The Healing Grace of Sacramental Confession

An engineer with a serious knee condition once went to confession to Padre Pio merely out of curiosity, but not out of any religious desire to receive the sacrament. He was an intellectual, he told Padre Pio. He believed in God, but the idea of going to confession was rather too simplistic for him. He only wanted to meet the famous priest he had heard so much about.

Padre Pio looked at the man silently for some time, and then scolded, “Suppose you stop all this chatter and begin by telling me that it is now twenty years since your last confession and that, since the day when you were married, you have never again received the Blessed Sacrament.”

Padre Pio had never met this man before, but he had received a prophetic word of knowledge about the state of his soul. The man was so taken by surprise, Clarice Bruno writes in her book Roads to Padre Pio, that he made a good confession. Later, walking home, he realized that he no longer needed to walk with a cane. His knee had been healed. Later, he became one of Padre Pio’s most faithful spiritual sons.

Echoing the Gospel story of the paralytic whose friends lowered him to Jesus through the roof, the engineer’s physical healing was an outward sign of the deeper reality that, in Jesus’ words, “the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Luke 5:24).

An Indefinable Sense of Well-Being

St. Pio was known for having the gift of reading souls — a mystical knowledge of a person’s heart and conscience that the Holy Spirit grants for the benefit of the person’s soul. Many other saints, such as St. John Vianney and St. John Bosco, had the same gift.

An unbeliever once came with friends to see St. John Vianney. The man had no intention of going to confession, Leon Cristiani writes in the book Saint John Vianney: The Village Priest Who Fought God’s Battles. But on seeing the man, the saintly priest beckoned him to come speak with him in private.

“It’s been a long time since you’ve been to confession,” Fr. Vianney said, shaking his hand.

“My good Father,” the man said, “it’s something like thirty years, I think.”

“Thirty years, my friend?” the saint replied. “Think again. Thirty-three years ago, you were in such a place!” The man admitted that this was true. “Then,” the priest said, “we are ready for confession now, aren’t we?”

Overcome with repentance, the man humbly made his confession. Afterward, he immediately experienced what he called an “indefinable sense of well-being.”

The Battle for Souls

More than two centuries later, his words ring true in my own life. Every time I leave the confessional, I feel that same “indefinable sense of well-being.”  The lightness I feel after receiving the sacrament of reconciliation makes me feel like I’m walking on air.

On the other hand, before I go to confession, it often feels like the opposite of walking on air. The weight of a ton of bricks presses on my shoulders. Everything in my life feels too hard, too much, too heavy. I know I should go to confession, but I don’t feel like going. I don’t have the strength, the energy, the stamina I need in order to get there.

In the world of spiritual warfare, this is oppression—and when I recognize it, I know I must fight it. The enemy prowls about the world seeking the ruin of souls, as the St. Michael prayer says, and he certainly does not want me going to confession. If I remember to invoke St. Michael’s intercession, the archangel will give me the heavenly protection I need in order to make it to confession.

It makes sense, of course, that the enemy would want to keep souls away from the confessional. After all, as Patti Maguire Armstrong wrote in an excellent article about things she learned from exorcists, “Confession is more powerful than exorcism. One confession is worth 100 exorcisms. …If people want to decrease the work of Satan, they should increase the use of confession.”

The battle in which I find myself before going to confession is a battle for my soul. No wonder so many people stay away from confession for so long: They are in the grip of a powerful force pulling them in the opposite direction!

But the power of the sacrament is stronger and will never be vanquished. “The light shines in the darkness,” St. John the Evangelist tells us, “and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

When Souls Need Extra Help

The Lord sends holy priests, such as St. Pio and St. John Vianney, to bring people back to the sacrament. If the Holy Spirit grants them words of knowledge, it is for the good of the souls to whom they minister.

Yet it is not only in the biographies of saints that such stories abound.

Years ago, when my husband was in high school, he visited Medjugorje on pilgrimage. As a teenager, he had been in the habit of making bad confessions. However, a powerful conversion experience in Medjugorje had convicted him, and he wanted to make a good confession. He was nervous about it, though, so, having the advantage of being in a foreign country, he decided to go to a priest who spoke a different language and wouldn’t understand the sins he confessed. (My husband tells this story with much humor, and he is glad to have me share it here, in praise of God’s mercy.)

He was caught off guard, however, when the foreign priest spoke English after all. Flustered, he reverted back to his former pattern of omitting sins.

“Is that all?” the priest asked.

“Yes,” the teenage version of my husband answered.

The priest was silent, put his head down, and then looked up again.

“Well,” the priest said slowly, “what about this…? And this…?” He proceeded to name the exact sins my husband had omitted.

The priest was just as surprised as my husband was; he said this was not something that usually happened to him. But the Holy Spirit was in control; He knew exactly what my husband had intended and needed to say, and provided the way for him to make a good confession.

Frequent and Sincere Confession

The gift of reading souls is fascinating, but it is the sacrament itself that unites us with the God who made us. Whether or not a priest has a mystical knowledge of souls, the actual grace of the sacrament is the real prize.

Though these stories intrigue me, I have never had such a thing happen to me, and I think most people would say the same. The standard confession does not involve the reading of souls. Yet the power of the sacrament is in no way lessened by its ordinariness. I feel its supernatural strength just the same. When the priest says the prayer of absolution—“God, the Father of mercies…”—I close my eyes and rest in its beauty; the words wash over me, and I feel the Living Water restoring my weary, tired, thirsty soul.

How generously Our Lord lavishes us with graces in the sacrament of reconciliation! He calls us back to Himself, gives us a fresh slate, and washes us clean. He dispels the spirits that attack us, the temptations that assail us. He gives us “an indefinable sense of well-being.”

St. John Bosco once had a vision in which he was able to see the state of the souls of the boys whom he taught. As told in Peter Lappin’s book Stories of Don Bosco, the saint summed up the vision’s most important message—and the antidote to the many sins that threatened his boys—in these words:

“The motto I give you is this: Frequent and sincere confession; frequent and devout Communion.

What holds us back?

May God grant us the grace to partake frequently and sincerely of the sacrament of reconciliation, where the Divine Physician waits to heal the brokenness of every precious soul who comes to meet Him there.

image: By P.poschadel (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Maura Roan McKeegan

By

Maura Roan McKeegan is the author of a series of children's picture books about biblical typology, including: The End of the Fiery Sword: Adam & Eve and Jesus & Mary; Into the Sea, Out of the Tomb: Jonah and Jesus, and, most recently, Building the Way to Heaven: The Tower of Babel and Pentecost (Emmaus Road Publishing; available spring 2018). Her articles have appeared in publications such as Catholic Digest, The Civilized Reader, Franciscan Way, Guideposts, and Lay Witness.

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  • Suzie Andres

    Maura,
    Thank you for this fun, informative, and encouraging post!
    Father Broom in his “10 Simple Ways to Prepare for Christmas this Week” also suggests going to Confession. May the angels help us to get there, be simple, and receive God’s great love and mercy.

    I remember a lovely quote from St. Jacinta Marto of Fatima saying that none of us needs to be afraid of confession – we should approach with joy and confidence, since we are approaching Jesus! That is one way to beat the devil’s oppression – just run into Jesus’ arms!
    Thanks again for your encouragement!

  • DAVID

    Wow, right on. Reading this helped me to put things in proper perspective. I’ll be at Confession this afternoon.

  • Europa95

    Thanks for the good article, Mrs. McKeegan.

    I’ve struggled a lot with confession and forgiving people who’ve sinned against me, and although God did not send me a priest who could read souls, he reached out to me through my favorite rock star, Bono, the lead singer for U2. I saw a YouTube video of an interview with him and he had some of the most powerful testimony I’ve ever heard about forgiveness and confession.

    On forgiveness: Bono had a rocky relationship with his father, who had never developed his singing talents the way Bono had and he’d grown bitter and hard to live with. Bono was with his dad when he died and they’d somewhat made up, but he still had anger and tension inside him, until one day in a small church, he mentally told his dad that if he could hear him, he wanted to say “I forgive you,” and in that instant, he had such a sensation of peace and release and relief, that he started crying from sadness, joy, and relief, and his voice changed from “a baritone who thinks he’s a tenor” as his dad had once put it,
    to a true Irish tenor.

    On confession: U2’s manager Paul McGuinness has a brother who’s a priest who works in the United States. Bono once asked Fr. McGuinness what the best part of being a priest was, and he said it was hearing confessions. He’d seen people come in limping like the engineer who visited St. Padre Pio and left walking or skipping, and of course he’d seen people who entered weighed down with regret and left with their heads held high and glowing smiles.

    God loves us so much that he gave us even “simplistic” ways to seek forgiveness and forgive others and that he can and will use all of us: priests, engineers, college students, parents, exorcists, unbelievers, rock stars, and millennials to help each other reunite with him in heaven.

  • Bernardo Cynthia

    A superb article about confession. I love going to confession and I try to do it once every 4-8 weeks to purify the soul. After reading this article, I am inspired to do it more often. Thanks

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