Conscience is the basis
Anna Artymiak: – Which elements indicate that the sacrament of reconciliation was instituted by Jesus Christ himself?
Fr Szymon Stulkowski: – We acknowledge that all sacraments were instituted by Jesus Christ. As far as confession is concerned we have a beautiful biblical passage showing Jesus who came to the upper room after his resurrection. He breathed his Spirit on the apostles and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained’ (John 20:22-23). We can find the roots of the sacrament of penance in this biblical text. It clearly shows that the resurrected Jesus gives his disciples the power to pass the fruit from the Tree of Redemption. On behalf of God himself they are to forgive sins or when someone cannot receive forgiveness, they can refuse to grant it. The refusal of an absolution is to state that the condition of the penitent’s heart cannot accept the gift of reconciliation, i.e. he is not ready to get converted and does not will to stop sinning. If someone wants to abide in some mortal sin you should tell him, ‘Pray, reflect on your situation and come back when you decide to change your life.’
– How can we distinguish between mortal and venial sins?
– A well-formed conscience plays a fundamental role here. If we prepare ourselves to the sacrament (catechesis) we will be able to distinguish in our conscience what a venial sin is and what a mortal sin is. We deal with mortal sins when there are awareness and freedom of choice and serious matter of sin. A mortal sin, which is commonly committed, is the lack of Sunday Mass attendance. If we have doubts we can always ask the confessor. We have also many publications about examination of conscience for adults and young people. They are worth using when we prepare ourselves to confession.
– To open ourselves before a confessor is a big stress. We fear that he will remember our sins and will treat us in a different way. Are these fears justified?
– No sin is a private matter of people. The Bible and the teaching of the Church speak about it clearly. When I commit some sin I weaken the community of the Church. The history says that there were certain periods when people had public penance and had to confess their sins in public. Today nobody expects this of us although in some way we are to confess our sins in public in confessionals. I realise that it is not easy since no one is glad to speak about failures. But reconciliation with God must have some cost. My sin was washed away by the Sacrifice of Jesus’ Passion. It is worth noticing that a priest in the confessional does not only experience human sinfulness but also the beauty of souls and hearts of many penitents, many testimonies of God’s graces. Therefore, you should not fear the difficulty of confession. It is meant to be some hardship. A priest is also a sinner and he confesses his sins as well. I encourage those who want to treat their confessions seriously to look for constant confessors to be cleansed from their sins and to work on their spiritual growth. We often want to have a constant car mechanic, hairdresser or dentist as if our spiritual life was less important than our teeth or car.
– The secrecy of confession is an important duty...
– As a priest I am obliged to keep the secrecy of confession. The civil law respects it, too. It happens that priests refer to various examples they heard in confessionals but they do not suggest any particular people. I think that such a subtle reference to various experiences is needed so that people can understand this sacrament better. It is important that we are aware of the fact that confession is between God and me and the priest that represents God. It happens that people themselves speak about their sins in public, for example in television programmes, i.e. talk shows. This is a phenomenon of our times. People expose themselves before TV viewers. They can do that for money and it can be some form of spiritual exhibitionism. The role of lay ‘confessors’ is played by cosmeticians, hairdressers, taxi drivers with whom we often talk about our hardships. People desire to speak about their pain but only Christ in the sacrament of penance can heal the hearts, which are wounded by sins.
– What is the difference between confession and a meeting with a psychologist? Can we compare these two things at all?
– Naturally, these are two different levels in which we often cope with the same problems. Sometimes the roots of sin are stuck so deeply that getting rid of them needs the support of a psychologist or psychiatrist. The important thing is that psychologists contact priests, confessors and that they know where the limit of their activities is. Environments of Christian psychologists are very much needed today. If we ignore people’s problems in confessionals they can go only to psychologists. A priest does not need to have any psychological education but must try to understand the situation of people who come to confess their sins. Confessors must be good shepherds, try to seek the lost sheep, carry them on their shoulders knowing that they can be dirty. One should try to care for people’s fates and try to understand them.
– We are living in a more and more busy world. We have less and less time for ourselves. Will the Church decide to hear confession through telephone or the Internet?
– Indeed, we are living in a busy world. Each of us experiences that. But if God is important to me I will find time for prayer, Sunday Mass even if I must work on that day. The Church is not going to allow confessions through telephone or the Internet. These means of communication, especially the Internet, pose the risk of anonymity, which leads to the fact that people ‘act’, that they are not authentic. Suffice to read some forums in the Internet. To which extent is it authentic and to which extent is it a stupid game? The sacrament of reconciliation is a meeting between a concrete man and God who comes through a priest. It is us that decide whether we will get entangled in the business of life or not.
If the sacrament of Reconciliation is received by the repentant sinner under the proper conditions, it not only gives him God's forgiveness, but also, through the Father's merciful love, special graces that help him to overcome temptations, to avoid repeating the sins he has repented of and, to some extent, to have a personal experience of that forgiveness.
Papal message to William Wakefield Baum, 1 April 2000.
A Christian believing in the effectiveness of sacramental forgiveness also receives the sacrament when it is not necessary, appropriately frequently, and finds in it the way to make his conscience more sensitive as well as to cleanse his inner self more deeply, to find the source of peace, support to resist temptations and to desire life that will fulfil the requirements of the Lord’s law and love.
John Paul II’s general audience, 15 April 1992.
Fr Szymon Stulkowski
born in 1961, doctor of pastoral theology, adjunct at the Faculty of Theology of the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, the secretary of the Pastoral Commission of the Polish Bishops’ Conference. Since 2000 he has been the Vice-president of the Family Pastoral Ministry Department in the Poznan Curia, and since 2001 he has been a member of the Liturgical Commission of the Archdiocese of Poznan. He also belongs to the Archdiocesan Catechetical Council in Poznan.