Why Will You Die, O Christian ?

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Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from  your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?’ (Ezek. 33:11)

The only way to escape from  eternal death is to turn back from our evil ways and    follow what God  revealed   through  Jesus.  This  is elementary catechism and as Christians we know it.  The first step in our journey  through the  path of justice is to   turn back from sin and  receive the  grace in a good confession.  The  essential steps  for a  good  confession are :

1.The Examination of conscience so as to recollect  all the sins, especially mortal ones

2. Sincere repentance

3. The Decision  not to sin again

4. Confessing the sins to the priest and 

5. Doing the penance prescribed  by  the priest

Every confession is an opportunity to  experience the boundless mercy of God.  Every confessional is the  place where  God waits for   the return of the prodigal son.  It is relevant here to think why the father did not   go  to the pigsty to  rescue  his son from there? Do you think that it was beyond his means to   go in search of the lost son and  bring him back?  If we expect the father to  go after the  son,  we are  focusing on God’s mercy only. When we preach about  God’s love and mercy, we should never forget the  truth that  justice is  also an  equally important attribute of God’s character. 

If the prodigal son was  rescued  without  any effort on his part, he will never understand how great a  blessing he received.  Only when  he  realized  the depths to which he fell, he  started thinking about the father. As long as his physical needs were   fulfilled, he did not care to  think about his  father. A decision to  return to the father is the   first step to a good confession. A person going for  confession should  do so  with a sincere  desire to   return to the house of his Lord and his God that he once  left.

This  homecoming should not be to  continue with the same old lifestyle. The  possibilities of  a meaningful confession open when we  accept the  advice Paul gave to the  Ephesians: ‘ You  were taught to put away  your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts’ (Eph.4:22). A confession  done with a decision to  continue life  in  the old  way  is worthless and  he or she should not expect  grace to  flow from  the mere exercise of  going through the  form of   a confession. As we know, when it comes to confession,   matter is as  important as  form and the matter  is incomplete without a truly contrite  heart.    ‘The sacrifice  acceptable to God  is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite  heart, O  God, you will not despise’ (Ps 51:17)

Why should we go to a priest for confession? Is it not sufficient to confess the sins directly to  God? Earlier this question used to come from non-believers or  non–catholics. If we see many Catholics asking the same question now, it  is a direct indication  of how weak our  faith  has become.

So we need to  start from the  basics.   Who has the power to  forgive sins?  No doubt, Jesus Christ is the  only  person  in the whole history of the world who stated that he has the power to  forgive sins. He can forgive sins because he is the Son of God. Before healing the paralytic, Jesus forgave his sins. ‘When he saw their faith he said, “Man, your  sins are  forgiven you” (Lk 5:20).  We should  note the   occasion selected by Jesus to publicly proclaim  his power to forgive sins. It was  in an assembly, where  ‘Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting nearby (they had come from every village of Galilee and  Judea and from Jerusalem)’ (Lk 5:17) that  Jesus made  this revolutionary statement. Without any doubt, he knew that  the Pharisees and  Scribes who  boasted of  their knowledge  in  the Scripture and  adherence to the law cannot   accept what  he was going to say.

We see Jesus explaining it in simple words for their benefit, ‘ ….. But so that you may  know that  the Son of Man  has authority  on earth to forgive sins………” (Luke 5:24). Doubts about  Jesus’ authority to  forgive sins  increase with  an increase in knowledge. Even today this is true. Ordinary believers have no doubt in it whereas some scholars, experts and theologians  who pursue the   knowledge of this world  have failed to recognise the  true meaning of the precious gift of confession. 

Let us remember the words  spoken by the  angel who appeared to Joseph in  dream. ” … You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from  their sins”(Mt 1:21). It was the divine will of  the heavenly Father  to send  his  son to this  world as  a man, to save  us from our sins. The letter to the Hebrews gives a beautiful narration about the  purpose of Jesus’ incarnation. ‘Then I said, ‘See, God, I have   come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me)’ ( Heb 10:7). Once Jesus accomplished the eternal sacrifice  he was seated at the right hand of the Father.  Sin offerings of the old became irrelevant  and redundant from that moment.  ‘ Where there is forgiveness of these (sins),  there is no longer any   offering for  sin’ ( Heb 10:18).

In the gospels we see   Jesus delegating his authority to  forgive sins to his  disciples. ‘ When he had said this, he  breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’ (Jn 20: 22-23). In other words the  authority  to  forgive the sins of others  is a special power given to those disciples who  receive the anointing of  the Holy Spirit. Before leaving this world, Jesus Christ delegated the   power to  forgive sins to his mystical body, the Church.  Those disciples who  were given this authority  directly  by the Lord passed  it on to others as well  by laying on of their hands. Priesthood and  the authority to forgive sins which is its natural corollary are  passed through generations  by the  laying on  of hands. It is the  duty of every anointed   servant of God   not only to retain  it through   a life of continuous  prayer  but also to rekindle the  anointment. Listen how Paul reminds  Timothy  of the  importance of doing it. ‘For this reason I remind  you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the  laying on of my hands’ ( 2 Tim 1:6) 

Do you believe that  we can  also  do the things done by Jesus? We may have doubts. But Jesus had  no such doubts. He categorically states that  any  person  who believes in him can also do the things done by him. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me  will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (Jn 14:12). When  Jesus says ‘ the works that I do’, it includes the work of forgiving  sins too. Every  priest  sitting at the confessional  is believing in Jesus Christ who  possesses the authority to forgive sins and who  empowered them also with  the same authority. What they   exercise  during  confession is the power and  anointing conveyed to them  through an unbroken  chain of   laying on of  hands  that  started with the Apostles.

To summarise, Jesus Christ is the  only person having the power to  forgive sins.  He  delegated  this power to his disciples and the disciples in turn  conveyed this  power to their successors  by  laying on of their hands. The Church  continues to   exercise this authority through  bishops and  priests till today. Forgiving the sins is one of the major  areas of the Church’s ministry. It is not because we think so, but  because it  flows from the command of our Lord, who entrusted this great ministry to  the Church. “…. Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed  in his name to all nations, beginning  from Jerusalem” (Lk 24:47).

The purpose of  writing these in detail  is to  bring home the importance of  the sacrament of reconciliation or confession. Sadly,  many among our fellow Christians fail to understand the  value of confession and the  need to   have it regularly.  Among them are   laity, and unfortunately   priests too.

When churches were closed  due to Covid -19,  a good number of people  who were  otherwise regular in going for confession could not  do so. On the other side, there are thousands upon thousands who gradually slip into the  practice of   going to confession very rarely and in many cases  once in a year  just to  fulfill the precept of the Church!  And  a  generation is coming up who think that it is   more easy and convenient  to  confess directly to God, sitting at the comfort of their homes, rather than  going to a priest. Some may even think that  like  the Holy Mass, Confession  also should be made online for their  convenience. In spite of  all these, there are  thousands of priests in the Church who never deny the sacrament of  confession  to anybody  approaching them.They are the living examples of  how the Holy Spirit   leads the  Church even in these times of  difficulties.

But  what is of  particular concern to us is that there are  many  who, though eager to have a confession  that is already overdue, could not  find a priest.  It breaks their hearts when they see  their  parish priest or some other priest  whom they  used to approach for confession in the past  refuses to hear their confession  for fear of  Covid -19. What   Jesus wanted and what the  Church teaches is that  a priest  should be  a father waiting at the  open door in anticipation of the  son, who would come any moment. The  concept of a  priest  or a Levite who  passes by on the other side, ignoring  the wounded person is totally alien to  Christian faith, culture and tradition. They should ask themselves whether there would  come a Samaritan after they leave.  To put it in another way, Jesus is sending his  priests  to  be  good Samaritans to  those who  come to them with a wounded soul. The first and foremost duty of a priest should be to pour oil and wine on the spiritual  wounds of  sinners approaching them.  We call this  act  the  sacrament of  Confession.

Church emphasises the importance of  the sacrament of Confession and the duty of priests to  celebrate it  in these words: ‘Priests must encourage the faithful to come to the sacrament of Penance and must make themselves available to celebrate this sacrament each time Christians reasonably ask for it’ ( CCC 1464, Codex Iuris Canonici  can. 986, Codex Canonum  Ecclesiarum Orientalium  can.735, Presbyterorum ordinis 13).

Unfortunately some of our priests shun this most important ministry entrusted to them   fearing  the  pandemic. It has become the norm rather than an exception in many parts of the world.  Certain other  priests think that their responsibility ends by  giving the faithful a general  absolution after a general confession. We should  understand that  this is not the   official teaching  of the  Church. Never in  history has the Catholic Church  allowed  her  priests to   use  the permission to grant  general absolution  as a substitute of  personal confession on a regular basis.  The Catechism of the Catholic  Church  discusses this issue in detail and without leaving  any doubt as to its applicability.

‘In case of grave necessity recourse may be had to a communal celebration of reconciliation with general confession and general absolution. Grave necessity of this sort can arise when there is imminent danger of death without sufficient time for the priest or priests to hear each penitent’s confession. Grave necessity can also exist when, given the number of penitents, there are not enough confessors to hear individual confessions properly in a reasonable time, so that the penitents through no fault of their own would be deprived of sacramental grace or Holy Communion for a long time. In this case, for the absolution to be valid the faithful must have the intention of individually confessing their grave sins in the time required. The diocesan bishop is the judge of whether or not the conditions required for general absolution exist. A large gathering of the faithful on the occasion of major feasts or pilgrimages does not constitute a case of grave necessity'(CCC 1483).

The purpose of  permitting  priests to give  general  absolution is   to ensure that the  penitents  should not  be  deprived of sacramental grace or Holy Communion for a long time, for no fault of theirs. This is  an exception, the  normal rule being  personal confession. Even in cases when general absolution is given, the penitent should   go for a  regular confession at the earliest  possible opportunity.

Priests who disregard  such an important instruction and  resort to  the practice of frequent general absolution instead of personal  confession are certainly  doing it  without understanding its seriousness. Confession is essential for the spiritual nourishment of the faithful. Exactly for this  reason  the Church  makes it the  duty of priests to hear the confession of  the  faithful. On the other hand, the second  precept of the  church   – You shall confess your sins at least once a year –   read with  the third precept – You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season ( CCC 2042) – tells us  the bare minimum that is  expected of a Catholic. It is an annual confession and receiving the  Holy Eucharist during the Easter season.  We go to confession  not to please the  Church, but to console   our soul.  Not to enrich the Church, but to liquidate our debts.  Saintly priests sit at the confessional  for hours together not because they have nothing else to do, but  because they consider  every soul precious,  and  are determined  that no person approaching them for a confession should   be refused lest they  go back with a heavy heart.

I would like to  share  the experience  of a priest whom I approach  for  regular confession during the past one year. He is on the wrong side of seventy. The list of  his ailments include cancer, diabetes  and hypertension. He celebrates Holy Mass for us every day and does not have any issue with  giving  communion on the tongue.  When I met him first  in April 2020, he was waiting for the appointment of an Oncologist for the  second stage of cancer treatment. But the lockdown and travel restrictions did  not permit him to undertake the journey to the hospital.  For the next eleven months or so  he  did not use any medicines. Finally, he could  consult his doctor in  February 2021 only and  the doctor was surprised to see that there were no signs of cancer in his body.  Forget about covid also. It didn’t come  even near to him.

Any priest who  considers his  priestly ministry seriously and  shows a fatherly interest  in the spiritual affairs of the  flock  entrusted to him  should have  such experiences to share.They did not fear Corona virus  that can kill the body. But they feared the one who  could throw the body and  soul into   hell. That Almighty God, whom they feared, miraculously  protected them. They will not fear the  terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day. Even  while  thousands  fall at their side and ten thousand at their right hand, they are  confident that  no evil shall befall them. Let us remember with  gratitude those saintly priests who, knowing that  no scourge will come near their tent,  makes themselves available to their flock and  continue the ministry  against all odds. Their  one and only  mission is to see that not even a single soul entrusted to them  is lost. We should pray for such priests.

But there are  some other priests who closed the doors of their churches for  long intervals.They were afraid of  Covid-19.  When the  churches opened and  Holy Mass resumed,we saw them washing their hands with sanitiser before and after distributing the Holy Eucharist. We have seen this too, that some  priests who  made   wearing a mask  and    maintaining  social distancing their   rule of life   already contacted  covid!  What  they feared most,  chased  and caught them. This is not to  blame, but to  direct them also to the ultimate remedy called the  love of Jesus Christ. He will not  forsake us.  Borrowing the  worlds of  Paul, let us also pray for them; ‘I pray that  you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of  Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled  with all the  fullness of God’ (Eph 3:18). 

What makes us worthy to receive the  Holy Eucharist is a good confession. This is why the Church teaches: ‘Anyone who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion, even if he experiences deep contrition, without having first received sacramental absolution, unless he has a grave reason for receiving Communion and there is no possibility of going to confession (CCC  1457).  Receiving  communion without confession is  an exception  permitted by the Church to be exercised  by a person  who is in  danger of imminent death and where there is no  scope of getting a priest for confession.

Our Lord has told us to be  ever vigilant in preparation for  meeting  him. Of all  preparations we make  during these days, the most  important  is  a good confession.  A  confession  done with true repentance followed by  Holy Eucharist will give us the strength to ‘withstand  on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm’ (Eph.6:13). We are  writing these  lines  in the background of a  growing tendency among Catholics to receive  Holy Eucharist without  a proper  confession citing the  excuse that  no priests were  available for  confession.  How can we approach the  great gift of  Holy Eucharist so casually? Understandably, many  people do it without realizing the  consequences of  receiving  Communion  unworthily.  For them  Paul has written: ‘Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died (1 Cori 11:27-30).

Why will you die, O Christan?  Go to confession  right now when it is available. Please do not  delay it. Never say, tomorrow….tomorrow. Because  that tomorrow might never come. A good confession is  a matter of life, that too eternal. With this  understanding  go to your   parish priest and  humbly tell him of  your  desire to  have a confession. Most of the priests will certainly  open the  doors  of the confessional for you.  Admittedly, there will be  some priests who may refuse to  hear a personal confession fearing the pandemic.  In all humility ask them whether they have seen a priest die of  Covid-19  infection solely because they administered  the sacrament of  confession or   giving communion on the  tongue.  

We need to  do something more. We should say the  prayer of  prophet Elisha. Yes, there is such a prayer, though you might not see it  in  prayer books.  This short prayer  was said by Elisha for his attendant Gehasi who was scared at the very sight of the   army of enemies that  surrounded  them.  He saw only the  enemies. He could not see the protection God had prepared for them.  Elisha  prays: “O Lord, please  open his eyes that he may see” (2 Kings 6:17). Let us pray  for all priests so that they may see the protection  guaranteed by God  to all those who are  faithful to Him.

If confession is not available  in your parish, go to  another church or monastery.  The pain you take for it  will never go in vain.  We know a large  number of persons who  travelled for  hours during the pandemic to get a confession. They realized the  great value of  confession. We should fear, by the time we realize  the true value of confession and  how indispensable it is, it will be too late  and  confessionals are closed forever.  Things are moving in that direction. 

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,  please  walk now when  enough light is still  there.  The  night is fast approaching, a night  when no one will be able to work.

Why will we die, O Christians?  May the merciful Jesus Christ waiting at the confessional  prepare us   for the  dark times ahead. 

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