Few of the sacraments have such a checkered history as does the Sacrament of Reconciliation. His unduly rigorous attitude about the forgiveness of sins drove Tertullian away from the Church early in the 3rd Century when Pope St. Calistus eased the nearly puritanical discipline that dominated the age of persecution. Reflecting on the question which St. Peter posed and which Jesus answered, Calistus knew he was correct. "Lord, how often should I forgive my brother? Seven times?" You recall Jesus' answer quite clearly.
Humanly speaking, I have to admit that the hearing of confessions is usually quite boring. I overcome the boredom rather easily when I pray seriously before entering the confessional. When I run to the confessional at the last minute, I am more readily bored. Patience has never been one of my attributes, so that I need God's grace patiently to listen, to advise, and to absolve.
Often, I say to myself that I should read about and meditate upon this sacrament much more often - to recapture, by an act of faith, my understanding of this most generous gift of God. Yes, I know there are greater gifts of God; and I want to offer a few thoughts about some of them in other conferences. But if you want to examine meditatively the marvels of God's love for us, reflect on the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
I hear the same people's confessions week in and week out, and I detect little or no improvement in those individuals. They are beset with weaknesses and too readily submit to their temptations. Sometimes, you're tempted to speak sternly to them. I never submit to that temptation for two reasons. The first and most important is that I sit there as Jesus Christ. I ask myself: "What would Jesus say to this person?" And the answer comes soaring out of the Gospel of John: "Neither do I condemn you. Go, now, and do not sin again. "Pushing the matter a bit, I ask: "What if that woman taken in adultery had been caught a second time and once again hurled at Jesus' feet. What would he have said?" Seventy times seven.
A second reason is that I am myself a sinner. I have no stone to cast, so I have no right to be stern with the penitents who come to me. I admit that occasionally a penitent won't listen to what I have to say, usually because of their nervousness. To catch such a person's attention, I speak forcefully. But I quickly apologize and assure the penitent that they should relax, set aside nervousness, and listen to my counsel - which is not a criticism! I, a sinner, can hardly be a critic of a sinner. I have no stones.
This sacrament, to be sure, is as necessary for you as for me as it is for those whose confessions we hear. How often do we accept this marvelous grace of God? How often do we confess our sins? I'm afraid that many of us have slipped from the earnest practice of frequent confession. These days especially, we have so much to do that we fall into bed at night grateful for the opportunity to be alone. During this retreat, ask yourself the direct questions: How important is the sacrament of reconciliation to me? What schedule should I follow? How often will I confess? To whom? Can I give this special priority?
There is, to be sure, a grave difference between the sins of weakness and these sins of malice. Usually, we deal in the sacrament of reconciliation with sins of weakness. I have most rarely been confronted with malice, or at least, with malice that is grave. Yes, sometimes we do malicious things, but seldom, if ever, do we perform acts of malice that are studied, plotted out, willfully evil.
One of my favorite people is a Dominican whom many of you know named Ed Conley, former Pastor at St. Anthony of Padua in New Orleans. It's always interesting to drive with Ed when he is the driver. He has no patience with slow pokes, and, especially if the car windows are up, will cuss and storm about the car in front of us that is "moseying" along. I shall not quote his expletives. I only hurry to add that the man. is never malicious. He merely shares my impatience.
In the sacraments of forgiveness, we see the mercy of God at work, perhaps better than in any other situation. God's mercy is an effect of his love for us. Turning toward us without fail, calling us back to him, prompting us with his grace, moving our emotions and our will, our living father is anxious to wipe away the sins of men and women. To wipe them away so that, in literal truth, they are no more. Perhaps we should name this sacrament again, now calling it the sacrament of mercy.
A quality of most priests that I have always reverenced is their kindness in the confessional. I wish I knew why so many priests have the reputation -- one that is deserved -- for being good confessors. Good and kind. Our education is part of the reason; perhaps, our tolerance for others who differ with us in the priesthood is another part.
To hear confessions, admittedly a tiresome proposition at times, is an opportunity we should not miss. Kindness to others is a Christian hallmark; those who are kindly are in the path of salvation. But even more, we are "other Christs." And perhaps nowhere is that more palpable to the faithful than in the confessional of one who goes into the confessional box to sit there in Jesus' stead.
"I have come to call . . . sinners." Pray for patience and kindliness before you hear confessions - asking Jesus Christ to prepare you to sit there in his name - to be kind, compassionate, forgiving, uncensorious, "alter Christus."
Remind yourself as you enter the confessional: Christ is the Prince of peace. Where is this better demonstrated than in the Sacrament of Reconciliation? You absolve sinners with kindness and so you send them from your confessional in the peace of Christ. occasionally, try to say with sincerity and feeling: "Go in Peace."