When I was a boy, like many boys my age, I sometimes followed my dad around while he worked on home improvement projects. I remember that my father wore a necklace that would sometimes dangle out of his shirt when he would get under a car or work on plumbing under a sink. It held a Saint Christopher Medal that said,
I AM A CATHOLIC, IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, CALL A PRIEST
I was puzzled. “Dad,” I asked, “why would you want to call a priest in case of accident? How could he possibly help you if you wrecked your car?” My father went on to explain to me about the last sacraments, extreme unction and confession. He told me that we Catholics believe that priests have a special role to play in preparing the soul for death and judgment. I think I was about six, so I did not ask many more questions, but from that day I have never doubted this truth of the faith that comes to us from the mouth of Jesus Himself (see John 20:21-23, James 5:14-16, 1 John 5:16). In my case, I was blessed to have a father who passed it on to me at a very young age. “Catholic priests have a special role in helping us to prepare for judgment.”
The 2nd reading and the Gospel speak to us today about the reality of death and judgment. All of us are going to die. When we die, we will have to render an account to God for all of our sins. Saint Paul urges us to wake up to this reality and repent of our sins in the 2nd reading.
It is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand.
Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;
let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day.
Almost 1600 years ago, an African playboy in his thirties living the high life in Milan who had stopped going to Mass as a teenager picked up a Bible and opened it at random and read these words and it changed his life. He put the book down and went to his priest and asked him what would be necessary for him to return to the sacraments and give his life to Jesus Christ. The playboy’s name was Aurelius Augustinus. We know him as the great bishop Saint Augustine of Hippo. The priest he went to see was the great Saint Ambrose.
“Catholic priests have a special role in helping us to prepare for judgment.”
What my father told me is a hard sell today, isn’t it? One of the first things that our former seminarian James and our former intern, Matthew, observed when they accompanied me on sick calls was that almost universally shut-ins refused when I offered to hear their confessions. I wonder sometimes how discouraging this ambivalence toward confession was in these two young men’s discernment of a vocation to the priesthood. I hope that these experiences of seeing confession rejected did not contribute to them not wanting to be priests.
Earlier this week, Pope Francis wrote a letter to all Catholics. As he always does, he talked about God’s mercy. Our Holy Father called our attention in a special way to our need to go to confession more often:
The celebration of mercy takes place in a very particular way in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Here we feel the embrace of the Father, who comes forth to meet us and grant us the grace of being once more his sons and daughters. We are sinners and we bear the burden of contradiction between what we wish to do and what we do in fact (cf. Rom 7:14-21). Yet grace always precedes us and takes on the face of the mercy that effects our reconciliation and pardon….
I invite priests once more to prepare carefully for the ministry of confession, which is a true priestly mission….
The Sacrament of Reconciliation must regain its central place in the Christian life.
Let’s be clear about this. The idea of talking about confession frequently is really not my own; it comes from the Pope himself. Pope Francis is many things, but I have yet to hear anyone accuse him of being obsessed about rules or rigid about Church discipline. The pope exhorts us to go to confession because he believes it is good for us.
How is confession good for us?
Confession is good for us because sin is real and it harms us and those around us. Sin is not a social construct or a psychological complex. Sin, and mortal sin especially, separates us from God and neighbor and even from our authentic selves. In the 2nd reading, Saint Paul listed several such sins: sexual immorality, drinking too much, pornography and feuding with others.
Some will object, “I don’t need to go to confession because I don’t do anything that bad.” The Bible addresses this objection pretty directly.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
1 John 1:8-10
The just man falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked falls into ruin.
Here is a list of mortal sins we find named in the Bible
Sex before marriage
Same sex sexual activity
Stirring up contention
Neglecting the Poor
Not welcoming the immigrant
Not visiting the sick and imprisoned
Who of us here can say that we not sinned against any of these in the past year?
Others might say, ” I can confess my sins directly to God. I don’t need a priest.” This objection is not only profoundly unbiblical, it was unheard of in the first 1,500 years of the Christian Church. The near disappearance of sacramental confession in the past 500 years has been a scourge on the Church. It led to a breakdown of Church discipline and faith in Protestant countries. The last 50 years have seen a collapse in Catholics going to confession. Today, only 2% of Catholics regularly use this sacrament. 75% never do. We cannot be surprised that nearly the same number of Catholics, 75%, skip Mass on any given Sunday.
Why should these statistics give us pause? Because as my father said, “priests have a special role to play in preparing the soul for death and judgment.” When we neglect confession as a Church, our souls die unabsolved and evil metastasizes in the Church. Vows are broken, parishes close, families are torn apart and the devil laughs as souls willingly follow him into the pit of hell. And that is what we have witnessed in recent decades in the Catholic Church in these United States.
What father can bear to look at his children suffering and not be moved by his love to raise his voice and say, “You do not have to keep living like this”? This is precisely what Pope Francis is saying to us when he encourages us to go to confession. He wants us to be healed and forgiven, able to love God, our neighbor and ourselves and be ready to go when Christ calls us to Him in heaven.
If you have not been to confession in more than 6 months, please take an examination of conscience with you as you walk out today. As you know, there is always confession after Mass. If you prefer an outside confessor, the times of confessions in nearby parishes are printed in the bulletin. On December 1 at Saint Joseph and December 20 at Saint Mary both at 6:30, we will have a penance service.
Jesus is clear in the Gospel, “at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” For many of us, our summons to heaven will come at a time that we least expect it. May it please God that we have availed ourselves of the ministrations of a priest shortly before Our Lord calls us home. For priests have a special role to play in preparing the soul for death and judgment.
I saw this fact play out very powerfully in the death of a young man whom I believe is in heaven interceding for me with God in a special way whenever I preach on confession. As you know, Nathan Trappuzano was murdered on April 1, 2014, a matter of hours after going to confession. As tragic as his death was, for he left behind a 8 months pregnant wife, it has unleashed a flood of goodness. His widow founded a foundation that bears his name to assist fatherless children. His story of faith and mercy has touched the lives of thousands. His widow stood before her fallen husband’s unrepentant murderer and extended forgiveness to him at his sentencing.
My dad was right, “priests have a special role to play in preparing the soul for death and judgment.” And when we go to confession with an open heart, we bring a piece of heaven down to earth.