When did you first learn about Confession? Second grade? How old were you? Have you changed a lot since you were seven or eight? You're smarter now; you know a lot more about the world; you understand more things. Today we're going to talk about Confession, and guess what: you ain't in second grade anymore. It's time to use all that wisdom you've accumulated since second grade, and take a deeper look at Confession.
But before you can confess your sins, you'd better know: what is sin? Doing something bad? Wrong things? Here's a definition: "an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is a failure of genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods" (CCC 1849). Or here's another: "an utterance, deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law". Sin is setting yourself against God, choosing to elevate your own will over God's will. We can sin in our actions, in our words, in our thoughts, even in what we don't do, if we avoid doing what's good. Sin clouds our soul from fulling receiving God's love and grace, just like a dirty, salty windshield in winter makes it difficult for a driver to see what's going on around him. Jesus says in the beatitudes: "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God." Confession heals our souls from the scars of sin. It wipes the glass clean so that the light of God's love can shine in us. God's love is always there, always shining on us, but if our souls are crusted with sin, that crust is a barrier against the light. We need the grace of confession to purify us and make us fully receptive to God.
The church helps us with two categories of sin. God hates all sin, and it's all equally evil in his eyes, but these categories are ways to guide us in making our confession. The first kind is mortal sin. Who knows what mortal means? Yes, someone who's going to die. Mortal means deadly in this case. Mortal sin kills grace in our souls. These are big, serious sins, of the kinds that children don't often commit. Murder, adultery, lies that destroy other people, theft -- sins that have serious effects in the world and on our souls. These sins must be confessed before we receive the Eucharist.
Mortal sin has three conditions: grave matter, full knowledge, deliberate consent. Grave matter is something very serious and bad. Killing your mother is worse than breaking her vase. Stealing money from your job is worse than taking a stapler home. Full knowledge is understanding that something is wrong. If you know a lady is married and you decide to go on a date with her anyway, that's wrong -- for both you and her! Deliberate consent is freely choosing to sin. If I go to a store and turn around and knock a bracelet into my purse, it's stealing, but it's not the same as if I look around, see that no one's looking, and swipe the bracelet and sneak it into my purse. The first is an accident. The second is deliberate consent. (lots of discussion about each of these categories.)
The other category is venial sins. These are smaller sins, temporally speaking, and they don't kill God's grace in us, although they wound our souls. But left unconfessed, they build up and lead us to develop bad moral habits -- vices. Unchecked venial sins lead to mortal sins. They dull our moral sense. If we love God, we want to rid ourselves even of small sins that pull us from him.
We're going to use Jesus's own words to help us think about the steps of making a good Confession. Everyone take your Bible, and we're going to look up Luke 15:11-32. Where is Luke, the Old or the New Testament? In which half of the Bible will you find the New Testament? What kind of a book is Luke? Can you name the other Gospels? (varied success on all fronts)
This is a parable of Jesus's. You've heard it before -- The Prodigal Son. Let's read it and then go through it more carefully.
The first step of a good confession is to Examine Your Conscience. It's not going to be very easy to confess your sins if you don't even know what your sins are. Where do we see the son first taking a good hard look at his life? Try even before he says he'll go back to his father. Verse 17: "Coming to his senses..." This is where he looks at what his life is like and how he's messed up, and decides to take responsibility. He examines his conscience.
What's your conscience? (A couple of answers boiling down to a voice that tells you right from wrong.) Here are a few answers: "Man's most secret core" -- that's from the Catechism. (I didn't write down the reference, but the Catechism was quoting Gaudium et Spes 16.) Here's another definition: "the "judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of an act" (1796). Did you note the word "reason"? We don't judge right and wrong primarily by our feelings. Feelings can be strong, but they're not always a sure guide. Have you ever seen someone carried away by their feelings, overreacting, or someone who feels like they're always right and everyone else is always wrong? (lots of agreement.) God gives us our reason to distinguish what's right from what's wrong. Sometimes your feelings are also a good guide for you, but other times they aren't, and we need to train our reason and our conscience so that we're able to see past our feelings to what's true.
In order for our consciences to be good guides for us, we have to keep forming them all throughout our lives. What are some of the best ways to train our reason so we're able to know and choose what's right? (points are both from kid suggestions and my own notes)
- the words of Jesus himself
- other people's experience
- the teachings of the Church
- the gifts of the Holy Spirit
Step two: A sincere sorrow for sins. Is the son sorry for what he's done? Let's talk about the two kinds of contrition, which is another way of saying "sorrow for sins". "Perfect contrition" is the best kind: when you're sorry for your sins for the love of God, because your sin is an offense against his commands and because it's a poor response to his overwhelming love for you. Is this the kind of contrition the son has? Hm. Well there's another kind of contrition, appropriately named: "Imperfect contrition". Anyone ever been sorry for doing something wrong because you knew you were going to get in trouble? Have you ever been sorry for something because you see the lousy consequences of your action? Let's look at the son's contrition. He's sorry because he's broke and living in a pigsty, and he's starving, and because if he'd stayed at home he'd have a better life, and because even his father's servants are doing better than he is. And you know what? God accepts our imperfect contrition in Confession! Even imperfect contrition is good if it moves us toward God, as it moved the son toward his father. The grace of Confession covers even our poor contrition and makes it acceptable to God.
Step three: Confess your sins. We're both body and soul. All the reasoning we do with our conscience, and the feeling sorry (or the intellectual knowledge that we should be sorry) isn't going to do much if we don't take physical action. The son does that. First, he actually gets up and goes to his father. How does the father respond? He's looking for the son. He runs out to meet him partway. All this before he's even said a word! Then the son makes his confession: "I have sinned against God and against you."
What do you think would have happened if the son hadn't said he was sorry? What if he'd just sauntered back and said, "Hey guys, I'm home!" and wore the rings and fine garments and eaten the fatted calf? Would the father have had a hard time believing that the son was sorry? What about the people around him? What if you lied to your mom and never apologized? Would that trust between you be damaged? Confession -- in words -- was crucial to rebuilding the bonds of trust in the community. Our sin doesn't just hurt us. It always has repercussions for others, even when we think it's so secret no one will know. Hidden actions come out. Even sin in your thoughts affects how you treat other people. In Confession, we not only rebuild our relationship with God, but with his Church.
Step four: Resolve to amend your life. Do you know what "amend" means? If you mend a hole in your clothes, you fix the hole. If you amend something, you fix it and make it better. To amend your life means to turn away from your sins. Does the son have a firm purpose of amendment? I think he does: look how he's planning to tell his father that he deserves to be treated like a servant. He's ready to accept that work, maybe even to contribute to repairing his father's fortune. He knows that he has to change the way he's been living, in ways that don't include behavior that squanders fortunes or leaves him feeding pigs. Maybe he knows that his dad is going to throw a feast for him, and he figures that it won't matter if he makes the offer. But he has to make it, and he has to take the chance of it being accepted.
God hates sin. He hates it so much that he came to suffer and die to defeat sin and to take the consequences for us. We resolve to amend our life, to move away from our sinful behavior, because we realize the consequences of continuing to sin.
Step five: Do the penance assigned. Here's a question: does the son do penance? We don't know: the parable stops before we see that. We do know that the father doesn't assign the son the penance the son suggests: treating him like a servant. In confession Father may assign you three Hail Marys, or to pray for someone who you've hurt, or who's hurt you. Are three Hail Marys equal to Jesus's sacrifice on the cross? No, nothing is, or ever can be. We can't make up by our actions for our sins, but penance, accepted in obedience, can help us train our wills to God. When you receive your penance in confession, do it immediately! Kneel down as soon as you come out of confession and pray! Penance is a way of giving God our love and gratitude for his forgiveness, and of showing a firm purpose of amending our life.
(Question about what happens if a murderer confesses his sin to a priest -- does he get away scot free?)
Well, look at the steps of confession. A priest can never reveal what's told him in confession, so he can't report the murder. But if the murderer is truly sorry, if he truly wants to amend his life, he'll obey if the priest tells him to turn himself in. And if he's not truly sorry, he can't be absolved. Contrition is a necessary part of confession, not just an afterthought. Penance is a necessary part of confession, not just an afterthought. God calls us to cooperate in his forgiveness. He doesn't force it on us, and he's given the priest the power to withhold absolution in some situations (John 20:23, Matthew 16:19).
So we've talked about the five steps of a good confession. Now let's talk about actually going to confession. And why should we go to confession? We know that only God can forgive sins. We know that he hears our prayers when we ask him for forgiveness. But he has chosen to directly forgive sins through the sacrament of Confession. He gives us a liturgy through which we can know we are forgiven and repair the damage our sin does to us and to the rest of his body, the Church. Don't ignore that. The sacraments are crucial to our life in Christ because they are direct conduits of his grace. Take advantage of that grace!
Do you remember what you did last time you went to confession? Are you nervous because you think you're going to get it wrong? Don't be? Remember that actors rehearse and rehearse so that they know exactly what they'll do on stage. God gives us rituals so that we know what's coming, and can focus on being prepared.
Examine your conscience! I've got an examination of conscience appropriate for your age group which we'll go through, but there are lots of ways to examine your conscience: the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, other guides. Use them!
After your examination of conscience, you're ready to go to confession. You can sit facing the priest, or you can do what I like to do, and go behind the screen where the priest can't see you. Either way is fine, so don't feel like you're obliged to do one or the other.
How should you start? Well, it's good to have some words to get started. One of the best ways is to use the words people have used for years: "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." That's easy to remember, and it's to the point. Then tell how long it's been since your last confession. If you say it's been one week, Father will know that you're pretty experienced. If you say ten years, he'll know that you might need some help remembering what to do. It gives him a guideline for helping you.
Then you confess your sins. Remember, you're not talking just to Fr. Watson. Father won't even remember what you say to him, and thank goodness for that! You're speaking to Christ exercising his power through Father. Be honest. You don't hide sickness from the doctor if you want to be healed, and you don't hide sin from God if you want to be forgiven.
Now listen to Father. He may give you some good advice for how to lead a better life, or if he's pressed for time he may just assign you your penance. Remember what it is, so you can do it right away. He'll ask you to say an act of contrition. Does anyone have one memorized? (One hand goes up.) This is a great prayer to memorize, to say at nights, when you're thinking about your day. You memorize it so you don't feel nervous about what words to use. There are many versions of the act of contrition. I've given you the one I learned when I was young, but there are other forms. But you'll notice that this act of Contrition contains all the steps of making a good confession: sorrow, confession, purpose of amendment and penance. It's a microcosm of Confession itself. The Church loves these cycles. The Mass on Sunday is a microcosm of the week, in which we remember Jesus's death on Friday and his resurrection on Sunday, and that's a mirror of the liturgical year, which is a mirror of history itself.
Now Father speaks the words of absolution: "Through the ministry of the Church may God grant 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."Make the sign of the cross, and thank Father! Then go out and do your penance right away. Don't walk out of church without doing what Father asked, unless he asks something that needs to be done later, like reading a Bible passage or talking to someone.
And there you have it, and I think after a day of moral theology we can end a little early. Let's say the act of contrition as a closing prayer.