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Sacrament of penance and reconciliation provides the way back to life of grace

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I want to repeat and amplify an invitation you have already been receiving in your parishes during Lent. Make time these days to come to church to celebrate the sacrament of penance and reconciliation.

This powerful sacramental encounter with Christ is explained in detail in the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" (#1420-1498) under the heading "The Sacraments of Healing." Even though we have received new life in the risen Christ through the sacraments of initiation, this life can be weakened and even lost by sin. The suffering that results in us and in others because of the effects of sin can be healed by Christ Himself.

Christian initiation brings us into the household of faith. We are no longer slaves, but daughters and sons of God. We share already in the life of the Trinity, sanctifying grace. The richness of external life in the risen Christ is our inheritance.

Sadly, like the prodigal son in the Gospel, we are able to deny the sovereignty of God and squander our inheritance by sinful, self-indulgent choices. Not only are we free to sin, you and I have sinned. Like the prodigal son, we now have another choice: to wither and die in our sins, or to return to life in our Father's house.

Think back to Ash Wednesday, when we made a collective admission that we are bound to sink into the dust, to die forever, without the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. We began the Lenten journey away from sin toward reconciliation and healing.

The elect (the catechumens) among us will celebrate forgiveness and life in Christ in the sacraments of initiation at Easter. We who are already baptized are not meant to be spectators, observing the initiation of new members. We want to return to full life in Christ, just as the prodigal son made his way home. The way back to the life of grace is through the sacrament of penance and reconciliation.

The effect of sin is isolation, weakening or breaking the communion with God and others established at baptism. It is the work of the devil to keep us isolated. Having given in to sin, we have bought the devil's lie that we need not accept God's sovereignty over every aspect of our lives.

The devil then returns with a further, two-sided lie. We are first tempted to think our sin does not matter, that it has made no difference in our relationship with God, with others or with self. If in fact we do recognize the evil of sinful choice, then we often are tempted, with a false sense of shame, to think that we cannot be forgiven. We can waste a great deal of time and spiritual energy alternating between arrogance and shame about sin, all the while avoiding the path out of isolation into communion.

Our loving Father has sent his only son to save us from the grip of arrogance and fear. Jesus not only calls us back to life in our Father's house, He is Himself the way back. By the power of his cross and resurrection, Jesus has established the communion in which we have eternal life with our sins forgiven. He alone can heal that communion when it has been weakened or broken by sin. He has established the means for that healing to take place in the sacrament of penance and reconciliation.

It is true we can pray to God in private and ask for forgiveness. In fact we should do so every day. These prayers lead us then to confess our sins and to receive absolution in the sacrament of penance. God has chosen to offer us forgiveness and healing, not through a prayerful wish or a private revelation, but through a person, Jesus Christ. He lives in His body, the Church.

We need to show up in person to meet Christ in the person of the priest, who is a sacramental manifestation of the risen Christ Himself. We then step away from the double temptation of the devil and the isolation it threatens. By confessing our sins in detail, we acknowledge the reality of sin and the hurt it has caused, including its offense against God. By accepting absolution we express faith in God's power to forgive us in Christ.

If you have been away from this sacrament for a while, even many years, don't worry. Come to the priest and tell him up front that your last confession was a long time ago. You are just the person that God put the priest there to meet at that moment. It will be his privilege to help you. It will be his great privilege to offer you forgiveness and healing in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The Blessed Virgin Mary did not need to confess sins. But she does know the joy of the communion of saints. She remains active in the Church, leading sinners to Jesus. Ask her help to come to her son without fear and without delay. I think you will find she will make it easier for you.

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