Confession: A School of Mercy

Interview With Archbishop Gómez of San Antonio

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SAN ANTONIO, Texas, MARCH 14, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The sacrament of penance and reconciliation is a "school of mercy" that teaches the values of forgiveness and unconditional love, according to the archbishop of San Antonio.



Archbishop José Gómez wrote this in a pastoral letter entitled "The Tender Mercy of Our God," released at the beginning of Lent.

The publication of the letter also coincides with the end of a Jubilee Year declared by the archbishop to commemorate the 275th anniversary of the archdiocese's San Fernando Cathedral, one of the oldest Catholic sanctuaries in the United States.

In this interview with ZENIT, Archbishop Gómez speaks to ZENIT about why he wrote the letter on the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, and the lessons that confession can teach all who approach it.

Q: The No. 1 task for a Catholic during Lent has always been to go to confession. In your new pastoral letter on the sacrament, you seem to suggest that this practice has gone by the wayside a little bit. Could you explain why this has happened, and why it is so important to approach this sacrament?

Archbishop Gómez: The signals on confession are mixed -- there are shadows and light. On the one hand, it's no secret that many of our brothers and sisters have stopped going to confession altogether, or they haven't been in a long time. This is a sad truth.

As I point out in my pastoral letter, I believe the problem is rooted in our culture's loss of the sense of sin. Our culture is relentless in telling our people that there are no absolute truths or moral norms, and that what's true or good or evil is all relative -- that it depends on the subjective opinion of the individual. So, a lot of people are morally confused -- deceived, really. And we have to reach out to help these people to come back to the sacrament.

On the other hand, in the years since the Second Vatican Council we see that many Catholics have developed a very mature, positive, and joyful attitude toward the sacrament. They're going to confession regularly. They see regular confession as an essential part of their spiritual lives and their quest for holiness and true friendship with Jesus Christ.

Through regular confession, they know they're growing in self-knowledge and in their love and knowledge of Christ. Confession for them is a source of spiritual growth and gives them great joy.

In fact, in some of the parishes here in the archdiocese we have too many people coming on Saturday afternoon for confession. That's why in my letter I'm asking our priests to be creative in looking for new ways to offer the sacrament to their parishioners.

What I'm hoping to get across in this new letter, and in my ministry of reconciliation in San Antonio, is the power, the beauty and the joy of confession. There is no greater happiness than to know that our sins have been forgiven and that we've been reconciled with God. That's what we all long for -- wholeness, union, friendship with God. That's true happiness. And confession gives us that.

Q: You say in your letter that mortal sin can lead to our spiritual death. Do you think Catholics are as conscientiousness of and concerned for their spiritual health as they are of their physical health? How can the faithful become more aware of and maintain their spiritual well-being?

Archbishop Gómez: Again, because of the cultural climate we live in, I felt it was very important in my letter to recall the clear teaching of Jesus about the reality of sin and the consequences of sin.

I wanted to get across two things. First, that sin is real and that if we think we aren't sinners we're deceiving ourselves. And second, that God's mercy is greater than our sinfulness -- that if we come to our Father with a contrite heart, if we confess with true sorrow, he will take away our sins and give us a clean slate.

This, too, is the clear teaching of Jesus -- that our Father has a tender love for all of us; that he desires all of us to know salvation through the forgiveness of sins; and that there is great rejoicing in heaven whenever a sinner repents and comes home. Confession brings us joy and it brings joy to our Father too.

In terms of their "spiritual health," I think people realize that it's not healthy to be in a state of sin, because through sin we lose our friendship with God; and when we're separated from God, we don't feel right.

What I don't think most people fully realize is the power -- the grace, peace and strength -- that comes to us in the sacrament. Penance is a remedy, yes. It heals us of our sins; it makes it possible for us to live again in God's grace. But it does more than that. In the sacrament, God strengthens us. He gives us the spiritual strength we need to live a new life -- to love more deeply, and to overcome our selfishness and weakness.

The beautiful truth is that the more we go to confession, the more we grow in holiness. We experience real conversion every day. We are less absorbed in material things. We find we have the grace to see the world differently and to think and act differently. We have real friendship with Jesus.

Q: Regarding the reception of Communion while being in a state of mortal sin, what types of pastoral steps have you taken to help the faithful understand that they must confess their sins and restore their communion with the Church before approaching the sacrament of the Eucharist?

Archbishop Gómez: Confession and Communion belong together. Before Communion we always pray the prayer of the Roman soldier: "Lord, I'm not worthy to receive you, but only say the word." Confession is that word of pardon that heals us, that cleanses us of our faults and makes our souls worthy to receive our Lord in the Eucharist.

We can't be in communion with God if there are things in our lives that aren't worthy of our baptismal calling as children of God. People know this in their hearts. I think that's why some people stop going to church -- they sense that their sins have made them unworthy of the sacrament. They're like the prodigal son who says to his father, "I've sinned against heaven and earth. I'm no longer worthy to be called your son."

Of course, our Father never stops loving us as his children. But it's still true that our sins can make us unworthy to be called to Our Lord's supper. I think people understand that -- that receiving the Eucharist under those conditions would be somehow false and wrong.

What I hope to help those in that situation see is how much our Father wants them to come back. Sometimes people stay away from confession because they're ashamed or they're afraid to tell the priest about their failings and weakness.

They've forgotten that confession isn't a conversation with a priest; it's a dialogue with God. The priest has been chosen, ordained to serve "in persona Christi," in the person of Christ -- to forgive sins in Christ's name. No one else but the priest has been given this power on earth.

That's why the sacrament of reconciliation is such an amazing gift of God's love. And it has been given to us because God wants every one of us to be worthy to be called his sons and daughters and to join together with him at the heavenly banquet of the Eucharist.

In my pastoral letter, I talk about the prodigal son. After wasting his life in sin, he was scared to go home. But when he got there, his father came running out to meet him, filled with compassion.

The son confessed his sins, the father forgave him, and then prepared a banquet of joy to celebrate his son's return. That's how it is with every confession. There is nothing to fear. In the confessional there is no anger, no condemnation. There is only peace and pardon. And confession leads us to Communion, to the joy of heaven.

Q: You say we are living in a "culture of revenge." In other words, society as a whole has lost a sense of forgiveness and a desire for mutual understanding. You add that the confessional is a "school of mercy." What can we learn from going to confession?

Archbishop Gómez: In my pastoral letter, I talk about the phenomenon of terrorism and some disturbing trends in American society. And yes, I think we can trace the root causes to our loss of the sense of mercy and forgiveness. We just don't seem to believe anymore that it does us any good to forgive those who do us wrong. And that refusal to forgive is tearing up our society.

The teachings of the Gospel are again very clear: We are to be merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful. We are to forgive those who trespass against us, as our Father forgives us our trespasses. The mercy and forgiveness we hope for from God is the mercy that we should show to our brothers and sisters.

We learn these things in the confessional. That's where the saints and martyrs learned how to forgive their persecutors. I think a lot about the Mexican martyrs from the 1920s. They suffered horrible things for their faith. Yet many of them went to their deaths pardoning their torturers. Blessed Luis Magna Servín promised his executioners they would be the first people he would pray for in heaven!

Where does a young man get that kind of strength and wisdom? From the grace that comes in the sacrament. And we can have that grace, too.

The truth is: There can be no peace in our hearts or in the world unless we learn again how to tell God we're sorry for our sins, and unless we learn again how to forgive those who trespass against us. Confession will teach us that.