Why Confession? Two Catholic Perspectives

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The following is a part of a seven-article series on the sacraments, written by two University of Notre Dame students. We encourage you to read both perspectives and check our website regularly for the rest of the series!

Why Confession? By Mary Biese

Never solitary,[i] the penitent, through the Church’s sacrament, undergoes a concrete encounter with God’s transformative, reconciling, and incarnated grace.[ii] Once the person recognizes the objectivity of his or her sin via divine assistance[iii] and mourns his or her unconditional status as a sinner,[iv] the penitent opens his or herself to a radical and fundamental change in existence,[v] a total overhaul of his or her soul and life.[vi] The words of Confession solidify the obedient disappropriation inherent to the sacrament.[vii] In this self-emptying, one audibly hands over control of the narrative of one’s own sins,[viii] concretely claiming them as one’s own and submitting oneself and one’s sins to God’s effective action and will.

This handing-over begins in confessional preparation,[ix] wherein the sinner begs God for light, self-knowledge, humility, love, contrition, grace, and trust.[x] The Holy Spirit grants those gifts, beholding[xi] and assisting the sinner in His mercy and objectivity.[xii] The sacrament, through the cooperative action of the Divine Persons, the Church, and the penitent,[xiii] brings the Trinitarian attitude of mutual self-communication and self-revelation to humankind.[xiv] Confession reveals the Father as the Father of mercies, intimately at work in the Son’s and the Spirit’s activity of reconciliation.[xv] The sacrament calls upon each of its recipients to imitate and participate in Christ’s confessional attitude that culminates with His Death and Resurrection, and to thereby join and conform ourselves to Christ Himself.[xvi]

Christ models this disappropriation by his continual openness and obedience to His Father’s will.[xvii] The imitative penitent, responding to God’s invitation to this attitude,[xviii] empties oneself during preparation, contritely acknowledging the lies within one’s own ways of living.[xix] In His Baptism, Christ emerges from his hidden, contemplative life to a new, public, active life; in Confession, the penitent emerges from examining the intimate depths of his soul to a new and actively Christian life in the world.[xx] We mirror Christ’s desert Temptations—wherein his small, simple “no,” strengthened by the Word of God, overcomes His weaknesses[xxi]—when, in the midst of our weaknesses, we resolve , through the support of God’s grace (received in Confession), never to sin again.[xxii] In this sacrament, Christ, through the confessor, exhorts and leads us toward a path to new earthly life[xxiii] and joyful Resurrection.[xxiv] The dialogue between Christ and penitent, begun at Baptism and continued in Confirmation,[xxv] finds renewal in Confession,[xxvi] when we imitate Christ during His Agony in the Garden: recognizing His own weakness, exhaustion, and uncertainty, He obeys nonetheless and accepts His Father’s will anew.[xxvii] In Christ’s paschal mystery,[xxviii] He binds Himself to flesh in order to set it free;[xxix] likewise, we bind ourselves to our sin in order to let Him set us free.[xxx] The silence, mystery, intimacy, and import of the sacrosanct seal of Confession reflects that of Holy Saturday.[xxxi]

In Confession the priest, in persona Christi and representing the Church in Her Apostolic authority,[xxxii] assists the penitent’s confession, “gives him suitable counsel… urges him to be sorry for his faults… [and] proposes an act of penance.”[xxxiii] Since sin gnaws at the Church’s unity and the Church has a mission to heal,[xxxiv] God, through His apostolic confessor, readmits the particular penitent into the Sacramental, communal life of the Church.[xxxv] Through absolution, which the priest withholds if the penitent lacks the necessary preparation and confessional attitude,[xxxvi] God pardons, purifies us of, and separates us from our past sins; He gives us the strength,[xxxvii] wisdom, encouragement, ratification, peace, and enthusiasm to resist temptation and improve in virtue.[xxxviii] Confession recenters us into new life,[xxxix] a new and intensified indwelling of God that begins with priestly exhortation and penance.[xl] The penitent obediently accepts and fulfills this twofold beginning, giving thanks for God’s unbounded, unquantifiable mercy[xli] and moving towards his own divine destiny, the continually-redemptive fruit of Christ’s earthly life.[xlii]

Why Confession: Mary Magdalene takes Christ’s hand.

Still from the Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson).

This still from the Passion of the Christ movie (see Jn 8) features Mary Magdalene, just caught in the sin of adultery, accepting Christ’s outstretched hand upon their first meeting. Mary’s physical appearance speaks to the condition of her soul. Her earrings point to the pleasure in which she has lost herself, the thing which keeps her enslaved to sin. It is unclear whether the gashes and scars on her face derive from her sin or that of others—in an ecclesial family, in a Church composed of sinners in need of healing, that distinction hardly matters. Mary Magdalene is covered in dirt, signifying both 1) her sin, which has alienated her from her fellows and from God, and 2) her near-escape from death by dusty stones. Christ, who has saved her from physical death, exhorts her not to sin anymore. He saves her first, His mercy (in saving her life and giving her His hand) predisposing her to contrition and to amending her life permanently. Her conversion is so decisive that she stays beside Jesus, even to the foot of His Cross.

“Who Am I” from Les Miserables, the musical

Why should I save his hide?

Why should I right this wrong

When I have come so far

And struggled for so long?

If I speak, I am condemned.

If I stay silent, I am damned!

I am the master of hundreds of workers.

They all look to me. / Can I abandon them?

How would they live / If I am not free?

If I speak, I am condemned.

If I stay silent, I am damned!

Who am I?

Can I condemn this man to slavery

Pretend I do not feel his agony

This innocent who bears my face

Who goes to judgment in my place

Who am I?

Can I conceal myself for evermore?

Pretend I’m not the man I was before?

And must my name until I die

Be no more than an alibi?

Must I lie?

How can I ever face my fellow men?

How can I ever face myself again?

My soul belongs to God, I know

I made that bargain long ago

He gave me hope when hope was gone

He gave me strength to journey on

Who am I? Who am I? / I’m Jean Valjean!

And so Javert, you see it’s true

This man bears no more guilt than you!

Who am I?/ 24601!

Here Jean Valjean examines his conscience and weighs the seriousness of eternity. He struggles knowing how hard he’s worked to get to his current state of material comfort—how confession is inconvenient, even to the point of sentencing him to death! His identity and destiny are wound up in the question “Who am I?” which itself stems from his dilemma of confession. A death to self, a recognition of truth and submission to its consequences, is tied to his potential confession. But unless Jean Valjean reveals his identity, he condemns a fellow man to slavery and agony and damns his own soul. He knows that something must change within himself and that he cannot continue living his life as he does if the death of that other person is at stake. This wider net of persons in his care and who will be affected by his decision to confess brings to mind the ecclesial nature of confession—how each person’s sins affect the community both before and after confession. Javert’s refusal to himself forgive Jean Valjean (or the man he thinks is Jean Valjean) shows a lack of mercy, especially since “this man bears no more guilt than you.” In a sense, his attitude is exactly the opposite of what a priest’s should be in the confessional.

[i] The penitent participates in the Church, the unified Body of Christ (ecclesial reality), and in fallen humanity itself, in the created but fallen world in which he or she lives (cosmic reality). “I am, of course, this individual sinner, but I am simultaneously a part of humanity, one of its fallen members. Thus conceptual factors… comprise a totality that draws into focus the world as a whole [and] its relationship to God.” von Speyr, Adrienne., Confession (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017),22.

[ii] Confession calls the penitent to focus on God and how his or her sins have damaged his or her relationship with God and with others. Confession’s grace, incarnate through place (confessional), words (rite and confessed sins), and persons present (penitent and priest). The penitent’s outward focus prevents him or her from obsessing too much with his- or herself, to the point of Augustinian incurvatus in se. Akin to Christ’s passion, Confession’s physical element serves as “the locus and occasion” for Christ’s renewed submission. von Speyr, Confession 57.

[iii] Self-examination without the insight of God can preclude or ignore the necessary divine assistance. The penitent must stay “ready in every moment to expect the intervention of the Holy Spirit, drawing security from the Father and his Spirit instead of from within himself… ‘Not my will, by thy will be done.’” von Speyr, Confession 29. See 48 for more details on waiting for God’s prompting to action and/or prayer.

[iv] By examining our consciences, we stand before God in a liminal space, where the penitent “unconditionally feels himself to be a sinner” and thus “expects confession with a kind of necessity.” von Speyr, Confession 21.

[v] This need stems from Christian alertness, a clear conscience, and a desire for right relationship with God. See von Speyr, Confession 115-125.

[vi] The orientation towards a change in heart and in living, paired with obedience to divine Love, makes Confession distinct from merely human endeavors such as conversations between friends or using psychology. “Ultimately, only the Creator of the human soul will be able to treat it so that it becomes the soul he needs.” God’s action in the sacrament fills the human need for “that most profound correctness” for which each person yearns. Von Speyr adds that “Confession of sins is not primarily a matter between human beings but, rather, is reserved for God.” See von Speyr, Confession 15-21, 43.

[vii] Christ, in instituting the sacrament, sets the terms for forgiveness: “It is not for the sinner but for the one outraged to determine the conditions of pardon.” Moreau CSC, Basil, ed. Grove CSC, Kevin and Gawrych CSC, Andrew. Essential Writings: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of the Founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross (Notre Dame: Christian Classics, n.d.) Ch. 1: Sermons: Confession. 106.

[viii] Excuses for or exclusions of sins find no place in this utter opening-up to the Lord. “Freedom of selection has been withdrawn” because, since the penitent “is sick as a whole person and must be healed as such,” the revelation implies an all-or-nothing scenario. The confession of Christ crucified seems to cry out, “Everything!” von Speyr, Confession 23-24, 60, 126-127.

[ix] For more details on preparation, see Moreau, Writings 115-116 and von Speyr, Confession 172-197.

[x] The making-visible (see von Speyr, Confession 24) of one’s soul occurs more specifically through the Holy Spirit. Fr. Moreau writes that one should ask God for “light to know those [sins] I have committed, humility to accuse myself strictly of them, love to feel contrition for them, and grace to avoid them in future.” The Rite first invokes the Trinity and asks that God give assistance in knowing one’s sin and in trusting His mercy, to which the penitent assents with an “Amen:” “May God, who has enlightened every heart, help you to know your sins and trust in his mercy.” Moreau, Writings 115, The Rites of the Catholic Church: the Roman Ritual Revised by Decree of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council and Published by Authority of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II. Study ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990), 545.

[xi] Confession, which mirrors the Trinity, involves “both revelation and the beholding of something revealed.” von Speyr, Confession 26.

[xii] The Holy Spirit permeates the Sacrament, “in the background… creat[ing] unity,” and sustains both penitent and confessor. During the examination of conscience, the penitent should pray: “O Holy Spirit, source of light, dispel the darkness that blinds me… enlighten my mind… soften my heart that I may abhor my sins… may it reconcile me perfectly with you.” The priest’s epicletic gesture of extending his hands at the moment of absolution recalls similar gestures in the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. von Speyr, Confession 51, 73-77. Moreau, Writings 115.

[xiii] The action and mutual communication, unity, and openness of the Trinity come to the fore in the rite of absolution, which includes the (Baptismal) Trinitarian formula and thereby renews the grace of Baptism. Neither Person of the Trinity can act entirely separately from the other two Persons; all Three actively bring about the sacrament of Confession. “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The Church as mediator, integrated into this rite of absolution, shows that She Herself, as the Bride and Body of Christ Who instituted the sacrament, must oversee and facilitate Confession. The Church’s authority to bind and loose sins stems from the authority Christ gives the Apostles on two separate occasions. Rites 547, Mt 16, Jn 20:23.

[xiv] Penitents communicate their sin, divisive as it is, to God, Who uses this communication to bring us back into the life of the Trinity: “Adam alienates himself from God in the first place by succumbing to sin, and God employs this same sin to bring Adam back.” von Speyr, Confession 27.

[xv] The Father, in His identity “of mercies,” fetches us and takes us back to Himself and circumcises our hearts, cleansing our very selves from slavery to sin. God the Father created the world in an act of mercy and mercifully continues to hold the world in existence. See Deut 30:4-19, Ps 8:4, Gen 1-2, Jer 31:33, Heb 8:10, Rom 9:16, Ps 139.

[xvi] See St. Augustine of Hippo in his sermons on the Psalms.

[xvii] This attitude resembles neither a fleeting feeling nor a stagnant theological moment. A confessional stance, alive and active within the world, requires continually inhabiting the vibrant life of the Church in our entire life. The penitent wears the confessional attitude around like a sweater, in the words of Fr. Kevin Grove, CSC. “The openness of one’s whole life is shown to us by the Son, who does not for a moment relinquish this openness… [which is] the perfect attitude of confession, which he passes on to the Church.” von Speyr, Confession 71.

[xviii] The penitent responds like Peter in Mt 16, who responds to his God-given revelation and thereby receives God’s favor. Soon afterwards, Peter, the first Pope, receives a new name and mission (perhaps akin to the reception of Baptism and/or Confirmation), he falls into distrust, and not for the last time. Likewise, each follower of Christ first and foremost responds to Christ’s invitation to sacramental life in the Church, humbly confessing Christ’s identity and goodness despite our persistent failings.

[xix] The graces dispensed grow as one empties oneself more intensely and thoroughly: “The more courageous we are in accusing ourselves and emptying all the infection from our hearts, the greater will be our comfort and peace afterward.” Moreau, Writings 117.

[xx] See John the Baptist’s confessional attitude and the relationship between the active and the contemplative life in von Speyr, Confession 43-49 and 86-88.

[xxi] It should be noted that Christ’s weaknesses here result from His taking on a limited human body (his human nature), which could endure hunger and temptations. This does not in any way take away from His Perfection as God (his divine nature). His two natures are indivisible but distinct. Our own weaknesses stem from concupiscence and our attachments to sin, of which things Christ did not Himself have. He bore our sin though He was sinless. See Philippians 2, von Speyr, Confession 111-114, 171. Von Speyr focuses on Christ’s clarity and His erasure of sin through the action of His life: Confession 52-53.

[xxii] Like Christ in the desert, we should “seek strength not in ourselves but in the Son, and not only in the Son but in the Father as well, through the Holy Spirit of divine obedience.” For a more thorough discussion on Christ’s example in the desert, see von Speyr, Confession 49-52 (esp. 50).

[xxiii] Christ, by taking on our humiliation, “opens for the sinner a path of discipleship [visible and invisible] leading into suffering as a path of grace-filled return through confession and absolution” into eternal life. von Speyr, Confession 88-92.

[xxiv] Christ does not condemn the adulterous woman (whom He saves from lawful death by stoning), but only exhorts her not to sin. Christ’s renewal of the law requires that it bring life even to the point of destruction; in the case of His Cross, sin and death find their destruction. Confession brings about in the penitent the destruction of sin and death by the absolution of sin and promise of resurrection. See Jn 8.

[xxv] Christ’s grace, abundant in Confession, Eucharist, and Baptism, give “us a new capacity for speaking with God.” von Speyr, Confession 95.

[xxvi] Confession makes Baptism shine again, revivifying its grace. See von Speyr, Confession 108-109.

[xxvii] This event features a submission to what God believes dignum et justum est, “a relinquishing of all active energy to the Father for the sake of being able to suffer as the Father wishes and of being undisturbed in his suffering by the powers and thoughts of action.” von Speyr, Confession 56.

[xxviii] We see Christ’s passion and death embedded in the Rite’s given act of contrition: “Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In his name, my God, have mercy.” Rites 546.

[xxix] Christ bore our sins, in their unsettled messy totality, on the Cross for our sake: “he needs, because the Father has so arranged it, this kind of final confirmation in suffering in which all his individual acts come together into a whole that encounters and corresponds to the unsettled totality of sin.” Having experienced sin through His encounters with others through His whole life, and having endured the excruciating pain inflicted by human cruelty on Good Friday (including abandonment and physical suffering beyond measure), He emptied Himself entirely so that we may be reconciled to God. See von Speyr, Confession 59 and 61-63, and Philippians 2.

[xxx] The sinner, by identifying him or herself with his or her guilt and sin, then “puts himself at a distance from it by repenting,” resulting in “complete release” by the sacrament’s end. von Speyr, Confession 30.

[xxxi] This liminal space thrives in the inexpressible: “the path from [pre-confession reflection and conversion] to the grace of absolution leads through the inexpressible experience the Son has before the Father and in the Holy Spirit, between desert and Cross.” von Speyr, Confession 51, 63-68.

[xxxii] This authority stems from Christ’s commands “to receive the Spirit and to remit sins.” von Speyr, Confession 72.

[xxxiii] The priest, without which the Sacrament could not occur in its concreteness and incarnation, “helps the penitent to make an integral confession… gives him suitable counsel… urges him to be sorry for his faults” in the context of Christ’s paschal mystery, and “proposes an act of penance.” He also “adapts his counsel to the penitent’s circumstances” as needed. Rites 546.

[xxxiv] Each of the Church’s members, who all sin (except Christ and His Mother), affects the Church, Christ’s Body, as a whole. The Church—a hospital for sinners, as Augustine says—ministers to the broken: “she tries to shape every Christian to correspond to the Lord’s expectation, not merely to demand it of him, but to form it within him so that the image that she is may manifest itself ever more visibly in the world.” The parable of the prodigal son emphasizes the sinner’s need for God, the gratitude inherent to the confessional stance, God the Father’s role as the initiator of forgiveness (he sees the Son from afar off and runs to embrace him before he can say a word), and the calling of each member of the Church to bear our fellows’ sin and forgive them as God does. See Lk 15, Lk 5:32, Mk 2:17, and Mt 6. For more details on Mary’s bearing our sin (as participating in Christ bearing our sin), see von Speyr, Confession 35-37. For more details on the sinner realizing his or her need for God, see von Speyr, Confession 82-83. See also von Speyr, Confession 100-101.

[xxxv] Confession, by forgiving mortal sins, reincorporates the penitent into the life of Eucharistic communion, itself the source and summit of the Church’s life: “confession and communion belong to one another and answer one another.” Penitents bear witness to the ecclesial nature of Confession by praying for their fellowmen, particularly those receiving the sacrament around them and those whose sins are retained: “in the person now confessing the confessor is already anticipating the next one. The same ‘confessional hour’ encompasses all three persons.” Confession radiates outward ecclesially through the varied types of confession (e.g. general, married, religious). von Speyr, Confession (focus on ecclesiology) 62,48, 79-83, 92-93, 102, 104, 199. For the types of confession, see von Speyr, Confession 131-165.

[xxxvi] In imitation of the Trinity, “the sinner is to reveal himself… in surrender, trust, and love. And the response determining remittance or non-remittance lies with the confessor… This education toward love… must include… pedagogical discipline… and the element of penance.” von Speyr, Confession 78-83

[xxxvii] This includes “the reserve of the Lord’s temptation.” von Speyr, Confession 51.

[xxxviii] The strength and enthusiasm of confession should permeate our whole being; confession ““keep[s] the fire of piety burning… carrying away a certain unction that seeps into our hearts and fills every crevice of our souls.” The sacrament “purif[ies] our souls from all stains of sin and… give them sweet peace, divine strength, and new ardor to go forward in the ways of salvation.” Moreau, Writings 113, 106. See also 111-112.

[xxxix] This involves heightened awareness, more focused prayer, and more joyful Scripture reading (in a word, a recentering upon one’s religion). von Speyr, Confession 124.

[xl] Fr. Moreau emphasizes the joy of absolution as a renewal of love: since confession “enable[s] us thus to live… the necessity of confession should seem to us a sweet and loving law.” The Blessed Virgin Mary at Eastertide exemplifies this undivided, overflowing joy of absolution. Moreau, Writings 109. See also Rev 21 and von Speyr, Confession 36-37, 236.

[xli] Because of the mystery of Christ’s twofold divinity and humanity exemplified in the Incarnation, “what the Son offers for our comprehension [e.g. His mercy] is always imbedded in the incomprehensible.” von Speyr, Confession 38; 226.

[xlii] The penitent accepts the exhortation as God’s word, inspired by the Holy Spirit. The penance, since it never even somewhat approaches proportionality in comparison to the weight of the penitent’s sin, proclaims God’s great mercy. Any temptation to Pelagian self-praise in the completion of the penance undermines the confessional stance of response and return-gift, of focus on God’s action and mercy that itself characterizes the sacrament itself. “The modest effort of confession corresponds in the smallest measure to the infinite effort of the Lord (an effort unto death) to give us his flesh and blood.” The Rite itself includes words of thanksgiving, for the sacrament “brings a person face to face with his divine destiny and places him directly within it,” within the context of salvation and Resurrection. Christ sees Confession as “the fruit of his entire life on earth, for through this sacrament he effects the redemption from sin throughout the ages.” Rites 547, von Speyr, Confession 63, 23, 28, 127, 205-220.

Why Confession? By Pat Gouker

Christ forges a path in Confession along which “God and man can encounter one another,”[1] restoring man to his place in the divine life of the Trinity, which is love. Adopted into this life of love and expunged of the stain of original sin first through Baptism, Confession provides aid to us after we fail to remain in that initial state of grace.[2] As Baptism destroyed our former identity and gave a new one by naming us into the Trinity, so does Confession restore our identity as one broken by sin to one returned to the Lord by absolving us and reclaim us in the Name of that same Trinitarian God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Confession mends the spiritual wounds we receive after Baptism; it cleans the white baptismal garment when it becomes dirtied through sin.[3] Through Confession, the penitent freely returns to God[4]; however, grace works within the penitent before he approaches the confessor,[5] for the Father initiates the sacrament[6] by first calling the penitent, through the Holy Spirit, to return to Him on this path made by the Son.

Called by God to repentance, the penitent must decide to meet Him on the path, he must recognize his faults, confess them with true contrition, and ask for mercy. In his pride, the penitent fell to sin; in his humility he can rise to new life.[7]. On the Cross Christ suffered the greatest of humiliation and “the more profoundly we become aware of our weakness and sinfulness, the more closely we resemble the humiliated Son of Man.”[8] Through humbling ourselves by kneeling in the confessional – falling before our God and taking our confessional stance – and verbally recognizing our most grievous faults, we imitate the Crucified Lord, and enter into the Confession of the Cross. Yet, just as in the Incarnation Christ humbled Himself to share in our humanity, so do we humble ourselves so that we might be able to share in His divinity, His life of love.[9]

Christ bound Himself to humanity in the Incarnation. We, in return, in an act of faith, allow ourselves to be bound as members of the Church into the Mystical Body of Christ by God in Baptism as Isaac submitted himself to Abraham to be bound. Binding ourselves to Him in such a way through Baptism we promise to lose our attachment to sin, to renounce Satan and all of his wiles. Imperfect, however, we fail to uphold our baptismal vows. One of us, sooner or later, falls. And, when one member of the body is wounded, the rest of the body feels the pain. Thus, the sin of one member of the Church wounds the entire Body.

For this reason, though He was sinless, sin wounded Christ all the same. The sins of members of His Mystical Body wounded Him. Through His mercy, He took on our sins as His own, bound Himself to the Cross of our sin with nails through His Hands and Feet. Yet He overcame that bondage. Taken down from the Cross and laid in a tomb, He rose from the death of sin to new life, unbound by sin, prefiguring our absolution in the confessional. So too, in Confession, do we bind ourselves to our sins, naming them and claiming them as ours. Then, in our own spiritual Good Friday, we die to those sins, we allow our desire for them to die, turning away from them. Having estranged ourselves to our fellow man and to God through sin, we, like the prodigal son, turn back and return home when we denounce our sin in Confession.[10] We seek healing in Confession and, in being healed ourselves, we help heal the entire Mystical Body.[11]

Dead to sin, we are laid in the tomb of the confessional box. There, hidden behind the great boulder of the seal of the sacrament, we undergo our transformation from one life to another. The mystery of Holy Saturday unfolds. Our desire for sin dead, we confess our love for God and we humbly ask for His love in return knowing that he will not spurn a “humble and contrite heart.”[12] And in that tomb we find a “new awareness of love,”[13] an awareness to the love that we never lost, but the Love who had been calling out to us from the Cross all the while. Christ cried to us “Why hast thou abandoned me? I love you. Return to me. Come to me all of you. See that I die for love of you. See that I endure all this because of you.” We become aware of the love of the Church which has aided us, perhaps unknowingly, so that we might endure this death to sin and endure the sight of our Loving Savior’s death in confession though it seem “insurmountably difficult.”[14] Though it seem so insurmountably difficult, confession exhorts us to humble ourselves and admit our broken-heartedness. “For if our hearts are not broken, how can God get in?”[15]

And once in, God restores us to the brilliant holiness with which we shone at our baptism, he reconciles us to Himself. Through the Passion of Christ[16], we climb the Cross to the Father, responding to His voice in the Spirit. We return to His love, entering back into that relationship of love that is the divine life received at baptism and severed by sin. Restored to this state of grace in Confession, we exit our tomb on our personal Easter morn, alive in a new life in the Trinity to do penance, to make our first act one of rest in Lord, one of worship of Him, for that is the telos of our life, of our confession, of the confession of the Cross: the worship and glorification of God and the sharing in the life of the Trinity.

This is “I Absolve You”, a sculpture by Timothy P. Schmalz. The sculpture was originally made life size such that one could sit on the square stool. On one side, Padre Pio is hearing a confession, possibly yours. Yet, it is not Pio who hears the confession, but Christ, through Pio. Thus, the penitent cannot see Padre Pio, but only Christ, wounded for love of the penitent himself. Confession, in this statue, fits von Speyr’s theology in that it takes place in and through the Cross. The window also suggests a deep intimacy, Pio, like Christ, draws near to the penitent, and the penitent is invited to rest his hands on the Wounded Hand of Christ and, like St. Thomas, know that Christ, His love, and His victory over death are real. I keep a small version of this statue on my desk to gaze on it frequently and remind myself the purpose of this life is to draw close to Christ.

Miserere, Allegri

Lyrics based on Psalm 51

Miserere mei, Deus,
secundum magnam misericordiam tuam:
Et secundum multitudinem miserationum
dele iniquitatem meam.
Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea:
et a peccato meo munda me.
Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco:
et peccatum meum contra me est semper.
Tibi soli peccavi, et malum coram te feci:
ut iustificeris in sermonibus tuis, et vincas
cum iudicaris.
Ecce, enim in iniquitatibus conceptus sum:
et in peccatis concepit me mater mea.

Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti:
incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae
manifestasti mihi.
Asperges me hyssopo, et mundabor:
lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

Auditui meo dabis gaudium et laetitiam:
et exsultabunt ossa humiliata.

Averte faciem tuam a peccatis meis:
et omnes iniquitates meas dele.      

Cor mundum crea in me, Deus: et spiritum rectum innova in visceribus meis.
Ne proiicias me a facie tua: et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me.
Redde mihi laetitiam salutaris tui: et spiritu principali confirma me.
Docebo iniquos vias tuas: et impii ad te convertentur.
Libera me de sanguinibus, Deus, Deus salutis meae: et exsultabit lingua mea justitiam tuam.
Domine, labia mea aperies: et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam.
Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium, dedissem utique: holocaustis non delectaberis.
Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus: cor contritum, et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.
Benigne fac, Domine, in bona voluntate tua Sion: ut aedificentur muri Ierusalem.
Tunc acceptabis sacrificium justitiae, oblationes, et holocausta: tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos.
Have mercy upon me, O God,
after thy great goodness:
according to the multitude of
thy mercies
do away mine offences.
Wash me throughly from my wickedness:
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my faults:
and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee only have I sinned, and done this
evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified
in thy saying, and clear when thou art judged.
Behold, I was shapen in wickedness:
and in sin hath my mother conceived me.
But lo, thou requirest truth in the inward parts:
and shalt make me to understand wisdom
Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be
clean: thou shalt wash me,
and I shall be whiter
than snow.
Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness:
that the bones which thou hast broken may
rejoice. Turn thy face from my sins:
and put out all my misdeeds.

Make me a clean heart, O God:
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence:
and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
O give me the comfort of thy help again:
and stablish me with thy free Spirit.
Then shall I teach thy ways unto the wicked:
and sinners shall be converted unto thee.
Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God,
thou that art the God of my health:
and my tongue shall sing of thy righteousness.
Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord:
and my mouth shall shew thy praise.
For thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I
give it thee:
but thou delightest not in burnt-offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit:
a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise.
O be favourable and gracious unto Sion:
build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness,
with the burnt-offerings and oblations:
then shall they offer young bullocks upon thine altar.

I chose Allegri’s Miserere Mei, Deus because this beautiful setting of Psalm 51 is a powerful piece of music. The psalm itself is confessional. The psalmist laments for his sins and begs God’s mercy upon him. The music, meanwhile, captures the heart of confession. There is something sad and mournful about the piece, and yet something that cannot help but lift the soul to God, to make one feel as though they must depend entirely on Him and love Him above all else. The alternation between a single voice singing and the whole schola singing also suggests that, while confession is certainly private, there is no truly private sacrament, for all sacraments involve the whole Church.

[1] Adrienne von Speyr’s theology of Confession revolves around the life of Christ. In particular, her theology revolves around the Paschal Mystery of Christ, those events which, commemorated at every Mass but especially in the Paschal Triduum, are the source of all power and efficacy of all the sacraments. They play a unique role, however, in the theology of Confession. Adrienne von Speyr, Confession (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 89.

[2] To be in a state of grace is to be a participant in the divine life. Fulton Sheen, These Are the Sacraments (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1962), 29

[3] Sheen, 28.

[4] “Men have, on their own initiative, turned their backs on God without cause; they must also begin the journey back to God on their own initiative or at least must make some move on their own initiative for the sake of this return.” von Speyr, 92.

[5] At the moment that a person recognizes his sin and has true contrition for it, “ the sinner confesses his guilt and thus puts himself at a distance from it by wishing it away and repenting, it is already separated from him – as if it were already encompassed by divine grace” (von Speyr, 30). Indeed, grace works within the person to arouse in him knowledge of his sins and true contrition for them. Though this often happens before a person approaches a confessor, the Church still emphasizes God’s initiation of the sacrament and His bestowal of grace even prior to absolution in the invitatory prayer for the sacrament: “May God, who has enlightened every heart, help you to know your sins and trust in [H]is mercy” (Rite of Penance, n.42). This prayer emphasizes God’s active role of bestowing the grace necessary for a person to recall all of his sins and to be contrite for them, trusting that God will be merciful to Him.

[6] “To God alone belongs the initiative in this sacrament.” Sheen, 30.

[7] “[S]in is pride, it demands a humiliation.” Sheen, 32.

[8] von Speyr, 167.

[9] This phrase is adapted from one of the secret prayers found in the Mass in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, said as the priest mixes water and wine together into the chalice.

[10] The parable of the prodigal son of Lk 15:11-32 encapsulates a great deal of theology of Confession. For this paper, however, it is most important to emphasize the imagery of what people turn towards in the parable. At its beginning a young man turns away from the love of his father, leaving for something other than love, turning his back on the relation of love which he has with his family. (If one considers Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s anthropology from Principles of Catholic Theology, this turning away from love would be seen as the son’s turning away from his humanity.) Eventually, lost, alone, and with nothing, the son turns back to his father. As with Confession, the son needed to make the willing choice to return to his father. However, the father, as does God in Confession, initiates this response. The father’s love and kindness towards other members of his household, in this case, his servants, suggests to the son that he could return and enter back into this relation of love with his father. So too does the confession of one member of the Mystical Body inspire and aid other members to return to God in the sacrament of Confession. They all thus return to their Father and denounce their previous actions (their sin) and ask in humility not to be forgiven and restored to their former status, but to simply be treated as a servant that is, to be loved again. They do not expect absolution, as von Speyr says, they do not anticipate Easter on Good Friday but submit to their abandonment as does Christ and enter into the mystery of Holy Saturday. And in that mystery of Holy Saturday, they find that the prodigal son never lost the love of the father and that the father restores him not only to his former status but even beyond, not treating him equal to his brother, but even better for there is more rejoicing in heaven over a penitent sinner than over ninety-nine people who have no need of repentance (Lk 15:7). For indeed, while ninety-nine righteous people are worthy of honor, they do not merit the same joy as one who is a miracle, one who died and yet has come back to life.

[11] Just as one injured member of a body injures the whole body, so does the healing of one member cause a relief in the entirety of the body.

[12] Ps. 51:17.

[13] von Speyr, 128.

[14] Ibid, 232.

[15] Sheen, 39.

[16] The Passion of Christ and the Communion of Saints are so important to the understanding of Confession that the pre-Vatican II Rite of Confession included a prayer said by the confessor on behalf of the penitent. The prayer was as follows: “Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi, merita Beatae Mariae Virginis et omnium sanctorum, quidquid boni feceris vei mali sustinueris sint tibi in remissionem peaccatorum, augmentum gratiae et praemium vitae aeternae. Amen.” (My the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, the good thou hast done, and the ill thou has endured profit thee unto the remission of sin, increase in grace, and reward in eternity. Amen.) This prayer emphasizes the source of Confession’s power (as with all of the Sacraments) coming from the Passion of Christ as well as the importance of the intercession of the Communion of Saints, which includes the Church, for the penitent who is a part of that same Communion.

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