Pastoral Letter on the Renewal
of the Sacrament of Reconciliation

First Sunday of Lent
March 2001

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

At a recent meeting of the Priests we discussed the practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Confession in the Parishes. Some Pastors reported that many Catholics took advantage of the forgiveness and spiritual growth provided by Confession. Other Pastors said that some Catholics apparently have the impression that you don't have to go to Confession any more.

After our Priests' meeting, it seemed important for me as the Chief Shepherd of our beloved Archdiocese to prepare a Pastoral Letter on Reconciliation or Confession, teaching clearly that this is the way Catholics have their sins forgiven.

Protestant friends sometimes say to Catholics, "Why tell your sins to a Priest when you can go directly to God?" Our reply? "This Sacrament which no other Church has, is one of the Catholics' greatest blessings because it provides us with absolution of sin." The wonderful Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation or Confession assures the repentant person of God's forgiveness by one of God's special representatives, the Priest.

I am reminded of the little boy who was afraid of thunder and lightning. One night as he was sleeping a violent storm blistered the skies. He awoke terrified and ran into his parents bedroom crying. His mother tried to calm him. "Jimmy, I told you God loves you and is with you. Don't ever be afraid. You are never alone." Jimmy replied, "I know Mommy that God loves me and listens to my prayers. But sometimes I need someone with skin!"

We all need "someone with skin". When we have sinned we need to open our hearts to another person - - - "someone with skin". For Catholics that "someone with skin" is the Priest, ordained by the Church to represent Jesus and the Church herself. "Someone with skin" from whom we can ask God's forgiveness and hear that it is granted.

Where in the Bible does Jesus give Priests the power to forgive sins? In John, Chapter 20, Verses 21-23, Jesus says to his apostles, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you...receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained." Jesus clearly expected the successors of the disciples to continue his work - - - to preach - - - to pray - - - and to forgive our sins when we are truly sorry for them.

The New Testament tells early Christians, "Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, and this will cure you." (James 5:16). This advice is as important today as it was then.

Catholics do not confess their sins to a Priest instead of God. We confess to a Priest representing God. The prayer of absolution which the Priest prays while administering the Sacrament says, "I absolve you from your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." It is in God's name that the Priest forgives, not his own.

When Catholics receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation we have the opportunity, not only to be forgiven, but also to receive advice from the Priest in living a better Christian life. It is a source of conversion and spiritual growth for us.

How often should one receive the Sacrament? The new Catechism of the Church says at least once a year. But this is the bare minimum. We are required to receive the Sacrament when we are aware of serious or mortal sin, before we can receive Holy Communion. The Sacrament prepares us to receive the Lord Jesus worthily. Some examples of mortal sin would be missing Sunday Mass through our own fault, abortion, adultery and other sexual sins, drug and alcohol abuse, serious stealing, or failings against charity or justice. We are required to confess all serious sins that we are aware of because by their nature they separate us from God. We must be honest with God or our sins are not forgiven. How tragic it would be to fail to seek the forgiveness of Confession and die in serious sin!

My heart goes out to those who are unable to receive the Sacraments because they are in a marriage not recognized by the Church. Those in this situation are urged to speak with their Pastor or Deacon about the possibility of validating their marriage through our Marriage Tribunal. Our Tribunal returns hundreds of couples to the sacramental life of the Church each year.

Many priests hear confessions, not only on Saturday afternoons, but also at communal penance services during Lent and Advent when several Priests assist the Pastor since many people come for the Sacrament. A communal celebration of the Sacrament provides a rich opportunity to experience the social nature of sin and forgiveness.

Several years ago there was some experimentation with general absolution, where absolution was given to people without first personally confessing their sins to a Priest. No doubt this was done in good faith, however the Church has made it clear that this is only to be done in emergency circumstances such as war or natural catastrophes.

Some Catholics say they don't go to confession because they have no serious sins to confess. But the Sacrament is for venial or lesser sins as well and we are all guilty of those. Confession is a way to be humble before God and to conquer our pride.

Some of you may have had a bad experience going to confession and don't want to go anymore. Don't let that hold you back! Our Priests have grown in pastoral sensitivity and kindness and want to help you be reconciled with the Lord. The Priests know that they too are sinners.

Many people weighed down with the guilt of past sin, find great relief in telling the Priest about these failings in Confession. It is psychologically healthy to do so. They know that the Priest may never tell anyone what they said in Confession. The confidentiality of the Sacrament is so important that the Priest could never reveal someone's sins even to save his own life.

The Church insists that people must have a choice in going to Confession, either anonymously behind the screen or face to face with the Priest. These options must be available in all Churches.

It is clear that being a faithful Catholic includes receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Some of you may not have gone for five, ten, or more years. Let this Lent be a time to return to the Sacrament! If you are uncertain about how to go to Confession, just ask the priest to help you. You will come out of the Reconciliation room with a lightness and tranquility you can't imagine. Yes, all of us can tell God we are sorry in our heart. But only the Catholic who has the good sense to confess regularly has the light hearted joy of hearing "someone with skin" say those comforting words, "Your sins are forgiven, go in peace!"

Sincerely yours in the Risen Lord,
Most Rev. Michael J. Sheehan
Archbishop of Santa Fe