There is a mortal sin in my past life that is painful to me to think about. I regret in on many levels, including that level at which I understand that I did something to hurt God, to separate myself from Him, that put my eternal soul in jeopardy. For years after, I would go to Reconciliation Services but not go to a priest for absolution. Instead, I would sit in the pew afterwards and cry, wishing I felt that I could go to the God of Mercy with my sorrows. I didn’t know about the sin of despair, but I suppose I was right in the thick of it.
Finally, years later, I forced myself to go to Confession for the first time in…well, forever. It was my first Confession at my new parish, and I finally unloaded the guilt I’d been feeling for years. My priest said to me, “First, thank God you are here. But your children need you; your family needs you…” and he proceeded to speak to me the most beautiful words in the world: the words of absolution. I cried tears of joy as I left the church that day, and felt lighter than I’d felt in longer than I could remember.
But I couldn’t stop feeling badly any time it crossed my mind. I continued to feel horrible guilt over it. I did not doubt that I was forgiven, but I just couldn’t forgive myself.
As the years went on in our new parish, I had disagreements with my pastor over certain heterodoxies that were happening in our parish. I started going to a different confessor, though we never changed parishes. The priest at the other parish was orthodox and had a simple and child-like love for God.
One day, a friend told me that there are graces to be had for mentioning sins from your past life during Confession, even if already confessed, to show your sorrow for them. So I brought this sin that burdened me to the Confessional again. I shed tears again over my guilt and regret, as if I hadn’t even confessed it before. “I know I’ve been forgiven, Father, but it burdens me…”
This priest, who was nothing like my own pastor – they weren’t even from the same country or background! – began to council me:
“First, thank God you are here. But your children need you; your family needs you…”
I caught my breath suddenly, because I knew that I wasn’t actually talking to the priest at that moment. There, in the Confessional, was Jesus. He was hearing my sins and my sorrow for them. He was there to offer His abundant mercies and forgiveness. And even though He knew I taught my own children this fact, He also knew that I hurt so badly over my wrongdoing that He needed to make it really clear that this was not just what we teach our kids. It’s real. It’s true.
Jesus was with me in Confession that day, just like always. The difference was, He gave me a great gift: a sign to remind me of it.
The rest of what was said is a little blurred, but I do remember this: this feeling of guilt that I cannot let go of is not from God. God has forgotten that sin and forgiven me completely. It’s Satan who reminds me and brings about guilty feelings for sins long forgiven.
Any time I meet someone who feels unsure about returning to Confession after a long time away, I encourage them to go back. If necessary, I tell this story to them. Many priests I know have told me that what’s said in the Confessional doesn’t stick in their heads. They simply don’t remember it. And I know why, too. It’s Jesus behind the screen.