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Confession and grace

In the past three weeks, we have discussed the frequency of confession and the formation of our conscience; our concepts of God, sin and fear; and our concepts of guilt, repentance and reconciliation. If you would like to read or re-read past columns, please visit www.arlingtondiocese.org. Through this focus on confession, it is my hope that our appreciation of the sacrament continues to deepen.

This week we reflect on the grace of the Sacrament of Penance that comes to us from God as a result of our having been reconciled with Him. Those of us who are older will recall the analogy of the milk bottle as a visual example of grace. When the milk bottle is filled and white, it represents our soul filled with grace. When the milk bottle is blemished or completely black, it represents our soul tarnished or dead through sin. Obviously, all analogies are limited. This example can help us to understand the presence of grace, or its absence. However, it is limited because we run the risk of understanding grace as a "quantity." Grace is not measured by "how much" we have, but rather how we share in God's life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines grace as "a participation in the life of God" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1997). This sharing or participation in God's life is freely given to us first when we were baptized. This sharing makes us "like God" and is called sanctifying grace, which makes us holy. In our daily quest for holiness, we continue to receive a share in God's life in many ways, primarily through the sacraments.

So, this leads us to examine our understanding of "sacrament." The Catechism teaches us, "The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life (grace) is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions" (Catechism, no. 1131). This definition is similar to what many of us remember learning years ago, "A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace."

So then, each sacrament is an outward sign and is a meeting with Christ in which He gives, restores or increases divine life, grace, to us. Moreover, the seven sacraments are seven distinct ways in which we encounter Christ. In each sacrament, Christ shares this life of His in a different way. As the Catechism puts it, "there are sacramental graces¸ gifts proper to the difference sacraments" (cf. Catechism, no. 2003). We ask ourselves: what is the sacramental grace of the Sacrament of Penance? Because I share in divine life through the Sacrament of Penance, what effect in particular does this sharing have within me?

One could summarize the sacramental grace of Confession in a threefold way: freedom from sin through forgiveness, healing in mind and heart from the effects of sin, and reconciliation with God and the Church.

(1) Personal sin is real in both theory and practice. Sin either weakens God's life within us (venial sin) or destroys God's life within us (mortal sin). In either case, sin enslaves us. When we turn to the Lord in sorrow and repentance, we are forgiven and thereby, freed from sin and slavery to sin. We are an adopted yet real son or daughter, not a slave, because this sharing brings us freedom as members of God's family. In a sense we are like the paralyzed man who was cured after Jesus saw the strength of his faith. "He (the paralyzed man) rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone. They (the crowd) were all astounded and glorified God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this" (Mark 2:12). Once forgiven, we are freed from the paralysis of sin and can now walk with true freedom.

(2) Sin, serious or not-so-serious, always leaves some effect: a kind of weakness or doubt of God's love. There is a need for strength that only healing can bring. As we receive a share in God's life, we are at the same time healed from the effects of sin and made stronger: to believe, to hope, to love and to struggle to do good. In a sense, we are like a person not only cured of the flu but also made stronger than before.

(3) Sin, mortal or venial, affects our relationship with God and Christ. The bonds are either completely severed (by mortal sin) or the bonds are weakened (by venial sin). In either case, we need to be restored, to come into a new harmony. Again, through this sharing in God's life, we are reconciled to the Lord and the Church because of His saving grace. In a sense, we are like a person who was far away but now has come home. We are reconciled with both God and the Church.

So, this is how we describe the profound grace of the Sacrament of Penance. If we truly understand this better, then we know why we should receive this sacrament with meaning, with regularity and with devotion. After all, freedom, healing and reconciliation are exactly what we long for and they are ours, each time we celebrate the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.

Brothers and sisters, I invite you to examine your hearts and ask the Holy Spirit to lead you to understanding God's grace in the Sacrament of Penance. This grace provides the strength and hope needed to continue on life's journey, knowing that He will assist us to be as holy as He desires us to be until we see Him in our eternal home.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009