In the season of Advent, we prepare our hearts and minds as we await the coming of the Messiah. It is a time when we renew our desire for His return in the second coming, and prepare to celebrate the memorial of His birth at Christmas.
During Advent, the Church invites us to pray, reflect and receive the sacraments to properly prepare our minds and hearts for the joyous celebration of Christmas. In the penitential aspect of this season of preparation, we are called to repent and convert so as to make room for Christ.
Advent Penance Services in most of the Diocese’s churches this Advent offer Catholics the perfect invitation to receive the Sacrament of Penance ahead of the Christmas celebration.
The communal services are liturgies that bring members of the Body of Christ together to acknowledge our sins and ask God for His forgiveness. They typically include Scripture readings and a homily to help penitents prepare for confession, as well as petitions for God’s mercy.
Penance services are communal in the sense that the faithful are gathering to acknowledge the effects of sin on the community and to celebrate the liturgy; but penitents don’t confess their sins collectively, nor do they receive a general absolution. Each person makes a private Confession with a priest in the confessional during the service. Catholics may attend a Penance Service at any church, regardless of which parish they attend.
“Penance services are communal because sin a communal act. When I sin, it doesn’t just affect me, it affects others,” explained Father Timothy Sahd, pastor of Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Middletown.
“The communal service expresses our regret for our sins and our desire to mend them as a group. The communal aspect is coming together, just like we do at every Mass when we acknowledge that we’ve sinned and ask God for His forgiveness and mercy,” he said. “When we sin, we sin against our brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ, and this is a way of communally mending it. It’s an expression of our guilt and an acknowledgement that when we sin, we affect others.”
“The best way to prepare our hearts and our souls for Him to come again and for the celebration of His arrival as the newborn Savior is through Confession,” Father Sahd said.
The Sacrament of Penance
The Sacrament of Confession was instituted by Jesus Christ when He gave the apostles and their successors the power to forgive sins. In the sacrament, sinners are reconciled with the Church as they receive God’s forgiveness and mercy for the sins they have committed.
In “A Guide to the Sacrament of Penance,” the Pennsylvania Conference of Catholic Bishops write: “We need the sacrament of Penance because each of us, from time to time, sins. When we recognize that we have offended God who is all deserving of our love, we sense the need to make things right. Like the prodigal son in the Gospel, we long to know again the loving embrace of a forgiving father who patiently waits for each of us. Jesus himself has established this sure and certain way for us to access God’s mercy and to know that our sins are forgiven. By virtue of his divine authority, Jesus gives this power of absolution to the apostolic ministry. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, ‘in imparting to his apostles his own power to forgive sins the Lord also gives them the authority to reconcile sinners with the church’ (1444).”
An Examination of Conscience is a helpful and proper way for penitents to reflect on The Ten Commandments and the sins they have committed before they enter the confessional. Many times, resources for an Examination of Conscience are available at Penance Services and in the confessional. Resources on “how to go to Confession” are also readily available in parishes and via online resources from the Diocese of Harrisburg and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
But what if you haven’t been to Confession in years, or you can’t remember the Act of Contrition? What if you’re unsure of how to go to Confession, or even apprehensive about confessing your sins?
Not to worry – the priest is there to guide and assist you through the order.
“If it has been 60 years since your last Confession and you don’t remember a thing about how to do it, there is nothing to worry about. The priest will help you through,” Father Sahd remarked.
“The only thing you need to do is bring any weighty sins that you want to be freed from; everything else will be supplied for you. Come in with your sins and your desire to be freed from them. That’s all you need,” he said.
“And please don’t worry if it’s been a long time since your last Confession; the priest is not bothered by that at all. Whenever it’s been awhile since someone has come in, we are so uplifted and moved by their decision; we’re not at all discouraged or put out by someone who is unsure of the prayers or the order of the sacrament,” Father Sahd added.
He acknowledged that it is difficult to confess sins. “It’s hard because you’re carrying a cross into the confessional, but you’re leaving with mercy and love and the Resurrection. You’re leaving the burden behind.”
Ordained in 2018, Father Sahd remarked that if it were not for the Sacrament of Penance, he would not be a priest today.
“I was once the person who thought I didn’t need to tell my sins to a priest because I was telling them to God. There was a time in my life when I hadn’t been to Confession in 18 years,” he acknowledged. “I didn’t see the need at the time because I didn’t believe that anyone else had a right to hear my sins; I had confessed them to God and told Him I was sorry for them.”
But all that changed, he said. “I never felt forgiveness. I told my sins to God but I never felt forgiven because I never heard Him say it. There was a priest at my parish who kept preaching about Confession and Penance, and I finally went. I walked out of that confessional feeling so freed.”
“This sacrament is the reason I am a priest today,” Father Sahd said. “If I hadn’t returned to the confessional, I wouldn’t be here today. If that priest hadn’t preached on the sacrament, I would not be a priest.”
In an address on the sacrament in March of 2021, Pope Francis remarked that going to Confession is an act of “abandoning oneself to love,” allowing the God of love to heal and transform one’s heart.
“It is the Love that was fully manifested in Jesus Christ and in his death on the cross for us,” he said.
The Holy Father also assured penitents that God forgets the sins that are brought forth in the confessional.
“God, when He forgives, loses His memory. He forgets our sins,” he said in an Angelus message in September of 2019.
In the sacrament of confession, God completely erases sins, making the penitent new inside and reborn in joy, Pope Francis said.
“Brothers and sisters, have courage. With God, no sin has the last word,” he said.
The Sacrament of Penance is a visible sign of the invisible reality that we are forgiven of our sins when we confess them.
“We need to know that our sins are forgiven. There is something in our human nature that calls out for the assurance that our sins are actually forgiven,” the Pennsylvania Bishops write in “A Guide to the Sacrament of Penance.” “Confession is the visible manifestation of God’s mercy that provides us, in human terms as well, the clear awareness that God has forgiven us.”
(Photos from Catholic News Agency.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness