The Sacrament of Conversion

I kind of hate confession.

I trick myself into walking into the church by telling myself I can decide not to go if the line is too long, and it’s ok to just stop and pray. When I finally stumble into the church, I use the momentum to get directly in line. As each person goes and the line gets shorter I fight the urge to run, my heartbeat quickens and I pray through an examination of conscience trying to not pay attention to the queasy feeling in my stomach. Why? Because, let’s be honest, it’s terrifying. The Sacrament of Reconciliation asks you to walk into a small room and accuse yourself before God and man. In no other space in your life will you have that kind of brutal encounter with your darkest self. I have to accuse myself of things that no one could ever know. No one can call me out on my thoughts but me and the One who knows me better than I know myself.

Sin in the Old Testament was pretty simple. The law was given to Moses, you’ve probably heard it before. You shall love the Lord your God, and Him alone shall you serve. You shall not have other gods before me. You shall remember the Sabbath and keep it holy… you get the idea? These things were mostly obvious externals. So the Jews carried on for years and years waiting for the coming Christ with a pretty legalistic view of right and wrong. And then Jesus came, and He says things like “if you look at a woman with lust, you have already committed adultery with her in your heart” “But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5). 

Jesus reveals the fullness of the Divine Plan, those who follow him are to be transformed by the law and not merely adhere to it. We are invited to become holy. In order to make this possible, “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (John 20:22-23). Holy. Crap. That priest in the confessional has the real power to forgive my sins, as Christ.

I kind of hate confession, but I could also never leave the Church because of it. When I look around the darkening Church, still lit up with flashes of color from the remnants of sun through the stained glass windows, I realize again that this is the seat of transformation. This building that so many are insulted by and run from is where humanity is healed. This is where the worst of the world can find a home and be transformed by mercy. In these doors walked the worst of humanity, and we walk out made radically new. So often the Church is seen as a white washed house full of the perfect, but it is a home for the weak and weary sinner, for the murderer, the adulterer, the thief, the damned - of which I am the foremost.

The Church is where the work of our redemption is carried out. When I was in high school someone told me that the devil isn’t out to make you mess up a bit, he wants to devour your soul. Sin isn’t about sort of screwing up sometimes, it’s a poison. Sin is slowly eating away the life of your soul. Sin brings with it death and destruction, if it is given free reign it will destroy families, relationships, cultures, and us. Sin destroys what is good and true and beautiful about you and leaves behind a sad creature with no ability to heal itself. Into this unfathomable depth of human suffering, enters the merciful God.

The human heart is heavy and hardened. God must give man a new heart.
— Catechism of the Catholic Church 1432

Conversion is first of all a work of the grace of God who makes our hearts return to him: "Restore us to thyself, O LORD, that we may be restored!" God gives us the strength to begin anew. It is in discovering the greatness of God's love that our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending God by sin and being separated from him. The human heart is converted by looking upon him whom our sins have pierced.

A Thieve’s Heart

In the confessional we all experience the prodigal Father. The moment that we turn around in true repentance, He runs to us and reinstates us as heirs of the Kingdom. One time I climbed a mountain to a little church, and in it was a confessional where a saint used to make his confession. The confessional was old and wooden and it smelled perfect. I leaned my head on its ancient boards and sang the song of Good Friday, “this is the wood of the cross, on which hung the savior of the world; come let us worship.” I sang those words without thinking at the time, but I haven’t stopped pondering that moment since. This indeed, the confessional, is the wood of the cross. It is where His mercy meets my sin, it is the altar on which I lay my thieves’ heart and offer it back to God.

I kind of hate confession, but sweet crispity crunch, I love reconciliation. I can never confess my sins without weeping, because I know what is coming next: He is going to forgive and heal me. The feeling of freedom walking out the door of the confessional is unmatched. I have never heard more beautiful words in my life than these,

“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

In these words something wonderful happens, what was broken is renewed. What was dead is raised to life again. Among its other names the Church refers to this sacrament as the sacrament of conversion. This is a turning point. I hear the words of absolution and I begin again to live out the command of Christ, “The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15) I leave behind my former way of life, I firmly resolve with the help of grace to sin no more, I turn my steps again towards the final homeland.  

It’s Lent, and we all start this season with ashes on our forehead and bold intentions in our hearts, but, if you’re anything like me, you might start to feel like you’re failing about now. My encouragement to you is this, embrace the Sacrament of penance this Lent. I know for a fact that a parish near you is holding a penance service at some point this Lent, so make the time to go. If you do nothing else this Lent other than begin again sacramentally, you will walk away from this Lent bathed in grace. If I can go, you can go.

For it is now, in this life, that we are offered the choice between life and death, and it is only by the road of conversion that we can enter the Kingdom, from which one is excluded by grave sin. In converting to Christ through penance and faith, the sinner passes from death to life and “does not come into judgment.”
— Catechism of the Catholic Church 1470

FIONA COUSINO

Fiona studied Catechetics and Theology, when asked she says that's the study of cats on the internet. If she's not busy Youth Ministering she's drinking coffee, dancing like a fool, or nerding out about art and culture.  Follow her on instagram @ crazyfiano.