Confession is beautiful, grace-filled and a necessary part of growing spiritually

By Colleen Kenney – March 5, 2004 – for the Lincoln Journal Star

My cmnt: Philosophical materialists (i.e., atheists, earth worshipers, communists, secular humanists, Darwinists, radical environmentalists) scoff at the idea of there being a God and most certainly a God who forgives sins. “We are free to do what we want, especially sexually”, they tell us. But as my recent posts on Earth Day and such show, no one escapes from guilt and the need for pardon – for all have sinned, feel it in their hearts and want forgiveness – even if the sin is not recycling enough and the penance is planting a tree.

She sins.

She keeps it within her heart for a dozen years, until it grows tired and heavy and she knows she needs help because it’s overwhelming her.

Pat Walbrecht grew up Catholic. She went through the Sacrament of Penance, or Confession. But now pride keeps her from entering the door of the confessional, kneeling down and admitting her sins to the Lord.

This sin is between God and me, she tells herself. She doesn’t need to tell a priest.

One day after Mass, she approaches the door. She feels like she did as a child: petrified, trying to remember the exact words to use. She’s sure the priest waiting behind the other confessional door will be shocked at what she’s about to say.

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. – It’s been a long time since my last Confession –

The priest listens. He speaks softly. His tone is gentle. He gives guidance and a number of “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys” to say as penance for the absolution of sins.

I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

“I felt totally awesome, lifted, free,” Walbrecht says. “I felt rejuvenated. I felt that the priest cares and that God cares for me enough to put this sacrament there for me to get rid of all this stuff.”

That was a decade ago. Walbrecht now is a secretary at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Lincoln. She goes to daily Mass. She tells her Catholic friends not to be afraid of the confessional door.

Confessing sins and seeking God’s forgiveness are important concepts to other Christian denominations, too. But, unlike Catholics, most do not consider it a sacrament.

To Catholics, Walbrecht says, Confession is beautiful and grace-filled, even if it’s difficult at times. But to non-Catholics, it seems strange and oppressive. The other day, she was driving to Des Moines with two non-Catholic friends and the topic of confessing sins came up.

The discussion became so intense they missed their turn.

“They just don’t understand why we have to confess our sins to a priest,” Walbrecht says. “They say, ‘It’s between God and you.'”

Catholics believe the Lord began the Sacrament of Penance on Easter Sunday, after Jesus was raised from the dead, breathed upon his apostles and said: “Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.”

Catholics confess their sins to a priest because they view priests as the spiritual representatives of Christ (and bishops as the spiritual descendants of the apostles).

Father Paul Witt, pastor of St. Mary’s, says many non-Catholics have misconceptions about Confession. They think that priests are the ones forgiving people of their sins when in reality God is the one forgiving sins – through the absolutions the priests say.

“The biggest misconception is that Catholics go to Confession so that they can go out and sin again,” Witt says. “And the answer is that any Catholic who walks into the confessional with that mentality will not have their sins forgiven.”

Catholics must have sincere sorrow and the desire to change their ways, he says, otherwise their confession means nothing.

“For example, if a couple is living together without being married, are sexually active, the priest says, ‘OK, to be sorry for your sins, the first thing you have to do is you can’t be living together.’ The guy or gal might say, ‘Well, I don’t intend to break that up.’ The priest says, ‘Well, then I can’t give absolution. You’re still living in the state of mortal sin.’

“You can’t give absolution if there is no intention to try and avoid the sin. And living together isn’t avoiding it.”

Confession gives grace, Witt says, and that grace strengthens people against sin.

“It’s free spiritual psychiatry,” he says. “It’s coming clean, getting your conscience clear. And the fruits of it certainly are peace of mind.”

The most common sin Witt hears in the confessional is “sins against speech,” such as lying, back-biting a neighbor, bad language.

“I’ve had people who have been away from the confessional a long time, and one thing we do is just help them through it when they say, ‘I don’t remember how it goes.’

“I ask them, ‘How long ago was your last Confession?’ And I say, ‘Go ahead and say your sins, and approximately how often they happen – and oh, by the way, there are no new sins. You’re not going to say anything to me that causes me to melt or pass out. We’ve heard it all.'”

Witt says the record for hearing people’s confessions at St. Mary’s – five straight hours – was set by Father Sean Redmond back in ’92 (he’s now at Nebraska City). Witt went four hours, 40 minutes one day before Christmas two years ago.

After those dozen years of avoiding the confessional, Walbrecht, the church secretary, tries to go twice a month now. She thinks Catholics are becoming more aware of their faith and what it can do for them, if they put forth the effort.

She’s fielded so many phone calls about Confession to St. Mary’s, she says, that she feels almost like a 911 operator.

“They say they’ve been away from Confession a long time and they need somebody to talk to. I tell them when Confession times are.”

Confessing sins and seeking God’s forgiveness are important to many faiths. Here are some other views on the subject:

Francis Schmidt, pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church:

“We believe in the confession of sins. The difference between Catholics and us is that we can go directly to God. And our confession would be as a part of the general confession of worship service, or a person could choose to visit with a pastor to process stuff.

“It’s not an institutionalized idea of a confessional (and not a sacrament). But the understanding of the purpose would not be that much different than the Catholic Church.”

Pastor Michael Chaffee, Holy Savior Lutheran Church:

Holy Savior has a public confession in every worship service. But in terms of private confession, it’s not something people must do with a minister.

Lutherans do not need a pastor to announce to them that their sins are forgiven. But sometimes it does help.

Sometimes people struggle and struggle with something, try to work it out with God on their own. But there may come a time when they want to go talk to one of God’s spokespeople, so to speak.

Unlike Catholic Church, Lutherans do not have penance after a confession.

“It’s like what Jesus says in John Chapter 8, to the woman taken in adultery: ‘Go and sin no more.'”

“What we believe as Lutherans is that the power of the Holy Spirit then is given to us that we might go and live more effectively for God.”

Some Lutheran pastors consider confession a sacrament; Chaffee does not.

Kathryn Campbell, associate minister, First-Plymouth Congregational Church:

Sometimes the opening prayer of First-Plymouth’s service includes a prayer of confession. Following that is the announcement of the good news, which is like the announcement of pardon following a prayer of confession. It includes an assurance of forgiveness.

The assurance is usually a reminder that when we turn to God with the mistakes we have made, we are forgiven.

“I think the reason we don’t have a formal confession is that people who are drawn to come to church nowadays, it’s very much a voluntary thing, so people drawn are usually very aware of their own limitations, own problems, own things they have done wrong. And the assurance of forgiveness actually really needs to precede any confession.

“It’s very difficult to confess unless you know it’s going to be accepted and going to be forgiven.”

For a person coming from a more formal tradition where they need to hear some specific formula one-on-one, Campbell says she would use formal words, maybe something like these: “Know that you are absolved of your sins in the name of Jesus Christ our Savior.”

But usually when people come to her, Campbell says, it’s for more of a discussion on how God is all-understanding, all-loving, all-forgiving than for a formal confession and absolving of sins.

Stu Kerns, Zion Church (Presbyterian Church in America):

“We do not see confession as a sacrament. It has more to do with our theology of worship. We view worship as an encounter, a dialogue, between God and his people. Throughout the Bible, when people come face to face with God, they become intensely aware of their own sinfulness (Isaiah 6 would be a good example). So if worship is a conversation with God, we want to face up to the obvious fact that we are sinners who need a Savior.

“In our service the ‘confession of sin’ is followed by a ‘declaration of grace.’ This ‘declaration’ is a reminder that sinners who turn to God for mercy are always met with his grace. We understand that grace to be available through the person of Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice for sins makes it possible for God to forgive my sins. He is my substitute.”

Rabbi Debbie Stiel, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (South Street Temple):

“Jews believe people make mistakes and sometimes do the wrong thing. In Jewish tradition, when you have gone astray you are supposed to take steps to correct the misdeed, if possible. If one has sinned against another person, then atoning begins with apologizing and asking forgiveness from that person. If, however, the wrong is against God, one needs to ask God for forgiveness.

“People are also encouraged to do something positive to outweigh the wrong. So people may choose to give to charity or do some act of kindness as a means of atoning. In Judaism, people do not confess to the clergy but directly to God through their prayers.

“On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (Sept. 25 this year), Jews spend the day asking God for forgiveness for anything they did wrong in the past year and praying to God to help them do better in the year to come. It is the culmination of a 10-day period of introspection that includes traditionally asking friends and family for forgiveness for any wrongs committed against them in the last year. At the end of Yom Kippur, Jews who are sincerely repentant can begin the new year feeling renewed and forgiven.”

Reach Colleen Kenney at 473-2655 or ckenney@journalstar.com

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