This week, I received an email from a deacon asking me to send him an article that ran in the St. Louis Review and the diocesan papers of the Archdiocese of La Crosse, the Archdiocese of Dubuque, and the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. The deacon teaches RCIA classes, and one of the students was dealing with anguish that comes with waiting for an annulment. This topic comes up a lot in the weeks before Easter Vigil. Therefore, I am reposting this from the Catholic by Grace archives.
Reconciling One’s Self to the Idea of Reconciliation
One week before Easter Vigil, the RCIA class at my parish went through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Due to a pending annulment from a first marriage, I could not participate in the Sacrament. It was a difficult moment in my conversion to the Catholic faith, because I longed to make this part of the journey with my class and be reconciled to the Lord. Even though the pending annulment meant I couldn’t participate, my classmates asked me to join them in a show of love and support, and so I went along somewhat reluctantly.
The idea of watching my friends enter the confessional and leave with clean hearts and souls (while I remained in the pew, still mired in sin and shame) weighed heavily on my mind. I am so glad that I decided to put that aside and go along as they suggested.
Although I had a desire to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, at that point in my journey I still had lingering doubts about why I needed to seek forgiveness through a priest. While I sorted through the intellectual doubts, my spirit sensed the necessity of this act of humility and Sacrament of Reconciliation. My instincts were confirmed as I watched my new friends leave the confessional with radiant faces. The memory of it still blesses me in a profound way. After they had made their confessions, some suggested that I go in to receive a blessing.
When I entered, the priest was already seated. He said something to me, and I realized that he was beginning the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I muddled through an explanation of my situation, and we talked briefly. Then, he blessed me.
When I left that little room, I realized that my Protestant doubt in the confessional was gone. In fact, the experience turned my thinking around one-hundred-eighty degrees. Now, I had doubts in the validity of the Jesus-and-me style of private Protestant confession.
Somehow, I had been given the grace to recognize Jesus in His ordained one, the priest. Somehow, the Holy Spirit had helped me realize that the Sacrament of Reconciliation was not merely part of a sequence of events leading up to First Communion. The door to the confessional is the door to Jesus’ forgiveness. From that point on, I realized that when I hear those words of absolution – whenever that blessed day comes along – the words will be spoken by a priest, but they will be the words of Jesus.
In the weeks and months that have followed, the desire to be made clean through this Sacrament has consumed my spirit like holy fire. When I read verses from the Psalmist – verses like “Take pity on me, Lord, in your mercy; in your abundance of mercy wipe out my guilt” and “Wash me ever more from my guilt and cleanse me from my sin . . . for I know how guilty I am: my sin is always before me” – I am filled with an unquenchable desire to be reconciled to the Lord through this Sacrament.
I suppose one could contemplate the Sacrament of Reconciliation forever and never be able to grasp completely the fullness of the mystery, but I find myself trying to figure it out anyway. Why does the confessional trump individual prayers of confession? I think the question is answered in part by another verse in the Book of Psalm. “The true sacrifice is a broken spirit: a contrite and humble heart, O God, you will not refuse.”
The confessional requires humility. Pride is wrestled to the ground, giving way to a broken spirit. The net result is deep remorse and a profound desire to turn from sin and temptation (which is the definition of repentance). Private Jesus-and-Me confessions too easily segue into a mere appeasement of a guilty conscience and not true repentance. Without contrition and humility there is no forgiveness, the Psalmist says. The Lord has provided a way for me to know I am forgiven – the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I realize now that it is next to impossible to sit before a priest and speak of one’s darkest deeds without a profound sense of contrition and humility that leads to a serious desire to turn from sin.
If that wasn’t enough for me to embrace the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I only had to consider the Lord’s words to His Apostles, “Whatever you bind . . . whatever you loose.” Forgiveness is ours because of the Blood of Christ and His atoning work on the cross of Calvary (something I’d always believed), but Jesus said that the one who has the authority to forgive in His name is the ordained one.
In the summer of 2005, I received word from the Metropolitan Tribunal that I am not bound to my first marriage. Words cannot describe the joy that comes with knowing that Jesus is drawing me closer, even now bending His finger to me, indicating that He wants me to come all the way home, and that eventually I will be able to receive Him in the Holy Eucharist. I’m still anticipating my first confession; I long to hear the words of absolution. I’m ready to trade my ashes for beauty, ready to wear forgiveness like a crown. I know that Jesus is there and that He is waiting for me to receive the sweet Sacrament of Reconciliation no matter how long it takes for me to be ready. (First Communion received 8/14/05)
(another excerpt from the archives)
The wait was good for me. As a preacher’s kid (PK) all doors are thrown open. We get used to people telling us to sit in the seat of honor, to be first in line, to write and to speak. We are asked to contribute to the newsletter, to teach a class and to answer other people’s questions about the faith. We are given respect and spiritual deference. No holds barred.
It was good for me to be told to wait. It was right for me to remain seated while others were told to come forward and receive the Lord. My tears of humility and desire at the Mass were sweet and the result of a tremendous longing of the soul. I am no longer the PK, all puffed up and proud. I am a humble pilgrim. And this has been the most important journey of my life.