Go and teach all nations, says the Lord; I am with you always, until the end of the world.
These words, taken from Our Blessed Lord as He was about to ascend into Heaven, are being fulfilled in our very midst. Two weeks ago 300 young adults received the Sacrament of Confirmation and half of them received, as well, the sacraments of Confession and their First Holy Communion. That puts them in the blessed company of the 240 children who this week and next week will be celebrating their First Communion and Confession at Saint Odilo. This is our way of following the command of Jesus to go out into the whole world and bring His Gospel, which means bringing his teaching of love and forgiveness and array of beautiful sacraments into the world and into our souls.
Purification before reception
Now sometimes we forget First Confession when we are talking about First Communion. But the children’s First Confession is totally important. That is why the Church wants our children to make their First Confession before they make their First Communion. This way they will understand that their lives and their souls must be purified before they receive God, the All-Pure. Because the Holiness of God whom we will receive in Holy Communion is related to the holiness of our lives.
You might remember in the heady days of the sixties and seventies that the liberal theologians in charge of bishops taught that the children should make their First Confession after their First Communion. Their reasoning was that the children would be unlikely to have committed any mortal sins that would prevent them from receiving Holy Communion. These modernist theologians—whom we still must be wary of—encouraged weak bishops to teach that a little seven year old did not have to worry about sin or grace or redemption. Holy Communion had nothing to do with advancing in the spiritual life because the child was already advanced. According to them, the child was pretty much as sinless as the German theologians and American Bishops who promoted such ideas.
Well if the truth be told, these theologians probably did not believe that Holy Communion was actually God’s Body and Blood either. They more likely believed it was just a crispy piece of white bread that symbolized fellowship, sharing a meal, and a handshake. It was the religious version of a smoke, a joke, and a coke. For these modernists who were ensconced in all the seminaries and chancery offices Communion was only a sign of God, not God Himself. So they asked: What would prevent someone from eating a piece of bread for the sake of fellowship? The children were capable of that, but not of sin.
Well of course they were wrong. Ask any parent if their seven year old knows when they are being bad. Ask any parent if their seven year old knows when they must say “I am sorry” to their parents. Don’t ask a childless theologian or Bishop. They live in the clouds. The families live here and know what a struggle it is to train their children in the ways of good and bad, right and wrong, reward and punishment. And what a disaster they caused, because once this new practice took hold of children receiving their First Communion BEFORE their Confession we ended up with about two generations of young people—adults now—who made their First Communion and never went to Confession, because their parents took them out of Catechism since they had made what they had come for, their First Communion, they didn’t need anything more.
Instituted by Christ
This is of course one of the many mistakes that Bishops made in the aftermath and aftershocks of the Vatican Council. And has helped ruin, for many, the beauty and importance of the Sacrament of Confession. Confession is the sacrament given to the Apostles (and then to their successors) by Jesus Christ Himself by which the sins we have committed after Baptism are forgiven. In Confession, or Penance or Reconciliation, whatever you want to call it, we tell our sins to the priest and then he forgives them in the name of Jesus. We do not hope those sins are forgiven, we do not wish that those sins are absolved, or anticipate that our sins will be pardoned in the future or the past. We know they are forgiven now, in this moment, with the Guarantee of Jesus Christ Himself. It was Jesus who said to the Apostles, “Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven. Whose sins you shall retain—not forgive—are retained—not forgiven”.
It is pretty clear what Jesus intended when He told that to the Apostles. He was telling them that people would come to them and ask for forgiveness for their sins and then they, the Apostles, would judge the sincerity of the confession and forgive or retain. And then this power would be passed on to the successors of the Apostles, the next generation of Bishops and priests. That only makes sense because if the Church is to live on and preach the Gospel and baptize all nations and bring salvation and forgiveness to all generations, then the power to forgive sins must also be passed on. He could have provided any other way to have our sins forgiven, but He chose that we would confess them first.
We sin in concrete situations
How beautiful that Our Blessed Lord, by giving us Confession, gives us a way to examine our lives and see where we have fallen short and then ask to be forgiven for this and for that sin. We do not sin in the abstract. We sin in deeds. One at a time. And each sin brings us down a step at a time. And we need to be aware of each sin. Oh sure, we could say, “O Lord we are sinful. Please forgive us.” And then we could just assume and presume that we are forgiven. But that does not help us see how and in what ways we are sinners. That does not remind us of the bad words we may have used or the anger that we let get out of control. That does not help us remember our over-indulgence or our dalliance with dirty pictures. Are we living with someone who is not our spouse in the eyes of God. Have we been unfaithful to our spouse, have we been careless with our texting and tweeting? To simply declare our sinfulness does not tell us any more than what we or God knew anyway.
God is not surprised by what we confess. He is more than aware that we struggle in this day to day world with individual temptations that come to us daily in our heads and in our hearts and in our bodies. We live this life moment to moment, day to day, and we run into a thousand situations that test our holiness, try our patience, tempt our appetites. That’s how we live, in concrete situations, and that’s how we sin, in concrete situations. Our Lord gave us this sacrament in this way: We tell the priest what we have done and how many times we have done it, because He wants us to be clear on what we have done wrong and how we are going to be better.
God knows our sins, He knows everything. But we need to know them. We need to remember one by one our failures and all the ways that we have sinned. And it is only this way that we can make spiritual progress. When we remember all our individual sins we are thus able to confront those sins in our lives, discern patterns of sin, and be wary of going in directions that are increasingly harmful. To be able to know what sins we have actually committed gives us a way out of those sins. To name our weaknesses is to be able to have some control over them. Then the priest gives absolution, and those sins are erased, forgiven, pardoned.
Grace for strength
As I said a few weeks ago, even the demon cannot use our forgiven sins against us—so irrevocable is their pardon. God also gives us a special sacramental grace in each confession. This grace is a special help from God tailored to us and to our needs. Where we are weak, He makes us strong, where we are wounded, He heals us, where we always fall, He makes sure we are picked up. God helps us to be the people we need to be by giving us the grace where we most need it. And if we are aware of where we need grace, then His grace is doubly effective. What a wonderful sacrament.
If I say that Catholics believe this about the Sacrament of Confession, in no way do I hint that this is not true for everyone else as well. That means that this is true for Lutherans and Baptists and Muslims and Jews and atheists and pagans. Everyone would benefit from the forgiveness that comes to us in the Sacrament of Confession. That is why it is imperative that everyone turn to Jesus and become Catholic, members of the One True Religion. All must learn and love Jesus and the doctrine He wants us to know. In that way His sacraments will be made available to all, and in those sacraments His love and forgiveness will be made available, as well. Yes, 220 children the next two weeks will be receiving their First Confession, pray for them. Yes, the message of the Gospel is one of love and forgiveness and it comes to us particularly clearly in the Sacrament of Confession. And this Gospel of love and forgiveness is preached to all the world—beginning here, this week, with the children of St. Odilo Parish.