Sacrament of reconciliation will lift your burdens and is no longer something to be dreaded; everyone welcome
By Bill Brewer
As the Catholic Church enters the season of Lent on Feb. 10, priests in the Diocese of Knoxville are encouraging parishioners to follow Pope Francis’ lead in this special Year of Mercy and actively participate in the sacrament of reconciliation.
Confession is integral to every Catholic’s faith life and is central to God’s mercy. So in this year of mercy, Bishop Richard F. Stika has advised diocesan priests to increase the availability of confession at each parish, and the parishes are responding.
Since the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy began on Dec. 8, and even before, Bishop Stika has made confession a priority, speaking about it in his homilies and calling on people in the diocese to join him in taking part in the holy sacrament. At a diocesan men’s conference in November, Bishop Stika arranged for portable confessionals to be set up in the historic Tennessee Theatre for priests to hear confessions of attendees. The lines were long.
Bishop Stika has asked Father John Dowling, pastor of Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville, to lead a committee that will assist the diocese in celebrating the special Year of Mercy.
Father Dowling, who has been a priest for more than three decades, considers hearing confessions to be one of the most important responsibilities he has.
“The pope and all bishops are asking us to concentrate on the devotion of Divine Mercy. Confession is one of the ways we can avail ourselves of that mercy,”
Father Dowling said. “This year seems to be special in calling on the graces of almighty God. We all are in need of forgiveness and mercy from almighty God, and there’s no need to put that off.”
Monsignor Al Humbrecht, pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Soddy-Daisy, is embracing a focus on the sacrament of reconciliation during the Year of Mercy, and pointed out what the bishop and all priests try to instill in Catholics – that confession is always important, especially with so much “unforgiveness in the world today.”
Monsignor Humbrecht joins his fellow priests, Bishop Stika and Pope Francis in asking Catholics who are shunning confession to come back to this sacrament.
“When we don’t acknowledge our own need for forgiveness and that we are forgiven, then we find it difficult to forgive others and to be agents of forgiveness,” he said.
Monsignor Humbrecht noted that with careful catechesis, hopefully more Catholics will participate in the sacrament of reconciliation.
“It’s not a catechesis of guilt and shame, but instead a catechesis of God’s mercy,” he said. “Catholics should not be ashamed of confession.”
He and many other priests acknowledge that treatment by some priests in the confessional has caused Catholics to stop taking part in the sacrament. But he’s confident that those situations are changing.
“We’re not there to be judge and police. We’re there to be instruments of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness,” he said.
He suggested that people considering returning to confession should think of the parable of the prodigal son, who had carefully planned his request to return to his father and family.
Instead, the father embraced his son immediately and welcomed him back unconditionally, Monsignor Humbrecht pointed out.
Father Dowling said he is seeing a response to increased availability for confession. More people are going.
And he said Lent is a wonderful time to go to confession.
“We’ve seen an increase in the number of people taking advantage of that. Holy Ghost has a tradition of people taking advantage of that sacrament,” he said. “It’s very heartening that people want to be in a state of grace when they receive Communion.”
Father Dowling pointed out that more people going to confession creates positive examples to others, especially children.
“It’s really crucial that parents go to confession for their children to see,” Father Dowling said, noting that Diocese of Knoxville schools are doing an “excellent” job in offering opportunities for confession.
“I wish that is what I did more than anything else, and I really wish more people would participate in the sacrament of reconciliation,” he said.
And it can be as beneficial for the confessor as it is to those confessing.
“It’s a great opportunity for priests to grow in their spirituality. It’s the one opportunity for priests to show people God’s love and mercy,” he said.
He cited examples of how the sacrament has evolved through Church history, noting that in the early Church Catholics only went to confession once in a lifetime.
Also, at one point murder, apostasy and adultery were the only sins that required the sacrament of reconciliation.
But the Church gradually began to make the sacrament available to more members on a more regular basis. And its application grew as the Church expanded.
Now it’s a part of every priest’s regular schedule.
“The priest is really excited about Catholics who take seriously the Gospel and that God’s commandments are not burdensome,” Father Dowling said.
“It’s a hope-filled sacrament, and it’s a grace to help you avoid sin in the future.”
Monsignor Humbrecht said he has noticed a physical difference in some people who have come to him in confession after carrying a burden for some time. For others, confession is a regular part of their lives to help them keep life in check.
“I have seen people after receiving the sacrament literally stand straighter because a burden has been lifted from them,” Monsignor Humbrecht said.
“For a priest, it is incredibly fulfilling to offer the sacrament of reconciliation and experience the gentle healing of God.” ■