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On confession and stubborn sin

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Pope Francis hears the confession of a priest at the Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome in 2019. The Sacrament of Reconciliation was a key help to Mike as he struggled with his same-sex attraction in his journey to faith in Jesus and the Church. Photo:. Vatican Media

Like many Catholics, I often find myself asking why I commit the same sins over and over again. This Lent, I wanted to see if I could change.

But how hard is it to truly change a bad habit, root out a vice, or even reform a life? And am I the only Sydney Catholic making repeat trips to the confessional?

A quick survey of the tradition put me at ease—the saints and popes know just how hard it is to change, and encourage us to persist in seeking God’s aid.

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In a 2010 letter to seminarians, Pope Benedict XVI quotes St John Vianney, the “Curé of Ars” and patron saint of priests:

“The Curé of Ars once said: ‘You think it makes no sense to be absolved today, because you know that tomorrow you will commit the same sins over again. Yet,’ he continues, ’God instantly forgets tomorrow’s sins in order to give you his grace today.’

“Even when we have to struggle continually with the same failings, it is important to resist the coarsening of our souls and the indifference which would simply accept that this is the way we are.”

Sydney’s priests give the same advice, with many young Catholics asking them for the remedy to break habitual sins.

Our Lady of Lebanon’s Fr Charbel Dib said the desire to do better starts well before arriving at the confessional. We have to have a firm desire to change.

“Take Einstein’s definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” he said.

“Bringing the vices in your life of faith to reconciliation is good, but if after you walk out, you’re going to continue the same behaviour as before entering the confessional, you’re going to have the same result.

“It’s absolutely ‘insane’ to think something is going to change—confession isn’t a magic trick.”

Assistant priest of St Joseph’s Moorebank and St Christopher’s Holsworthy Fr Chris de Sousa CRS agrees that a firm resolve to change starts before approaching the sacrament.

“Concrete steps of conversion are indispensable, because true penance requires an amendment of life,” Fr Chris said.

“That’s the best way to get the most out of confession—collaborating with the sacramental graces received as well as making genuine changes towards holiness.”

Fr Charbel said there are two detrimental approaches to the sacrament that affect a person’s ability to conquer their sin—scrupulosity and absence from confession.

“Scrupulosity keeps us like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, who scrutinises and compares everything to himself,” he said.

“It unhealthily places emphasis on our own brokenness and weaknesses, and we reject the mercy God wants to share, rather than focusing on how great his forgiveness is.

“Just like scrupulosity, avoiding the confessional out of fear or embarrassment places more focus on the self, which deprives us of the greatness of our Lord’s forgiveness.

“When we’re having visitors in our home, we rush to clean and prepare so everything is in order and presentable when we welcome that guest.

“How much more do we want to prepare our hearts and souls to welcome the king of kings into them?

“Making sure you examine your conscience well is a very good starting point but recognise that is only the first step.”

Fr Charbel said once in the confessional, clarity is important.

Penitent Elizabeth Santamaria demonstrates how she offers her confession at St Francis of Assisi in East Palo Alto, California. Photo: CNS, Chaz Muth

“If you remember the details, its necessary to share them. If you don’t have a clear recollection of how many times you’ve committed a sin, don’t overly stress, but speak truthfully on what is in your heart.

“St Paul says those who participate in the body and blood of our Lord in an unworthy state will be held accountable for the body and blood, so make sure to prepare ourselves in this way to welcome him properly.”

A good habit of confession starts early, according to Year 5 teacher at St Peter Chanel Catholic Primary School in Berala, Sr Joanna Marie OP.

By learning that God delights in forgiving sin from a young age, children can develop a lifelong positive attitude toward the confessional.

“Young people instinctively know that sin makes them unhappy,” Sr Joanna said.

“They carry it as a burden on their conscience, but confession gives them the words they yearn to hear: ‘Your sins are forgiven, go in peace.’”

In 21 years of teaching, Sr Joanna has repeatedly seen young students respond to the mercy of God revealed in confession.

“Regular confession gives them regular encounters with God’s love for them and helps them grow in confidence when coming to him, knowing they will never be rejected by him,” she said.

“It gives them opportunities to regularly reflect on their behaviour and notice their growth in spiritual maturity.

“It shows that the church is not holy because of us, but that it is holy in spite of us.”

Fr Chris said practical efforts after confession are then required.

“Show the Lord the fruits of your repentance in concrete ways in order to make the most of your time outside the confessional,” he said.

“After being absolved, you are most docile to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit to reform yourself.”

He recommends the seven fruits of “godly repentance” from 2 Corinthians 7:11 as a pragmatic approach to change: earnestness, eagerness, indignation, alarm, longing, zeal, and avenging.

We should earnestly desire to put off old habits and replace them with new ones pertaining to God, and be eager to demonstrate a changed heart and attitude that looks to correct wrongs and avoid near occasions of sin.

We should also accept our sins as entirely our own, and be indignant over their consequences, Fr Chris advises.

There also needs to be a healthy fear of sins and their consequences for our relationship with God and others, a longing to restore and reconcile those relationships, and a concern for thinking and living in a way that reflects the good of God’s glory.

Though sin is a part of the human existential condition, Fr Charbel reminds us not to usurp God’s place as judge, deciding who deserves to be forgiven.

“We make these statements as humans that we can never conquer our sins, but who are we?” he asks.

“Let God be the one who decides whether he wants to forgive us or not—and he has. He has given us his mercy.

“The confessional is the place of victory and most especially during Lent, we’re called to repent and strive to life a better life.”

So while I may very well find myself with the same struggle next Lent, this year I know I have given everything in the pursuit of change, which is all the Lord asks of us.

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