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A Catholic approach to forgiveness Print
Guest column
Thursday, Mar. 23, 2017 -- 12:00 AM
Msgr. John Hebl

Editor's Note: During Lent, a series of articles on Forgiveness will be presented by Msgr. John Hebl, pastor emeritus and charter member of the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI), and Robert Enright, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, author, and founder of the IFI. This will help introduce the first ever International Conference on Forgiveness in July 2017 which IFI is sponsoring in the Holy City of Jerusalem. This is the fourth in the series of seven articles.

A number of years ago, an elderly priest in one of our neighboring dioceses began his Lenten homily by telling the people, “I hope I don’t die in the confessional.”

After pausing to get the parishioners’ attention, he added, “because they probably wouldn’t find my body for three days!”

What he meant, of course, is that many Catholics are not making use of the sacrament of God’s forgiveness commonly known as Confession. So the priest sits there all alone.

Jesus emphasized forgiveness

Think about it! Jesus spent three years of public ministry preaching, teaching, curing bodily ailments, and forgiving sin. Then, on the cross, He practiced what He preached by saying, “Father, forgive them . . . ”

Three days later, on rising from the grave, the very first gift Jesus gives to the infant Church is the forgiveness of sin, saying to the Apostles, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them . . . ”

FORGIVENESS, the last concern on the lips of Our Lord at death, were the first words on His lips at the Resurrection. This has got to be significant!

Sacrament of Penance

Last week in our Lenten series, we briefly discussed the human side of forgiveness. This week let’s reflect on the spiritual side — the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that Christ instituted the Sacrament of Penance for all the sinful members of the Church, that is, those who have fallen into grave sin. Isn’t it encouraging that God sees fit to give us a second chance?

This idea constantly surfaces both in the life and teaching of Our Lord. Jesus told almost 40 parables as recorded in the New Testament. The most popular were probably the Prodigal Son (Lk 11/15ff) and the Good Samaritan (Lk 10/25ff). The first, a story of forgiveness, and the second, a story of neighborly love.

In a sense, the two are interconnected. After Baptism, the early Fathers of the Church present the Sacrament of Penance as “the second plank (of salvation) after shipwreck which is the loss of grace” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par.1446).

In effect, there is no more profound way to show love than to forgive! Like the Good Samaritan who was willing to extend himself and reach out to a hurting traveler on the road, so the Prodigal Father was equally willing to reach out to a hurting child who had squandered his fortune and almost abandoned his birthright.

Do you get the picture? As a loving Father, God is not only willing to suffer for us but with us. He hugs us like a father and binds up our wounds like a neighbor.

Where else in this world do you get that kind of service? And you don’t have to travel to another continent to possess it.

We all know of people who are suffering — physically, emotionally, and mentally. You might be one of them, and sometimes we feel as though no one cares.

Healing balm

But God cares as well as people, your family and, above all, the Church. The Sacrament of Penance is the healing balm the Church places on our soul after we have been wounded by sin.

Not to make use of this sacrament to overcome the disease of sin is to abandon one of the most powerful spiritual medications that brings about holiness and healing in our life.

The scars of sin don’t go away by themselves. Perhaps you have even been devastated by a heartbreaking divorce, or maybe abused, rejected, or betrayed by someone you trusted, or even hurt by a loved one’s untimely death. Talk it out and get it out.

Go to Confession

This Lenten season, share your sorrows with God and his representative, the Catholic priest. Begin by examining your conscience, express contrition, confess your sins, and receive absolution from the priest who is sitting in the confessional box or reconciliation room.

If you check it out, you’ll find that most priests are not dying in the confessional. They’re really “living” there to help you receive God’s forgiveness and love.

So why carry the heavy baggage of sin through life? Lighten the load! This Lent, let go . . . and let God.


Msgr. John Hebl is a pastor emeritus in the Diocese of Madison.