Forgive Us Our Trespasses: Confession

seven sacramentsAfter a long break, we return to the end of our series on the Our Father and the sacraments.

Our point is that the Our Father can help us think about the sacraments – and thinking about the sacraments can help us pray the Our Father well. When we say, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we can make a spiritual communion – and in thinking about the Eucharist, we can make those words meaningful. And we can do the same thing with the rest of the Our Father and the other six sacraments.


Today we consider the penultimate petition of the Our Father, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The connection to Confession is obvious: both are about the forgiveness of our sins. But we can go deeper than the obvious.

The sacraments confer grace, but they do it through tangible means. Our sins are not forgiven in a way that leaves us out, as if some magic happens elsewhere than in our hearts. Our sins are forgiven in us.

This is expressed, first of all, in the very praying of this petition of the Our Father. Our sins are forgiven by us asking for forgiveness. They are forgiven when we acknowledge both our sin and God’s mercy.

We live in a world of cheap grace. In a way, the amoralism of our culture is a kind of deformed Christianity. On some level, our culture believes that all sin is forgiven, that God is merciful. But our culture’s understanding of this forgiveness is impersonal. Our culture’s understanding of God’s forgiveness is just that God doesn’t care about what we do, so we needn’t even ask forgiveness. God is a very distant father.

To the contrary, to ask forgiveness is a personal encounter. Pope Francis talks about the caress of God’s mercy on our sin. We are meant, not to ignore God and our sin, since our sin doesn’t matter, but to bring God into contact with our sin, by asking forgiveness.


This is why, to the question why we “have to” confess our sins to a priest, the best answer is to express our joy that we “get to” go to confession. The forgiveness of our sins is not something we want to avoid. It is not something we want to minimize. It is something we want to celebrate.

Confession is, of course, frightening. It is supposed to be frightening. Contrition (or attrition) means our sin makes us sad, tristis. The whole point of confessing our sin is that we realize that our sin is awful.

But we realize, too, that God’s mercy is wonderful. We solve the fear of our sinfulness not by ignoring it, but by feeling the caress of God’s mercy upon it.

We do that through the ministry of ordained priests. Wonder of wonders! The point of ordained priests is not that they are great, holy guys – in fact, it is precisely not that. The point is that they are ordained, whatever wretches they might be. The point is that they have received the special touch of Christ that is ordination.

We confess not to the priest, but to Christ. In the East, there is a practice of confessing in front of the icons, to make this point clear. But the priest makes Christ concrete. We want to hear his voice. We want to experience the shame of confessing our sin – because it is in that shame that we can feel the caress of God’s mercy.

Thus thinking of confession helps give substance to our prayer “Forgive us our trespasses.” That is the whole point of the sacraments: to give substance to words that can be said with so little seriousness. I pray the Our Father carelessly – until I imagine kneeling down in the confessional.


But the greater wonder is in the second part: “As we forgive.” This part is so important that in the Sermon on the Mount, it is the only part of the Our Father on which Jesus comments: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Mt 6:14).

The sacraments are powerful. They have an effect. They do something.

That is why another essential aspect of Confession, along with confessing to the priest and feeling sorrow for our sin, is penance. Contrition makes no sense if we do not change. Our penance – or, technically, “satisfaction,” which means, “doing enough” – is our first steps in the right direction.

Without those steps, our contrition is meaningless. Without those steps, it is as if we don’t really take sin seriously, don’t really care about our lack of love. Without those small first steps, it is as if the sacrament has changed nothing.

But Christ pours his grace into us. He absolves us – if we bothered to translate the word, we should say he “unbinds us,” “unties us,” lets us loose from our sin. The gentle caress of Christ’s mercy heals us and lets us go free from the suffering of sin.

The Our Father expresses this freedom, these steps in a new direction, by infusing the very experience of forgiveness with this new-found spirit of love: our being forgiven is inseparable from our learning to forgive. God’s mercy does not leave us unchanged, but gives birth to mercy in our own hearts. God’s love makes us lovers.

Where do you need to feel God’s mercy today? How could you experience it?

The Vespers Apostlate

vespersI was going to send this idea to a Dominican friend, but I’ll post it here:

If I could ask for one great pastoral initiative (especially from the Friars Preachers), it would be sung Vespers, with benediction and good preaching, and a priest in the confessional the whole time.

This idea especially struck me on a recent vacation, in a parish with pretty bad liturgy and preaching.

Lots of little points:

  1. What strikes me, first, is that the problem is more a lack than any positive evil. This is a disputable point, but this is how it seems to me. Yes, yes, there are many evils taught in our society.  But the key point is, people don’t know what prayer is, what liturgy is, what the Gospel is, or what Catholicism is really about.  They need someone to show them.
  1. Fixing parishes is a huge problem. It requires a huge work of priestly education – a work many of us are involved in (I teach in a seminary – and perhaps you just support your priests), but it will take a long time (since the men we educate now will not be pastors for a long time) and a huge cooperation (since none of us alone can change everyone). But even good pastors are up against hugely complicated parish situations, with all the complications of hundreds of malformed parishioners.  These are things we should work on – but the danger is that, seeing such a huge work, we are tempted to give up and do nothing.  We should all do our best to improve Sunday Mass, but honestly, most of the work has to happen somewhere else. That’s why I propose Evening Prayer, Vespers.  It doesn’t have to involve all the parishioners.  Lay people can go to Vespers at a different church from their parish, and come back refreshed to renew their parish.  Priests, or even lay people, can lead vespers even if they are not pastors.
  1. Another danger is trying to convert everyone at once. Often it means watering things down, to try to win people who aren’t much inclined to be won. To the contrary, I think we can do a lot more by supporting those who are actively seeking.  If people want to pray, if they want good preaching, if they want to go deeper, give them the opportunity.  Rather than watering things down so that no one will be much converted, we need to help create the saints who can be real apostles – to their neighbors, to their family, to their coworkers.  And if those apostles get people interested, we need to have somewhere good to bring them.


  1. But we don’t want to take people out of their parishes. We need those apostles everywhere. They are the force for renewal in parishes.  One danger is that we can form separatist parishes, so that everyone serious about their faith leaves behind the parishes and pastors that so desperately need them – and think of the need: yes, there are a lot of confused people in those parishes, but they are interested enough to get there on Sunday morning.  This is fertile ground.  We need apostles in the parishes.

Another danger is that we nurture a spirituality that has nothing to do with Sunday Mass.  The first problem with this is for those we preach to: Sunday Mass is the source and summit of our faith; we need to teach people to benefit from it, not lead them away.    The second problem is for the other people at Sunday Mass: what the parish needs most is people who can show what Sunday Mass is all about.  To nurture parish apostles, we need to teach people how to pray Sunday Mass better.

The Liturgy of the Hours is a great way to do that.  Show people what real liturgical prayer is about.  Nurture their liturgical spirituality.  With adoration and benediction, teach them to long for the Eucharist.  With the Psalms, teach them to cling to the words of Scripture.  With good preaching, teach them what everything else is really about – teach them how to listen to Scripture at Mass, how to sort out the good points in the often confused homilies, to receive the Eucharist with the fervor it deserves.


My proposal can be broken into parts.  I would be happy if priests just sat in the confessional, without preaching, vespers, benediction, or good music.  We can pray the liturgy of the hours even without priests, in our homes and communities, with or without serious liturgical music.  And we can preach elsewhere – this web site is one effort to preach the Gospel outside the liturgy.

But wouldn’t it be better if communities could form around all of these things at once?  Vespers Sunday evening, or midweek.  Morning Prayer for mothers.  All done well, prayerfully, beautifully, with serious preaching, and confession, and benediction.  Liturgy will save the world.

What elements of this plan could you implement?  What alternatives can you suggest?



The Curé of Ars on Lukewarmness and the Battle for Heaven

One more excerpt from that homily by St. Jean Vianney on Lukewarmness. The spiritual life is a battle, a struggle – if we love, we want to be better. This is how we are meant to approach Confession, our examination of conscience, our prayer, and our fasting. We should never say, “I won’t go to hell for that.” We should say, “how can I run towards heaven?”

vianney2A lukewarm soul will go to Confession regularly, and even quite frequently. But what kind of Confessions are they? No preparation, no desire to correct faults, or, at the least, a desire so feeble and so small that the slightest difficulty will put a stop to it altogether. The Confessions of such a person are merely repetitions of old ones, which would be a happy state of affairs indeed if there were nothing to add to them. Twenty years ago he was accusing himself of the same things he confesses today, and if he goes to Confession for the next twenty years, he will say the same things. A lukewarm soul will not, if you like, commit the big sins. But some slander or back-biting, a lie, a feeling of hatred, of dislike, of jealousy, a slight touch of deceit or double-dealing — these count for nothing with it. …

He does not want, of course, to have distractions during prayer or during the Holy Mass, yet when he should put up some little fight against them, he suffers them very patiently, considering the fact that he does not like them. Fast days are reduced to practically nothing, either by advancing the time of the main meal or, under the pretext that Heaven was never taken by famine, by making the collation so abundant that it amounts to a full meal. When he performs good or beneficial actions, his intentions are often very mixed — sometimes it is to please someone, sometimes it is out of compassion, and sometimes it is just to please the world.

With such people everything that is not a really serious sin is good enough. They like doing good, being faithful, but they wish that it did not cost them anything or, at least, that it cost very little. They would like to visit the sick, indeed, but it would be more convenient if the sick would come to them. They have something to give away in alms, they know quite well that a certain person has need of help, but they wait until she comes to ask them instead of anticipating her, which would make the kindness so very much more meritorious. We will even say, my brethren, that the person who leads a lukewarm life does not fail to do plenty of good works, to frequent the Sacraments, to assist regularly at all church services, but in all of this one sees only a weak, languishing faith, hope which the slightest trial will upset, a love of God and of neighbour which is without warmth or pleasure. Everything that such a person does is not entirely lost, but it is very nearly so.

Penance and the Precious Blood

jesus-precious-bloodOn this last day of July, the month of the Precious Blood, let us turn from our meditations on the Eucharist to consider Confession, the sacrament of Penance.

Each of the sacraments has multiple names. These names are not interchangeable, but each reveal a different aspect of the sacrament. The sacrament we are considering now is called Reconciliation, because that is its end, what it brings about. It is also called Confession, because that is its means, the thing we do. But a third name for it is the Sacrament of Penance, because that is its inner nature: what Confession consecrates, and what brings about Reconciliation.


The word penance is a rich inheritance from our Latin Catholic tradition. The Greek in which the New Testament was written uses the word metanoia, which means essentially a change of mind, or conversion. “Conversion” literally means “turning around,” and that is another important name for the sacrament of Penance. It is about changing our direction.

The Latin tradition expresses a key insight into conversion with the word poenitentia, penance, or repentance. The root word is poena, which is pain, or punishment.

That sounds ugly at first, but the point is that conversion really does involve change. Conversion would be painless if we were not set in a certain direction. Some of the shallowest modern philosophy (with roots, really, in a certain kind of Protestantism) pretends that each moment is completely unconnected with the moment before, so that we can painlessly make a complete about-face.

But that is not what it’s like to be a human person. We are more steady than that. We set our heart on things. (That’s what the whole business about “kidneys” refers to.) To give up on one way of life and begin another is painful.


Put it this way: there is no such person as Ebenezer Scrooge. One night, Scrooge changes his mind, and wakes up in the morning a radically different person.

But that’s not what it’s like for us. If you have had your heart set on riches – or on anything else – it hurts to turn away from that. In fact, this is something profoundly healthy about us: we do have hearts which get set on things. We do get attached. And we are supposed to get attached: that’s what our passions are for.

But that’s also why change hurts. You may know that Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is a reworking of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The difference, though, is that in the Catholic view, which is so much more human, it’s hard to change: that’s what Purgatory is all about. In fact, it’s what the Inferno is all about.

(Of course, Scrooge does suffer in the night – but our suffering is more than that.)


Or put it another way: it wouldn’t be a real change if our hearts weren’t really set on something. Painless metanoia is not really any change at all.


Jesus enters into the pain of our conversion.

Luke portrays this vividly with the story of the good thief. “Do you not fear God,” he says to the other thief, “seeing that you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Lk 23:40-41).

The good thief joins Jesus in Paradise because he accepts the pain of conversion. He recognizes the evil of his sin, and he literally feels the pain of conversion.

Punishment, you see, is not meant for the glee of the punisher. It is meant to give us an opportunity to acknowledge the evil of our turning away from God, and experience what it is like to turn back.

Jesus joins us in that penance. It is not so much that Simon the Cyrenean helps Jesus carry the cross. Rather “on him they laid the cross, so that he might carry it after Jesus” (Lk 23:26): Jesus walks the way of penance with us. It is he who gives us the strength to carry the cross.


In Confession, the priest has the power not only to “loose” us from our sins, but to “bind” us, by giving some penance, some cross of conversion, bound to Christ, that will help us walk the way of real personal change.

“They have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14). The path to true conversion is by bathing in the Precious Blood of Jesus.

Are there crosses of conversion you are unwilling to carry? Bathe them in the blood of the Lamb!

Click here for the entire series on the Precious Blood.

A Lectio Divina Examination of Conscience

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

A practical idea for improving our prayer life.

On the one side, there is the Examination of Conscience. In theory, this is an important part of Catholic life. We have to do it to go to Confession. But more importantly, Confession is meant to teach us to have a sensitive conscience all the time, to be aware of the poor choices we make, our failures in love. A good examination of conscience helps us get beyond the question, “will I go to Hell for that?” and into the question, “does this action reflect who I want to be? Who Jesus wants me to be? Did it bring me closer to God? Did it help me to grow in love of my neighbor?”

In one sense, examination of conscience needs to be a constant thing: sensitivity of conscience. But in another sense, it’s important to have times of examining our conscience, to practice thinking through our actions and to take time to repent and start off in a new direction. We get better through practice.

The problem, I think, is that the examination can be a hassle. I think it is legitimate to make the following complaints:

-I don’t need “one more thing” when I’m already having trouble getting good times of prayer.

-I’d rather look at Jesus than at myself. Christianity really isn’t about navel-gazing.

-How do I know what to examine? There can be a circularity, where I only examine myself on the things I care about. But what if Jesus has other things I should be worrying about?


Another issue: Lectio Divina, the prayerful reading of Scripture. Scripture is the bread of the Christian’s life. The early Church described Christians as being like cows, chewing their cud. We are meant to be constantly grazing on Scripture, swallowing it, bringing it back up, chewing and chewing and chewing, internalizing, bringing it back up, chewing it again. This is the traditional spirituality of the Catholic Church, to which Vatican II urged us to return. (That it’s ecumenically friendly is a nice side effect.)

But again, how? The Bible’s confusing. It’s complicated. And it’s so big! Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. And then what do we do?

There’s a popular theme out there, urged by Pope Benedict, that gives four steps to lectio divina. Step one: read. Step two: ponder (or meditate). Step three: pray, ask God to help you with what you’ve thought about. Step four: contemplate (whatever that means).

Okay. But frankly, to me, this feels a bit complicated. I think what it tries to describe is a much simpler process: not so much four steps as (1) reading (2) thoughtfully and (3) prayerfully, with (4) the occasional inspired glance upward as the Spirit moves us.

But whether we do the complicated four steps or the simple all-in-one, it can still be hard to get started. What should we read, and how do we know what it says?


So here’s an idea: examine your conscience with Scripture. Here’s how it works:

First, read a very short passage. Because we’re just looking for a bite, you don’t need this to be anything orderly. You can just open the Bible at random. Or you can go slowly – very slowly – through a Gospel. Or something else that sort of interests you. The Psalms are great, and this can help you pray them well in other contexts.

The point is, keep it really short, so you can keep it simple. Maybe a paragraph. Maybe a sentence, or less. For this exercise, give up trying to cover ground. You’re just looking for one little thing to think about right now.

Take from your reading a very short phrase. Just a couple words. One little image, one little phrase you can chew on.

Then, set aside a very short amount of time. Maybe five minutes. Maybe while you do the dishes, or pick up. (This can be a good excuse to do some picking up, as long as it’s mindless.) Maybe before you turn the radio on in the car. Doesn’t need to be long.

Next, examine your conscience with your phrase. The examination and the reading can help each other. Not sure what the reading means? Ask yourself the question, how does this accuse me? What is the challenge this phrase offers to me?

On the flip side, not sure how to examine your conscience? Let your very short phrase give you something particular to examine yourself on. Different every time, inspired every time, and a nice little challenge.

Just a small way to grow in intimacy with sacred Scripture.

Confession: The Repentant Life

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

This week we consider the sacrament of Confession as a model for the Christian life.

As we walk through the sacrament, we will find several models for the Christian life.

First comes our examination of conscience. The point of examining our conscience is not to figure out how much God hates us, but to find ways in which we have failed to love God and our neighbor. The distinction between mortal and venial sin matters – but let us not make it too important. Sin is any failure to love.

This is about ambition. The point is not to wallow in our sin, the point is to get better. To say frankly to ourselves, “that’s not how I should have treated that person,” so that we can not do it in the future.

Even more, it is about God’s mercy. We can be fearless about our sin because we know that Jesus is stronger. Confession is about asking to be set free: absolution literally means “unbinding.” If we like our sin, God will let us keep it. If we bring our sin to Jesus – like all the sick people, who begged for his touch – he will unbind us.

The Christian life is marked by a frank, fearless acknowledgement of sin.


Second, in the sacrament we must confess our sin. We make our acknowledgement of sin concrete. Repentance is impossible – even on a purely psychological level – if we just walk around vaguely looking at the sky and thinking we’re bad people. That achieves nothing.

But Confession is about speaking our particular sins. This particularity takes us to a whole different idea of what “sin” even means. If we keep things general, sin seems to mean that God just sort of vaguely doesn’t like us, in general. He doesn’t like us. But by particularizing sin, we realize that it is particular acts that are a problem.

In a sense, by concretely naming our sin, we put it outside of ourselves. It is not I who am sin, it is that: that action, that choice I made. I can separate myself from that choice. And the goal is to conquer that sin, not to conquer me.

The Christian life gets concrete and particular about what sin means.


Third comes contrition. This is tied to a “firm purpose of amendment”: that is, a desire not to do it again. But again, this shows how freeing Confession is. We are not saying, “this is just the way I am, and it’s terrible.” We are saying, “it doesn’t have to be this way. My heart can love better than that.”

But in fact, contrition goes deeper, more personal, than just a “firm purpose.” (What cold words!) Contrition means sadness. There is supposed to be an emotional component to this. Because emotion expresses love. I’m not just obeying rules. I love God, and I love these people, and it makes me sad that I don’t do a better job of loving them.

Now, our contrition doesn’t have to be “perfect.” We are not as sad as we ought to be. But we should be sad. In fact – no room to spell this out in all its grandeur here – this is the real goal of Confession: to nurture a real sadness about our failure to love, so that we can love better. Did you know that it is sacrilege for a priest to absolve you if you don’t express some kind of (imperect!) sadness about your sin?

The Christian life sheds tears over sin. Not anger, tears.


Fourth, we do penance. We make reparation. What does that mean? Perhaps the key is to look to our hearts, not to the world. Sin is a problem of the heart, not a matter of consequences.

So reparation is not about fixing everything that’s ever gone wrong. It is about fixing my heart. It is about setting off in a new direction, taking a step away from sin and toward true love.

The Christian life is about change, repair, improvement. In this sense (and only in this sense!) the Christian life is penitential.


Finally, we cast our sins on Jesus. That’s the purpose of the priest: he’s just some schmo; he is a dispenser of grace only because he is sent forth as such by Jesus.

We accept our “penance” from the priest precisely to mark that the way forward is not on our own – how fearsome that would be! – but in union with Jesus. We set off beside him. He helps us shoulder the cross of repentance.

The Christian never thinks of sin apart from the merciful and saving love of Jesus, and always seeks means to be closer to that merciful love.


How do you express repentance in your life?