An Experience of Pardon and Peace

Feb 6, 2024 | Lent, Sacraments, Spiritual Life

An Experience of Pardon and Peace: The Grace of the Sacrament of Reconciliation

Participating in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the actions that Catholics are encouraged to take during the season of Lent (with fasting, almsgiving, and prayer as the other encouraged practices).

In this blog, I’d like to reflect with you on the sacrament of reconciliation and consider ways that we might deepen that experience or have a more satisfying experience of this sacrament. I was an adult before I experienced for myself the power of this sacrament and a different understanding of the sacrament earlier in my life might have been beneficial to my spiritual life.

When I was growing up, every Lent and Advent, my mother insisted that we go to confession. We went to the church, each of us would go into the confessional – a dark, closet-like place where I knelt and spoke to the priest through a screen. I would list all the things I had done wrong since the last time I had gone to confession. The list was repetitive: “I fought with my brothers and sisters; I got mad at my parents; I didn’t do my homework.” The priest would tell me to say some prayers; I would say an Act of Contrition; the priest would say some words that I did not understand and I would say the assigned prayers as quickly as I could before leaving the church. On the way home, my mom would often say how good she felt or that she felt lighter. As a child I never felt lighter or better after confession – in fact it was often the opposite – I often felt dark and heavy.

What was missing from those experiences of the sacrament? In one sense, nothing was missing. All the elements were there – contrition, penance, and absolution. I am certain that I received some spiritual benefit from those twice annual trips to the confessional – if only to be taught to admit that I was wrong every once in a while. While I had done the minimum necessary, a few small steps might have allowed for a deeper experience – the sort of positive experience my mom described.

  • The first step might have been a deeper examination of my conscience. The rote nature of my confession is one piece of evidence that I had not truly examined my conscience. If I had paused longer, I might have considered what the fights with my siblings were about. Why was I mad at my parents? Who was I hurting by not doing my homework? A deeper examination of conscience would have shifted my attention from me – to the relationships in my life. My relationships with my family and my relationship with God. A more reflective examination of conscience might have led me to acknowledge the many gifts that I had received and the generosity of those around me – I might have discovered some gratitude rather than the guilt or shame for having fallen short.
  • Second, I rushed through the penance – which I saw as a punishment. (“I got 10 Hail Mary’s this time and 3 Hail Mary’s last time – what did I do that was so much worse?). Just as a more thoughtful examination of conscience might have led to gratitude, a more reflective practice of penance might also have shifted the focus from me (the one punished) to the relationship – five Hail Mary’s and consider each of my siblings and my Mom as I prayed each one. As a priest, I try to link the penances I suggest in the sacrament to what I have heard. Is someone fighting with their brothers and sisters – then ask Mary’s intercession for them as part of the penance. (Or do something nice for your family – like do the dishes on a night when it is not your turn).
  • Finally, had I listened to the words of absolution, I might have reflected more on the sacrament. The priest’s words of absolution begin: “Almighty God, through the death and resurrection of your Son, Jesus, you have reconciled the world to yourself and poured out the Spirit for the forgiveness of sin…” Reconciled – the relationships have been restored – the relationship with God, with family members, with the whole world. The words of absolution continue: “Through the ministry of the Church may God grant you pardon and peace…” Once again, an invitation to pause and consider the gifts that are offered – pardon and peace (two ways of describing the experience my mom described on the way home). Am I accepting these gifts and putting them into practice by trying to make some small changes that might preserve these gifts and the relationships in my life? The words conclude: “I absolve you from your sins, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. The priest then invites the penitent to “Go in Peace.”

The sacrament of reconciliation has changed over the years. Here at Our Lady of Hope Parish, we use a reconciliation room that allows the choice between confessing face-to-face with the priest or remaining behind a screen (either way the room is well lit!). In the last year or two, the wording for the words of absolution changed slightly (I used the new words above). I hope that these changes allow people to approach the sacrament without embarrassment or shame and allow them to experience the grace of the sacrament.

I know that one of my favorite parts of being a priest is when I sense that someone is leaving the sacrament feeling a bit lighter with the experience of pardon and peace conveyed in the words of absolution.

Fr. Brian Conley, S.J.

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