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February 25, 2009
The healing sacrament of confession
Sacrament restores one’s relationship with God, offers fresh start
By Julie Filby
These two little words—so difficult to say, can work wonders.
“Asking for forgiveness, and receiving forgiveness, is crucial for the whole person—mind, body and soul,” said Christina P. Lynch, Psy.D., staff psychotherapist at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary. “When a person asks for forgiveness, feelings of anger and resentment diminish. Receiving forgiveness can help build trust in relationships.”
According to Lynch, individuals who enter into a therapeutic relationship often experience guilt as a result of unhealthy behaviors and unresolved guilt is a harmful emotion. A step toward resolving guilt is saying, “I’m sorry.“
The psychology of an apology helps explain the importance of asking God’s forgiveness in the sacrament of penance and reconciliation (or confession as it is commonly called).
“When we seek forgiveness in a human relationship, the resolution of guilt can strengthen the love in that relationship,” Lynch said. “Likewise, when we ask for forgiveness of sins in confession, we have an opportunity to restore our relationship with the Father as a child of God.”
The sacrament of penance and reconciliation is a gift from God that offers Catholics the opportunity to return to a state of grace. It was given to the Church on Easter when Jesus appeared to his disciples and said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20: 23).
According to Father Bernard Schmitz, vicar for clergy for the archdiocese and pastor at Mother of God Parish, if one wants a deeper relationship with the Lord, confession will assist with that growth.
“The Lord loves us even when we aren’t very nice,” said Father Schmitz. “We have this wonderful opportunity to seek forgiveness so we can begin anew and become the person he wants us to be.”
Lynch added that the graces received from penance and reconciliation have tremendous psychological benefits. Confessing one’s sins and receiving absolution decreases feelings of guilt.
Rick Fitzgibbons, M.D. and Catholic psychiatrist, claims that guilt severely damages confidence and can make someone feel unlovable and unworthy. Damaged self-confidence can lead to harmful emotions such as anxiety, irritability and sadness.
“Confessing to a priest can bring great consolation and give someone the courage to move on with their healing,” Lynch said.
“There’s something very healthy about a regular examination of conscience, even in terms of human anthropology,” according to Religious Sister of Mercy Sister Esther Mary Nickel, Ph.D., S.L.D., assistant professor of sacred liturgy and sacramental theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary. “The forgiveness of sin and the graces that come with it can help people deal with the stresses of life better.”
She said one of the benefits of psychological counseling is releasing the obstacles that inhibit one’s spiritual life.
Just as apologizing to a loved one is a way of mending the relationship with that person, seeking the sacrament of penance shows Christ you intend to mend your relationship with him.
“The sacrament of penance is a supernatural exchange of friendship and coming to know the forgiveness of Christ,” said Sister Nickel. “The examination of conscience before confession is a way of saying, ‘These are the things (sins) that separate me from God and the people I love most.’”
But in today’s fast-paced, pleasure-driven society, has it become more difficult for us to recognize these sins?
“Sometimes we take so much pleasure in what we have, or the activities we’re engaged in, that it’s hard to see them as sinful,” said Sister Nickel.
Father Andreas Hock, S.S.D., chair of sacred Scripture at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, echoed the sentiment.
“There is a problem when someone erroneously believes they have no real sins,” he said. “Worse is the inability to scrutinize one’s heart, whether that’s due to inner numbness, blindness or lethargy.”
This lack of education of personal conscience, combined with poor formation, has resulted in fewer Catholics taking advantage of confession as they should, Father Hock said.
Have Catholics become comfortable living in the state of sin?
Just as withholding a needed apology creates distance in a personal relationship, not going to confession compromises one’s relationship with God.
“We need to be in the habit of saying, there are things I need to acknowledge in my life that are out of order, and I want to make sure they stay in order,” said Sister Nickel.
She also emphasized the beauty of the sacrament.
“It’s a sacrament of mercy and love,” she emphasized, “not of fear and punishment.”