JOHNSON: New life for the Sacrament of Reconciliation - Let students, young people show the way forward

April 12, 2022

(Fred de Noyelle/Godong)

My God-son was excited as he wore the new T-shirt his father had given him. The message on it read, “Got mercy?”

“Cool T-shirt!” I exclaimed to him. “Do you know how to get mercy?”

With a confident smile, he replied, “Oh yes, father, we receive mercy from Jesus in the Sacraments, and now I can receive His mercy in the Eucharist and Reconciliation!”

His enthusiastic faith was like a balm to my spirit since the Sacrament of Reconciliation has experienced a drop-off in recent decades, and even some Catholics would readily admit their lack of practice and understanding of it.

Instead of echoing the laments we might often hear concerning confession, let us ask ourselves some questions: Where are we spiritually when it comes to mercy? Do we know who desires to give us such a blessing? Are we aware of how the Sacraments bridge heaven and earth and that one of them is dedicated to making it possible for us to receive God’s grace of forgiveness whenever the need arises?

Some might say that without a sense of personal sin, an individual will not be inclined to go to confession or even recognize the need for it. Yes, our own sins are part of the equation, but there is much more at work.

Let’s start with the formal designation of the Sacrament: Reconciliation. More than a title, we are talking about the state and quality of a relationship, to be reconciled with God and the people around us. It’s about being in a state of forgiveness: to be forgiven and to forgive. Reconciliation is the fruit of God’s love; it is always his initiative and always a primary concern for him, especially in relation to us and all humanity.

Mercy, forgiveness and being reconciled are how God makes His love visible, and Christ is the expression and the visibility. Pope Francis reiterated such a foundational truth in his message, Misericordia et misera, at the conclusion of the Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2016: “Forgiveness is the most visible sign of the Father’s love, which Jesus sought to reveal by His entire life.”

We are talking about a major concern that continually gets God’s attention and one that brought about the Incarnation and kept on going all the way to the Cross and Resurrection: our salvation in Christ. The Sacrament of Reconciliation places that same concern in the heart of our Church as another simple “bridge” so that humanity and divinity might never be far apart.

Thanks be to God, the Catholic campus ministry on the main campus of the University of Houston gives the Church signs of hope. Many students not only recognize their own need for forgiveness, but in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, they recognize an accessible and grace-filled way to experience the Lord’s mercy. In short, they get it.

Before we answer “yes” to the question of knowing how to get mercy, we must wholeheartedly agree on our personal need for such a gracious and divine gift, including our need to forgive and be forgiven.
The salvation of our souls is not only a matter of our eternal destiny but also about our willingness to truly love as Christ teaches us and our openness to his mercy. Again, it’s all about relationship: the one that God longs for with us in Christ.

God has no doubts, especially when it comes to the purpose and power of his love and goodness. Instead of being obstacles to Him, our sins become the means and opportunity for Him to continually reveal His tender mercy. Again, Pope Francis provides a simple and helpful reminder: “God makes us understand His great love for us precisely when we recognize that we are sinners.”

God “gets” us and all humanity. Christ — from His humble human beginnings to His passion, death and resurrection — is God’s way of making sure all aspects of humanity are included, even our faults and need for mercy.

The question is, “do we get Him?” May our answer to this question lead us more deeply into Holy Week and the joy of Easter. May our response resound with confidence and help us appreciate the simple Sacrament which has always been there and Christ, “the face of the Father’s mercy,” who is always with us. 

Father Charles Johnson, O.P., serves as chaplain and director at the Catholic Newman Center at the University of Houston.