Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Sacrament of Confession

The Sacrament is known by many names: the sacrament of Penance, of Reconciliation, of conversion and forgiveness. According to the Catechism, it is also called the sacrament of Confession “since the disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is an essential element of this sacrament” (CCC, 1424). Confession is the only ordinary way by which our mortal sins are forgiven. We are therefore bound to confess our mortal sins at least once a year, and definitely before receiving Holy Communion.

While confession is the only ordinary way by which our mortal sins are forgiven, we know that venial sin can be forgiven in other ways. An act of perfect contrition and love of God, works done and sufferings borne in a spirit of penance, the proper use of sacramentals such as holy water, the penitential rite of the Mass, and the reception of Holy Communion are all means by which our venial, everyday sins and failings are forgiven. Yet such sins are also valid matter for the sacrament of Penance. Indeed, for most of us most of the time, it is the confession of venial sins that forms the content of our confession. “Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church” (CCC, 1458).

In the spiritual classic, Frequent Confession by Benedict Baur, first published in German in 1922, it is stated that “the ‘profit’ of the confession of venial sins comes above all else from the fact that when we go to Confession we receive a sacrament. The forgiveness of sin takes place by the power of the sacrament, that is, by the power of Christ himself.” While the other means of forgiveness for venial sin necessarily flow from Christ, and are connected to the sacraments in some way, it is only in the Sacrament of Penance (and Holy Communion) that we come into direct contact with Christ. The sacrament, therefore, unites us more firmly to Christ, “strengthens the supernatural life of the soul, increases sanctifying grace, and, along with this, gives actual grace, which stimulates our will to acts of love of God and of contrition for our sins.” The frequent confession of sins therefore leads us along the path of perfection, according to our vocation to be holy, and to love as Christ has loved us.

From a purely human point of view, the Church perceives that the confession of one’s sinfulness “frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible” (CCC, 1455). Through the process of examining our conscience and confessing our sins, we come to know ourselves much more clearly. Our particular weaknesses are more clearly discerned, and we open them up to God’s healing grace. According to Pope Pius XII, through frequent confession “genuine self-knowledge is increased, Christian humility grows, bad habits are corrected, spiritual neglect and tepidity are resisted, the conscience is purified, the will strengthened, a salutary self-control is attained” (Encyclical Mystici Corporis, 88). We are therefore encouraged to confess our sins regularly, a practice “which was introduced into the Church by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit”, so as “to ensure more rapid progress day by day in the path of virtue” (ibid.).

Friday, January 21, 2011

St Joseph: a just and faithful man

In Luke’s gospel, the archangel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary with the annunciation that she is to be the mother of God’s Son. In Matthew’s gospel, it is St. Joseph who is the recipient of such Good News. Our Lady responds with her unreserved ‘yes’. St. Joseph, on the other hand, says nothing; instead he simply ‘did as the angel of the Lord commanded him’ (Mt 1:24).

In his Apostolic Exhortation Redemptoris Custos (‘Guardian of the Redeemer’) on the life of St. Joseph, Pope John Paul II noted that “this first ‘doing’ became the beginning of ‘Joseph’s way’. Indeed, the Gospels do not record any word ever spoken by Joseph along that way. But the silence of Joseph has its own special eloquence, for thanks to that silence we can understand the truth of the Gospel’s judgement that he was ‘a just man’ (Mt 1:19)” (Redemptoris Custos, n. 17).

Saint Joseph was a man of great spirit. He was great in faith, not because he speaks his own words, but above all because he listens to the words of the Living God. He listens in silence. And his heart ceaselessly perseveres in the readiness to accept the Truth contained in the word of the Living God.

St. Joseph proved himself a just man in the silence of his relationship with Mary. The nature of that relationship is made clear by the Gospel accounts of Christ’s origins. They were betrothed, but were as yet not living together. Their union had not been consummated by sexual intercourse since it is stressed that Mary was a virgin. With this in mind, the news of her pregnancy is unsettling for St. Joseph. Using his own logic he could only assume that she had been unfaithful to him. And yet he does not react with righteous anger, pointing the finger, or the need to defend his reputation. Instead, the evangelist tells us that “Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly” (Mt 1:19).

In his reflection, Pope John Paul reflected that Joseph “did not know how to deal with Mary’s astonishing motherhood. He certainly sought an answer to this unsettling question, but above all he sought a way out of what was for him a difficult situation” (ibid., n. 3). He was resolved to carry out this plan, but was visited by the angel in a dream who reassured him of the divine origins of Mary’s unborn child.

St. Joseph’s response to the angel’s intervention was one of obedient openness to the will of God. Although he could hardly have conceived the magnitude of the mystery that confronted him, “he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took Mary as his wife” (Mt 1:24). “He took her in all the mystery of her motherhood. He took her together with the Son who had come into the world by the power of the Holy Spirit. In this way he showed a readiness of will like Mary’s with regard to what God asked of him through the angel” (ibid., n. 3).

St. Joseph also took the Virgin Mary as his wife in the knowledge that she had consecrated herself to the Lord. “From the moment of the Annunciation, Mary knew that she was to fulfil her virginal desire to give herself exclusively and fully to God precisely by becoming the Mother of God’s Son” (ibid., n. 18). This is not the usual way of marriages. Sexual intimacy is a natural and essential part of the marriage union. To get around the ‘unnaturalness’ of Joseph and Mary’s marriage, it has often been suggested that St. Joseph was an old man, whose union with the Blessed Virgin was therefore more like a guardian than a husband. However, I don’t think that such an explanation is necessary.

Indeed, it somehow diminishes St. Joseph’s virtue, and neglects the power of God’s Spirit active in his life. The

Scriptures tell us that ‘Joseph … took his wife; but he knew her not’ (Mt 1:24-25). According to John Paul, “these words indicate another kind of closeness in marriage. The deep spiritual closeness arising from marital union and interpersonal contact between man and woman have their definitive origin in the Spirit, the Giver of Life. Joseph, in obedience to the Spirit, found in the Spirit the source of love, the conjugal love which he experienced as a man. And this love proved to be greater that this ‘just man’ could ever have experienced within the limits of his human heart” (ibid., n. 19). His need for human love and intimacy was not nullified, but was supplied by God’s Spirit working in his life.

It is the same for those of us who profess a vow of celibate chastity. We do not profess chastity because sex is bad. Rather, a life of consecrated chastity acts as “a witness to the power of God’s love manifested in the weakness of the human condition” (Vita Consecrata, n. 88). Like St. Joseph, who in his chaste union with the Virgin Mary experienced a love greater than he could ever have imagined within the limits of his human heart, the consecrated person attests “that what many have believed impossible becomes, with the Lord’s grace, possible and truly liberating. Yes, in Christ it is possible to love God with all one’s heart, putting him above every other love, and thus to love every creature with the freedom of God!” (ibid.).

John Paul adds that “this testimony is more necessary than ever today, precisely because it is so little understood by our world. It is offered to everyone – young people, engaged couples, husbands and wives and Christian families – in order to show that the power of God’s love can accomplish great things precisely within the context of human love. It is a witness which also meets a growing need for interior honesty in human relationships” (ibid.).

St. Joseph is therefore a timeless example for us to contemplate. The virtues that he witnessed to – his faithfulness, integrity and chastity – are qualities not much esteemed in our contemporary society. But for us, men and women who are conformed to Christ, they are necessary virtues. By nurturing these values in our lives, we too, like St. Joseph, act as silent witnesses to the world. Being open to the action of God’s grace in our lives, we too will be just in our way of living.

St Joseph, pray for us!