Posted by: frroberts | October 17, 2017

Overcoming the fear of confession

As most of you know, I am the youngest of six children and the son of a plumber and a housewife.  I grew up surrounded by farms and thought that Kokomo, Indiana was a big city until I was about seventeen.

Spending four years in the Boston metro area to get my undergraduate degree was something of a culture shock.  I was so overwhelmed by the classes at first that I elected to quit the Harvard football team, which meant saying goodbye to my boyhood dream of playing college football.  By the end of my freshman year I found myself near the top of my class and an officer in the Parliamentary Debate Society, but only after many. many hours of hard work.

Being a Catholic who was serious about my faith at Harvard was not easy.  Frequently I faced ridicule from classmates and even professors because I was not ashamed to let my faith inform my life.  I began to realize that at some point I would have to begin making choices between being true to my faith and seeking to climb the ladder of worldly success.

The first real choice came during my sophomore year.  The Debate Society was hosting a weekend debate tournament.  As an officer I shared responsibility for running it.  The tournament was going later than planned.  Around 4:30pm I realized that the tournament would be nowhere near finished in time for me to attend the last Mass at the local parish at 5pm.  I was faced with a dilemma.  Would I leave the tournament early and go to Mass or skip Mass and stay until the tournament was over?

I feared that if I left for Mass I would not only face ridicule, I would also jeopardize my chances to be promoted higher up in the leadership of the Debate Society.  I worried that it would become clear to my peers that were other things in my life that came before debate.  I felt like I needed at least to be vice-president in this club in order to be assured admittance to Yale Law School, which was my goal at the time.  I needed to make a good impression to move up.

I decided to skip Mass.

I rationalized it by telling myself that it was just one Mass and that God would understand, but deep down I knew that my choice revealed that my relationship with God was less important to me than my ambition to be successful.  I had allowed fear to stop me from receiving Jesus in the Eucharist that Sunday.

When we make decisions that are motivated by fear our sins often begin to pile up.  Mine certainly did.

The next Sunday I was sure to go to Mass.  I knew from my religious education that by missing Mass the previous week I had committed a mortal sin, meaning that I would have to go to confession before I could receive communion again.  Receiving without having gone to confession meant committing the even more serious sin of sacrilege.

Despite this knowledge, I didn’t go to confession on Saturday and went up to receive communion the following Sunday anyway.  I had a long list of self-justifying rationalizations, but none of them changed the fact that in taking communion that Sunday I was eating and drinking to my own damnation.  By my own choice, I had made the Bread of life into hemlock for my soul.

On the first evening of Easter the Apostles were huddled in the Upper Room behind locked doors because they were scared of what the Jews might do to them.  Like me on that Sunday afternoon, most of them had abandoned  Jesus in a moment of fear.  Rather than freeing them of anxiety, their capitulations made their fear grow to the point of spiritual paralysis.

Then Jesus, in his glorified and resurrected body, passed through the doors of that room and extended forgiveness to them: “Peace be with you.”   Showing them His wounds, He breathed on them and gave them a special gift: “Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive are forgiven, whose sins you retain are retained.”

In these words today’s Gospel reading reveals the institution of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  Our Lord communicated to the Apostles and their successors the power to forgive sins in His name.  In doing so, He also imposed on all Christians a duty to confess serious post-baptismal sins to one of the successors of His Apostles, to one of His priests of the new and everlasting covenant.

But the Apostle Thomas was not in the Upper Room that day.  When He heard of Jesus’ Resurrection and the forgiveness that Our Lord had extended to the others, he rejected it.  The apparent force of the words, “I will not believe” barely masks what lies beneath the surface.

Thomas’ sins had made him fear facing Jesus again so much that He rejected the possibility of the Resurrection.

We cannot help but see how Thomas’ spiritual condition worsened over the course just a handful of days.  On Holy Thursday he abandoned Jesus out fear for his life.  On Easter he abandoned the company of the other Apostles out of fear of persecution.  In the days that followed he rejected even the possibility of the good news of the Resurrection and Jesus’ offer of reconciliation.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know this dynamic better than we would like to admit.  I certainly do.

In the days that followed my sacrilegious reception of the Eucharist fifteen years ago, I continued to feel the prick of my conscience.  Finally my desire for reconciliation with Jesus overcame my fear of the confessional and I gave in to the power of grace.  My confession itself was uneventful.  The priest listened patiently, gave me a few words of encouragement, a penance and then absolution.

The surprise came the next day when I went to Sunday Mass.  As I heard the priest make the sign of the Cross to begin Mass, I was moved to tears of joy.  Grace allowed me see in a much deeper way than I had ever before just how important the sacraments are for a real relationship with Jesus.

It was as if the Lord were showing me His wounds and saying to me, ” ‘Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side…’  See in my glorious wounds the love that I poured on the Cross for the forgiveness of your sins.”

What could I do other than fall to my knees in worship and confess like Thomas did, “My Lord and my God”?

From that day until my graduation two and half years later, I attended Mass every day and went to confession no less than monthly.   I was, and still am, very far from being a saint.  But the fear of doing the right thing in the face of persecution and contempt has receded considerably.

In today’s second reading from the Book of Revelation, Jesus tells Saint John something we also need to hear: “Do not be afraid.”  So often fear stops us from doing the things we really want to do, from doing the things that we know that we should do.  It can paralyze us.

If you are anything like me, the sacrament of Reconciliation is probably an occasion for fear.  I have been a penitent no less than 300 times since I turned twenty and my heart still races sometimes.  I find it helpful to call to mind Jesus’ words, repeated so often in the New Testament, “Do not be afraid.”


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