SMC – 24th March 2019
When I was 18 years old, I already knew God was calling me to be a priest and, through mutual friends, I met someone who had already been a priest for some time, namely Fr Beer. Yes, we’ve known each other seventeen years! As many of us know, he can be pretty direct about things and so told me back then that if I was thinking about being a priest I jolly well needed to start making my Confession. This I duly did, going to meet a priest he’d recommended, someone I then made my Confession too over the next seventeen years until Fr Shields died last year.
It wasn’t something I’d ever really considered or had experience of. Let me be completely honest and without any sense of exaggeration, I cannot now imagine my life without it. The Confessional is a place of tears as we realise the damage we have done through our sins, but the Confessional is also a place of laughter, as the ridiculousness of many of our sins are exposed once we say them out loud. Having priests encouraging us to make our Confession is all part of our Traditionalist Catholic heritage, which we’re looking at during our Lenten sermon series. It’s regrettable in our parish that we don’t have a fixed time each week for people to make their Confession and so it’s up to you to do it by individual appointment, but there we are. I encourage you to speak to a priest to arrange a time to make a Confession.
All those preparing to be confirmed in this parish make their Confession and so the hope it is clearly established that this will be part of their maturing in the life of Christ. In Baptism we are given a fresh start, buried with Christ, we are raised with Him and the stain of original sin washed away. We will then all sin - “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23) writes St Paul, beautifully complemented by St John: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8). When we’re not 100% focused at Mass, that is a sin. When we look at someone with lustful eyes, that is a sin. When we fail to forgive someone, that is a sin. The list, of course, is endless. But we are all invited to share in the grace that flows from the love and compassion of Christ as the priest says to us words of divine healing: “through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
The Church has often referred to the sacrament of Confession as the “second plank after the shipwreck.” The shipwreck here is the image of what sin does to human nature, namely seek to destroy and wreck. Just like Noah and those on the ark were saved from the destruction of the flood, itself caused by the sinfulness of humanity, so these planks are sent to save us from the shipwreck of the Fall, humanity’s disobedience. Indeed, where you, the people of God, sit in Church is called the Nave, because of the idea of us being in a boat, sailing towards our heavenly homeland, protected from the outside storms, the changes and chances of this transitory existence. Baptism is the first plank that comes along after the shipwreck, the first sin of Adam and Eve. The second plank is this gift of the Sacrament of Penance, making a Confession. It helps keep us afloat when we feel like we are sinking because of all that harangues us, and the sin that weighs us down. We find this sentiment in Hebrews 12:1 “Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.”
It is this relief - and I cannot overstate that word, relief - that is the overwhelming sense of being forgiven. This is the same longing for freedom of which God spoke in our first reading: “I have heard their appeal to be free of their slave-drivers … I mean to deliver them.” Too often we think we can sort this sin out ourselves, and so we do nothing more than add pride to the list of sins we have committed. But making a Confession is a process that has been given by the Church and an authority being exercised entrusted by Christ to the apostles: “Those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven,” Jesus says as He breathes on to the disciples (John 20:23) following His Resurrection. Similarly God freed the Israelites and gave them the land which they had no real right to. And so we heard the list in our first reading of those who were previously dwelling in the land promised to the Israelites, namely the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites. God does the same with us as baptised members of the Church giving us access to a land of forgiveness, peace and love. We are able to be there not because of our own possession rights, but because of God’s justifying grace. The Jebusites etc need to be kicked out before the Israelites could dwell in peace in the land flowing with milk and honey. Similarly we need to kick out our sin so as to make space for Jesus to dwell in our hearts.
The image in that first reading of the burning bush is traditionally seen by the Church as a sign that the perfection of divinity, the holiness we see in God, is compatible with our human nature. The flame of divine fire does not consume the bush; similarly the implanting in Mary’s womb of the Son of God, true God and true Man, does not burn her. A fire would normally consume the bush; divinity might ordinarily be thought to consume and destroy our humanity, hence elsewhere Moses cannot look upon the face of God (Exodus 33:23). But not so, thanks to God’s power at work in our Lady. And because of that same power at work in us we really can remove sin from our life. But one of the ways God’s shown us to do this is in the Confessional.
One of the great gifts of the Confessional is what’s called “the seal,” whereby the priest can never refer to what is said by the person making his or her Confession. Recently in some countries, including our own, there has been some attempt by politicians to diminish the seal, by saying priests should report certain serious crimes told them in the Confessional. This is a very worrying attack against the Church and I would rather go to prison than reveal that which was said in the Confessional to me by one of you, my flock. The seal comes with a particular gift that more often than not a priest will simply forget what was said. It is, after all, a place of peace, and God does not want His priests to be troubled by what is revealed and forgiven there.
Our Gospel today refers to some historical events which we don’t know much about: the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with that of their sacrifices and those killed by the Tower of Siloam. But the message the Lord is giving is clear: “unless you repent you will all perish as they did,” namely without forgiveness, unprepared for the day of judgement. My friends, don’t die without sorting out your sin by going to Confession! The 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England provided for such occasions when “[the sick person] be moved to make a special confession of his sins, if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter. After which the priest shall absolve him” (Visitation of the Sick). So there has always been within the Church of England the encouragement for individuals to prepare themselves to meet their maker by telling God in the presence of one of His priests the sins they have committed. So often a death bed can be a busy place and I know I’m glad a lot of things I would have needed to be forgiven by God before my death I have already united to His forgiving grace in the Confessional along the way.
Traditionalist Catholicism has always been deeply embedded in communities and been wholeheartedly realistic about what human beings are like, warts ’n’ all. And this is why the Confessional continues to play such an important part in the life of the Christian, because we know both we have sinned and that we have a merciful God, so what else can we do but take it all to Him and allow one of His priests to free us from it? Amen.