The Light is On for You

Friday, December 07, 2018 - Updated: 3:16 pm

This Tuesday, Dec. 11, when parishes across the Diocese of Pittsburgh will be open for confession from 6-9 p.m. during “The Light is On for You,” some Catholics will hesitate. Even some who are at Mass every Sunday who haven’t been to confession in a long time.

Perhaps they once had a bad experience, such as a priest who yelled at them. Perhaps they see no value in confessing to a priest because they can always talk with Jesus in prayer. Perhaps they disagree with something the church teaches, and feel they can’t confess anything because of that sticking point. Perhaps they are so deeply ashamed of their sins that they fear the priest will recognize their voice. Perhaps, knowing that some former priests had sexually abused children, they feel that no priest is worthy to hear their confession.

Even the best Catholics have such questions and concerns. No one finds it easy to be open and vulnerable about what we’ve done wrong.

Yet, it feels so good to come clean. That’s my own experience when I go to confession. And I hope it is the sense of relief in those to whom I’ve given absolution. A burden has been lifted. They speak with joy and gratitude, and walk away with a lighter step than when they arrived. Each confession is a new beginning.

Let me further speak to some of those reasons that folks avoid confession. Then let’s reflect on the reasons to cherish and embrace the sacrament.

Sign of God’s presence

Any priest who has yelled at someone for a sin that they confessed needs to learn again an important lesson from Jesus. If you were ever mistreated in such a way, I apologize to you in the name of Jesus. I also encourage you to discover that the majority of our priests seek to be like Jesus, gentle shepherds who will welcome you back. Please tell the priest what happened and why you are apprehensive.

Virtually every Catholic has struggled with some teaching of the church. Make sure that you choose a wise priest who can clarify your questions about church teaching. Work with the priest on discerning areas for spiritual growth.

You and I can and should talk to God anywhere, and tell him we are sorry for our sins. But the sacrament of penance, like every one of the seven sacraments, is truly and intimately an outward sign of God’s presence with us. It is a deep encounter with God. There is great power in naming one’s sins aloud to a priest and in hearing him absolve us in the name of Jesus, who is truly there with and for the penitent, there with and through the priest.

The sacrament of confession is rooted in the words of Jesus himself. He told his apostles, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23). Jesus called his followers to have a relationship with him through the church and its priests, so that we would truly be a unified body of believers, answering the call to grow together in holiness.

God understands that sometimes you don’t want the priest who hears your confession to know who you are. That is one of the reasons that the diocese offers “The Light is On for You.” This Tuesday you can easily make your confession at a parish where you are a complete stranger.

All of us are devastated by the accounts of sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy. Any act of child sexual abuse is one too many, and for those who learn that a priest whom they trusted had abused minors, the spiritual shock is earthshaking. My words cannot take away that pain. But that should not prevent you or me from seeking God’s grace and mercy through the ministry of other priests. Again, tell the priest what is on your heart and allow the power of Jesus to heal you through the sacrament.

Deeper holiness

No matter where you go to confession, God is waiting to free you from the burden of your sins.

Every single one of us commits sins that strain our relationship with Jesus and harm others. Those whose sins have torn apart their family or wrecked a friendship feel the terrible weight of our failing. Making a confession can be a first step that empowers you to repair the damage or to move forward in freedom to restore relationships with others and to be restored by Jesus.

Catholics who frequently go to confession find that it helps them grow in grace and toward a deeper holiness. It gives them spiritual strength, just as a regular workout builds physical strength. Priests are always glad when these “regulars” come to confession, knowing that they are making the entire church stronger through their pursuit of holiness.

Nothing gladdens the heart of a priest more than hearing the confession of someone who has been away for so long that he or she has forgotten what to say after “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” The priest will help guide them through the sacrament.

Catholics who return to confession offer many reasons for their return. For some, it’s a thought they’ve had for a long time that grew so urgent that it became harder to resist the love and mercy of Jesus. The final breakthrough might be an invitation from a priest at Mass or hearing one of our “The Light is On for You” ads on the radio, or encouragement from a friend with whom they have shared their story. Lives can change through the simple invitation, “I’m going to confession on Tuesday night. Would you like to ride over with me?”

As a priest and a bishop, one of the greatest joys I can have is to hear someone say, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been 10 years (or 20, 30, 40 or 50 years) since my last confession.” This is someone who is opening their heart to God in a way that he or she has not done for many years. This is the prodigal whom the Father runs to embrace and welcome home. This is why I, and so many of my brother priests, rejoice in what it means to be a priest. Our greatest desire is for Jesus to work through us to help free you from your sins, and set you free to serve him and to love others, and ultimately get to heaven.

On Tuesday, the light will be on for you.

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