path to forgiveness? Those are mortal sins, those sins that sever our lifeline to God – our spirit is dead within us – that we commit with full knowledge and as an act of willful disobedience to God. He has given us the way to seek forgiveness in ordinary circumstances in the sacrament. Finally, I want to take a moment to offer some things that we may think are sinful, but they are not. Many of us walk into the confessional and say things like, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I got angry at my brother/sister/wife/husband/son/daughter.” Getting angry is not a sin; it’s an emotion. What we do with that anger is sinful or not.
How much can I repeat a sin after confessing it?
I wish I could give you an absolute answer to this, but there is a very subjective quality to this question. It is different for each of us, and only prayer and guidance from a spiritual director or confessor can guide us to this answer. Paul exhorts us to change our lives. If we trust in the forgiveness of the sacrament (which is real), but we don’t, every moment, strive to live better, to avoid sinning, and to avoid the near occasion of sin, we are making a mockery of God. If we find ourselves in the confessional every day, week, or month confessing the same sin from the same temptation in the same way, then it is clear something is going on which is drawing us into sin; it is more than a minor misstep. We must, at that point, ask God for grace to reveal the roots of the habitual sin and to heal those roots. That is to say, we must, with counsel, help, and guidance from a spiritual director or confessor, prayerfully look inside of ourselves and find what in our lives is leading us into that sin. When we find it, we must find how to remove that sin from our lives. We must cultivate the virtues that will oppose that sin. And we must strive ever harder to avoid falling again. Unfortunately, speaking from experience, we will almost certainly fall on occasion or another sin may well come to replace it, but, again, that is the spiritual journey. That is the path we follow in our lives to slowly and steadily reach the way of perfection.
So what do we do with all this? If we have grave sin on our souls, confess them as quickly as we can. If we find ourselves constantly falling into the same sins, find a good confessor and/or spiritual director and find what is making us keep falling. Above all, test ourselves, discern our motivations; if we find that we are following Christ because we ate the bread and were filled, because of what he will do for us to make us happy, begin rooting that temptation from our lives. Instead, we must amend our lives, cast off the old man, and live for love of God, and only for love of Him. Then, and only then, will we find ourselves on the straight and narrow path that leads to true happiness and fulfillment in Heaven.
This homily was delivered at the Church of the Assumption in Nashville Tennessee, on Sunday, August 2, 2015, the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time in Cycle B.