All England is now preparing for Christmas: and while some people are preparing for Santa Claus, hopefully we Christians are preparing for Jesus Christ. We heard in our gospel about how St John the Baptist prepared for the first coming of Jesus Christ, prepared by crying out in the wilderness, "prepare a way that the Lord", and the way he called people to prepare the way for Him was by repenting of their sins.
One particular way we are called on to prepare for Christmas is by going to confession. I thought, today, that rather than just tell you why you need to be going to confession yourself, I would tell you why I go to confession myself.
I go to confession not just because it is a requirement, not just because I fear the fires of hell (though I do), and not just because it's something other people have told me to do. I go to confession because I know that it is good for me, good for my psychological health and for my spiritual health.
Confession is good for me because the opposite is bad for me. The opposite is to fool ourselves into thinking that we never do anything wrong. It's always somebody else's fault: that person’s stupidity is why I am impatient, that person who made the late-night phone call last night has made me tired and so he is the reason why I'm now too lazy to do what I know I should be doing, that person’s gross wealth is the reason why I am envious of him, –and so on, "it's not my fault". In every era of history it has always been easy to refuse to see our own sin, and refuse to accept our own responsibility, but in our own era of history we have, mistakenly, been repeatedly told that guilt is bad for you. But actually, usually guilt is healthy. Normally speaking, guilt and feeling guilty is the healthy reaction to realising that we have done wrong. And I go to confession because it helps me regularly see my guilt, it helps me avoid living in a fantasy world of denial.
Confession is good for me not only because it helps me see my guilt but because it helps me channel that guilt to resolution, to forgiveness. One of the reasons our modern pop psychologists avoid talking about guilt is that they lack the mechanism of knowing forgiveness. Regular confession is the healthiest way to avoid carrying the guilt of my present sins and of my past sins around with me. And there have been many times when I have seen people depressed in the carrying of their guilt that I've been grateful that I've known the forgiveness of the confessional.
When we read the Gospels we hear that the forgiveness of sins was the primary healing work that Christ came to do. When we read the Gospels we hear the joy, the gladness, and the gratitude that filled people who were forgiven by Jesus. That same forgiveness is available to us today. Now it is partly true that at one level we can seek forgiveness by praying to Jesus privately, without confession, however, this is not the FULLNESS of grace that is available to us. Jesus Christ established a mechanism, a means, a way by which He wants His forgiveness to come to us, and that is in the sacrament of Penance, of Reconciliation, of Confession. As Jesus said to the Apostles, His first priests: “Those whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them, those whose sins you shall retain they are retained” (Jn 20:23). And so the forgiveness that was once encountered 2000 years ago when Jesus physically walked in Palestine, that same forgiveness from that same Jesus is ours when we physically approach Him in His fullness as He exists in His sacraments. “What was visible in Christ’s life has passed over into His [sacraments]” (St Leo the Great, CCC 1115).
So the third reason why confession is good for me is not only because it helps me see my guilt, not only because it helps me resolve my guilt in forgiveness, but confession is good for me because it gives me the most perfect and complete encounter with the Lord who forgives, and, with that, gives me every grace and strength He has to offer me, every grace and strength to grow in holiness and be helped not to sin again.
Lastly, perhaps you're not sure how often you should go to confession. Well, it might help if I explained the range of possibilities to you. At one end is what we call confessions of devotion, for example, Pope John Paul II used to go to confession every day. I, however, don't go to confession every day, but I do go to confession every week: this is what is recommended by St Frances de Sales in The Introduction To The Devout Life(Part II, Chapter 19) , and this is what is practised in a great many of what are called the New Ecclesial Movements, those groups of predominantly young re-invigorated Catholics who have rediscovered the value and living of our Faith in the midst of our secular world. At the other extreme from weekly confession is to only go once per year: this is the bare minimum required by the law of the Church, and if you only want to do the minimum, if you are concerned to avoid hell but don't really care about heaven, then doing the bare minimum is permissible -and the bare minimum in this context is annual confession of serious sins [peccata sua gravia, Canon 989]. Be warned, however, if you aim for the minimum and miss the minimum then you won’t be in a good place. Beyond that, our own Bishop Christopher Budd noted in one of his pastoral letters (1998) that the Lent and Advent penitential services that have been introduced in recent decades seem to have led to the BAD practice of many people thinking that they only need to go to confession on those two occasions, and he said very simply that it is not enough to just go to confession in Lent and Advent, he said we need to go regularly. And the standard regular timespan recommended to parishioners is to go to confession every month, which is between the legal minimum of once a year at Eastertide and the devout practice of going very week.
To summarise: Confession is good for me because it helps me see my guilt, because it helps me resolve my guilt in forgiveness, because it gives me grace and strength to avoid future sin, and it does all of this because it gives me the fullest possible encounter with the Christ who forgives. Now especially is the time, “prepare a way for the Lord”.