By Bishop James Conley
One of the great gifts and privileges of the priesthood is serving as a minister of God’s forgiveness in the sacrament of confession.
I have been hearing confessions for almost 32 years, since the time I was ordained a priest in May of 1985. I have heard confessions on five continents, in multiple languages, in places and at times I never expected. I have heard confessions in the rain, on a plane, on the beach; I have heard confessions lasting hours, and confessions lasting just a moment or two. I have heard the first confessions of young children, and the confessions of men and women moments from death.
Like most priests my age, I have heard literally thousands of confessions. And I have never tired of the powerful words a priest is privileged to say: “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus Christ spent a large part of his public ministry on earth forgiving sins. And he continues his ministry of forgiveness through the priesthood. He loves each one of us so much that he gave us a sacrament of his mercy: an extraordinary gift through which we can repent of our sins, and receive his forgiveness. The Lord gave us the sacrament of confession so that our sins need not stand in the way of full and true freedom, in this life or in the next. Confession makes manifest, obvious, and concrete the Lord’s desire to make each one of us holy.
Sin separates us from God. Grave sin ruptures our unity with the Lord at its root. Venial sins—the things we often think are unimportant, compound one on top of another, until habits and patterns of sinfulness become a wall between us, and the love of God. Confession breaks down that wall of sin and restores our unity with God. Confession is the mercy of a loving Father, forgiving us because he loves us as his sons and daughters.
It is a humbling privilege to pronounce the words of absolution, and to know that Christ works through me, and works through all priests, to bestow God’s gift of forgiveness, of freedom, of restored unity and renewed friendship with Jesus Christ, on his beloved sons and daughters.
Confession is not a place of judgment—God’s judgment, or the priest’s. Confession is not a place of shame. Confession is the forgiveness of God, made manifest in heartfelt prayers of two sinners; one of whom is the ordained priest, called by God to stand mercifully in the place of Jesus Christ, and the other the penitent who is seeking forgiveness.
It is a privilege for me to stand in Christ’s place, and to forgive sins in the name of Jesus. It is also, of course, a privilege for me, as a penitent in need of forgiveness, to confess my own sins to a brother priest of Jesus Christ, and to hear those sweet words of absolution, knowing that my sins are forgiven.
Confession is a gift, and I hope that each one of you will receive that gift regularly. During Lent, when we are conscious of our sins in a particular way, and we are more acutely aware of our need for God’s mercy, it is especially fruitful to go to confession. It is a grace to celebrate Christ’s resurrection at Easter, after we have experienced God’s mercy, through the sacrament of penance, during Lent.
This year, as we have done in years past, the city of Lincoln will participate in the 24 Hours for the Lord, a 24-hour period of continuously available confessions at the Cathedral of the Risen Christ. I, and many other priests, will be available to offer the sacrament of penance, from 6 p.m. on Friday, March 24, until 6 p.m. on Saturday, March 25. Pope Francis has highly encouraged the bishops of the world to make this available, as much as possible, in dioceses everywhere.
I invite Catholics who are not in the habit of regular confession—those who have not gone to confession for years, especially—to come to the sacrament of God’s mercy during 24 Hours for the Lord. I also invite those whose work schedules or other obligations do not allow them many opportunities to come to confession—at any time during the day or night—during 24 Hours for the Lord.
I invite and encourage all Catholics in the Diocese of Lincoln to go to confession this Lent, during 24 Hours for the Lord, or at another time. God wants us to be free from sin. God wants us to live in true and lasting friendship with Him. God wants to give us all the extraordinary gift of his mercy.