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The Sacrament of Mercy: All Hope Consists in Confession

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
July 29th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Any Catholic's spiritual life will be peppered with confessions.  Perhaps the ordinary, routine confessions are the bread and butter of the Catholic sacramental life.  But there are always those extraordinary confessions that stick out in one's mind as times of the resolution of crises, or times of extraordinary grace, or times of just plain beauty.  These are times when, reflecting back, you see how beautiful is this gift that God has given to the Church to be exercised by the ministerial priesthood. 

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - In his Synonyma or On the Lamentations of a Sinful Soul (53), St. Isidore of Seville states: "Confession heals, confession justifies, confession grants pardon of sin.  All hope consists in confession.  In confession is found the place of mercy.  Believe, therefore, most certainly, and in no way hesitate, in no way doubt, and by no means despair of the mercy of God.  Have hope in confession, have faith in it.  Do not despair of this remedy of spiritual health.  And do not despair in your healing, so long as you desire to turn to better things."

Any Catholic's spiritual life will be peppered with confessions.  Perhaps the ordinary, routine confessions are the bread and butter of the Catholic sacramental life.  But there are always those extraordinary confessions that stick out in one's mind as times of the resolution of crises, or times of extraordinary grace, or times of just plain beauty.  These are times when, reflecting back, you see how beautiful is this gift that God has given to the Church to be exercised by the ministerial priesthood. 

I recall, for example, the many confessions of my youth--Oh! would my sins today be as jejune, mere peccadilloes, as those of my youth!--with the Passionist priests at the parish of Santa Eduvigis in Caracas, Venezuela, whose black habits were blazoned with an oversized patch of Christ's heart surmounted by a cross, bearing JESUS XPI PASSIO, mysterious words which deeply impressed me.  Because of the Venezuelan custom, these confessions were so Marian ab initio.

"Ave Maria Purísima," the priest would begin, "Hail Mary Most Pure," to the shudder of any Protestant (were he or she within earshot).  To which the penitent was supposed to reply, "Sin pecado concebida," of "Conceived without sin."  I hardly knew the meaning of the words at my age, but they were to remind the penitent of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, our nature's solitary boast, who was perfectly redeemed  by the very Jesus she brought forth into the world, and who therefore was (and is) channel of God's grace.

Then there was the dark period, the fall from grace, when I turned away from the faith of my youth and lived a life so very far from God.  Here, confession was absent from my life, and I went from sin to sin, and never from grace to grace.  And it took such a long time to climb out of the sloughs of despond, the tar pits of sin, into which I had descended.

But God was not so easily defeated.  Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.  (Rom. 5:20)  His grace slowly found holes in the darkness with which I had enveloped my soul, and gently yet inexorably brought me back to Christ first, and then to his Church and her Sacraments.  One such event occurred in that confession where I was refused absolution by Fr. Bourgeois, C.S.C., which was a cause that led me back to the Church, and of which I wrote about in an earlier article.

Eventually, I returned to the Catholic Church, and I had to face the unpleasant prospect of a general confession.  How can I forget my late-night, two-and-one-half-hour, face-to-face general confession with the ever-patient Fr. Joseph Nielson, O.C.D., who--God bless his weary soul--would from time to time nod to sleep and I therefore had from time-to-time to waken.  It took some time to confess all the sins--in both number and kind--that I had amassed for the thirteen years from my last confession at age 13.  Though I scoured my conscience in an examination of conscience before the confession, I am sure I missed some, and so gained comfort from that wonderful Mother Hubbard clause suggested by most practical manuals, "for these and all my sins, I ask God's forgiveness." 

(I ask my readers to pray for the soul of this marvelous priest, a pro-life champion if there ever was one, the only religious priest I have known who jogged in his brown Carmelite habit, and who, unbeknownst to me, died this last March in San Antonio, Texas.  It was through the ministry of this Carmelite friar and priest that I convalidated my marriage, and was received into the full communion of the Catholic Church.  R.I.P.)

I remember the confession at St. Jude's Chapel in downtown Dallas, Texas, where a Filipino priest was yelling at a penitent (a person of the streets), so loudly that it reverberated in the small chapel: "Don't ever think for a moment that there is a sin that God cannot forgive!  To say that there is a sin that God cannot forgive is to say that your sin is greater than God's mercy.  That would mean that you are greater than God!  You clearly are not greater than God!  Banish that thought!" 

It is a lesson I've never forgotten.  I hope the penitent learned it also.

Then there was the confession to the misguided or just plain wicked priest at St. Mary's Church in Fredericksburg, Texas, with whom I entered into heated argument, as he tried to tell me a sin against chastity I had confessed was not a sin, when I knew (I had read my Prummer) that what I had confessed admitted of no parvity of matter.  If there is knowledge and consent, there is no such thing as a "little" sin against chastity, as the errant priest argued.

I recall my confession with the Irish Monsignor at the Cathedral in Corpus Christi, Texas, where I had the temerity to ask for more penance and was told to go to our local hospital and talk about God's love to two elderly patients, certainly the most unusual penance I ever performed.

How marvelous also, the confession at Assisi, at the Lower Basilica of St. Francis, above the crypt which held the remains of this great saint--the saint whose confirmation name I bear--at the wooden confessional that identified the language of the priest with a simple sign that said, "English."

And then there were those marvelous confessions during my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela where I had no sin to confess--not even a venial sin--since my last confession which may have been but a day ago, and so I had to bring up a past sin so as to have a matter to confess and set up the ability to receive the grace of confession.  The saints are probably used to this, but I am not.

A few of these confessions while en route to Santiago de Compostela were particularly memorable.  I remember my confession to the Augustinian canon at the Abbey of Roncesvalles in Navarre, Spain, who absolved me in the ancient Latin formula to my delight: Dominus noster Jesus Christus te absolvat: et ego auctoritate ipsìus te absolvo ab omni vinculo excommunicationis, suspensionis, et interdicti, in quantum possum, et tu indiges.  Deinde ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis, in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.  (May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you, and by his authority I do absolve you from every bond of excommunication, suspension, and interdict, to the extent of my power and your need.  Finally, I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.)

Another memorable confession was the confession at the Cathedral of León, by the Altar of St. Peter, where by the full-bearded statued Peter above the altar next to the confessional were found the words in gold leaf: Et tibi dabo claves regni cælorum. Et quodcumque ligaveris super terram, erit ligatum et in cælis: et quodcumque solveris super terram, erit solutum et in cælis.  (Matt. 16:19)  The Church is a Gothic gem that is a virtual cascade of colored glass, and there the silver-haired and cassocked priest told me, while he assigned me a Salve Regina for my penance, to give thanks for my pilgrimage for my pilgrimage was a gracia especial, a special grace.
 
(The relics of St. Isidore, who wrote the words I quoted at the beginning of this article, by the way, are at León, at the Basilica of San Isodoro.)

And how could I forget the quick confession at Santiago de Compostela where, above the crypt that held the remains of the Apostle St. James the Greater, I confessed shortly before the Mass at which they announced the end of our journey of 28 days.  ¡Un peregrino de los Estados Unidos!  The visit to the crypt, the confession, and the Mass--all three--were the pièce de résistance of a long journey dedicated entirely to the Lord.  A journey also in memory of my recently-deceased parents, for whose souls the Mass was said.

I remember the confession in the Duomo di Saló, Santa Maria Annunziata, in Saló, Italy, next to the beautiful Lago di Garda, where the elderly priest with the friendly brown eyes and a welcoming smile placed his two hands atop mine, and where I struggled to confess my sins in broken Italian and he struggled to respond in even more broken English.  Somehow God's mercy came through this comedy of errors in language.

Then there was the confession to the unknown priest at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in San Antonio, Texas, where after a particularly serious moral lapse, I confessed a sin while literally sobbing--the donum lacrimarum, the gift of tears--in sorrow.  Sometimes the greatest sins evoke the greatest sorrow and bring the greatest grace.

Like all Catholics, I have encountered Jesus in the Sacrament of Confession through the ministry of the ministerial priesthood instituted by the Lord Jesus.  Jesus has touched me, reproved me, reprimanded me, taught me, but ultimately forgiven me through a whole host of his priests.  Some of them fat, some of them skinny.  Some in cassocks, some in habits, some in black suits, but all of them wearing purple stoles.  Some young, some old, and some of ages between.  Of all colors, of all cultures.  Some holy, some not so holy, and some even errant. 

But withal those human foibles and human weakness with which God is pleased to work and dress his grace, the grace of Jesus has always come through.  I have found that what St. Isidore of Seville wrote many centuries ago is as true today as when he once said it almost 14 centuries ago:

"Confession heals, confession justifies, confession grants pardon of sin.  All hope consists in confession. In confession is found the place of mercy.  Believe, therefore, most certainly, and in no way hesitate, in no way doubt, and by no means despair of the mercy of God.  Have hope in confession, have faith in it.  Do not despair of this remedy of spiritual health.  And do not despair in your healing, so long as you desire to turn to better things."

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Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

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