COLUMBIA –The season of Lent is a solemn time of prayer, self-sacrifice and reflection in preparation for the renewing joy of Easter. A wonderful way to prepare for that celebration is by participating in the sacrament of reconciliation.
The importance of the sacrament has been receiving more attention recently.
On Feb. 17, Pope Benedict XVI released a reflection that encouraged faithful Catholics to rediscover the sacrament. He related the importance of confession to Mark’s Gospel account of Jesus healing a leper and releasing him from an illness which rendered him “impure” and separated him from the mainstream of Jewish society.
“The sins we commit distance us from God,” the pope said. “And, if they are not humbly confessed, trusting in the divine mercy, they will finally bring about the death of the soul. This miracle thus has powerful symbolic value.”
In some places, homilies, ad campaigns and programs have been developed to encourage people to receive the sacrament. The Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., is increasing the hours they offer the sacrament, and their Knights of Columbus have paid for billboards, TV and radio ads.
Others are dedicating entire days to the sacrament of reconciliation. The Archdiocese of New York held “24 Hours of Confession” on March 6-7 in conjunction with the Cathedral of St. Patrick Young Adults during Lent.
At 21 Manhattan parishes, priests will be available to offer the sacrament for a total of more than 120 hours during that timeframe.
Many parishes around the Diocese of Charleston hold group reconciliation services during Lent, where several priests offer the sacrament and people pray together for forgiveness and a recommitment to the teachings of the church and a Christian life.
The overall mood of Lent is reflected in reconciliation, said Father Raymond J. Carlo, pastor of St. Michael Church in Garden City.
“It fits right in because the whole idea of the ashes is reminding us that we are mortal, and also that during Lent we die to something in ourselves that is keeping us from God,” Father Carlo said. “It’s a time to die to our sinfulness and selfishness, our lack of love and forgiveness, so that the Lord c an raise us up to new life.”
In order to make an effective confession, penitents should spend time examining their consciences, focusing on sinful activities or thoughts that distance them from God, according to a guide published at www.catholic.org.
The sacrament of reconciliation should also be a time to reflect on the plans God has for us, and how sin often blinds us to them, according to Msgr. James A. Carter, pastor of Christ Our King Church in Mount Pleasant.
“Lent is an opportunity to assess where we are and where we should be in relation to where God would have us be,” said Msgr. Carter.
“Ultimately, one of the ways we can do that is through reconciliation,” he said. “It’s an assessment of our lives, where we need to repent, to reform and do better.”
Msgr. Carter said that in the past, Catholics were often encouraged to make specific lists of sins and how many times they had committed them during an examination of conscience. While it is important to confess as completely as possible, a detailed listing might be difficult for some people who have not received the sacrament for many years.
“The important thing for a person who has been away from reconciliation a long time is to examine their lives, and look at the major things that have presented an obstacle to their growth in relation to God and their neighbor,” Msgr. Carter said.
He said people have “to recognize they’re not unique. Everybody is a sinner. Reconciliation is a way to become strengthened by God’s love and forgiveness.”
Father Jeffrey Kirby, parochial vicar at St. Mary Help of Christians Church in Aiken, encourages penitents, especially those who have not had the sacrament in a long time, to look for patterns of sin in their lives.
“I tell them look for the big ones, because you can’t work on the small stuff until you get the big stuff handled,” Father Kirby said. “For some people, the pattern of sin is pride, for other’s it’s lust, envy or anger. It’s the larger things that really turn our hearts away from God.”
Lent is a perfect time for people to return to the confessional. While it is preferable for Catholics to receive the sacrament as frequently as possible throughout the year, the church especially encourages reconciliation during Lent and Advent.
“That should be one thing on their Lenten agenda, just go if you haven’t been in a long time,” Father Carlo said. “It should be a part of every Catholic’s Lenten schedule because it’s a way to grow spiritually during the season.”
Father Kirby said some people feel so much guilt about serious sins that they purposefully avoid confession.
“I tell people: Never forget that God is bigger than your sin, his mercy is an ocean,” he said. “I ask them: Won’t you let him get that out of you? Because he doesn’t want you to live in a state of slavery.”
Group penance services during Lent often draw large crowds and consequently, each priest only has a short time with each confessor. Msgr. Carter suggested that those who haven’t confessed in a long time might want to make an individual appointment with a priest.
Father Carlo said the sacrament, while a real blessing during Lent, should ideally become a regular part of every Catholic’s life.
“People ask me: Well, how often should I receive the sacrament?” he said. “I ask them how often they shop for groceries. How often do you take a look at your pantry and see what you’re in need of? In the secular world, we have things we do regularly and needs we have to fulfill, and we should address our spiritual needs in the same way.”
Sources: www.newadvent.org. Catholic News Service. www.zenit.org. National Catholic Register. Our Sunday Visitor.