As the Church grew and went from being an outlawed sect to a religion favored by the Empire, a problem arose. What was the Church going to do with those Christians who apostatized during the recently ended persecutions?
Added to this was the challenge that emerged as the Church began to baptized more and more people. While many of the newly baptized were sincere in their faith it also became clear that more than a few became Christian to gain a social advantage. As result, there were Christian who after baptism committed very serious sins such as fornication, adultery, and even murder.
So like with those who apostatized the question arose: What is the Church to do with those Christians who fell into very serious sins?
One approach was simply to say that those who fell from grace were condemned and could not be reconciled. This was based on a text in St John’s First Epistle:
If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that (1 John 5:16).
Since reconciliation wasn’t possible if they committed serious sin, many catechumens (maybe most famously, St Augustine) would wait until late in life before being baptized. The thinking was as the person got older he or she was less likely to fall into serious sin. Or more cynical view was that we ought to have our fun when we were young and repent when it was time to settle down.
There is a parallel here with how we see young adults falling away from the Church is clear. “Don’t worry, they’ll come back when they want to get married and start a family.”
But delaying baptism so that people would sin in their youth with the expectation that when they were older they could repent and go to heaven isn’t the Gospel. As you can imagine, this resulted in the faithful becoming laxer as a group. So rather than solving the problem, not reconciling those who fell into serious sin actually made the problem worse!
Again, we see this with our tolerance of young adults dropping out of the church of a season. It signals that the Gospel is optional. But if the Gospel is optional, it isn’t true so, why bother coming back? Not surprisingly, more and more young adults are NOT coming back as the ranks of those with no religious affiliation (the “Nones”) continues to grow.
Reflecting on the power the apostles received on Pascha to forgive sins (see John 20:19-25), the Church slowly came to the awareness that even serious committed after baptism sins could be forgiven. It was from this awareness that the sacrament of confession (or penance) develops.
Most of us, thank God, don’t commit “sins unto death.” This, however, doesn’t mean we don’t commit other less serious sins. And all of us have bad habits and tendencies that if left unchecked will lead us to fall away from Christ and the Church.
Like a failed marriage, our relationship with Christ doesn’t just end out the blue. Our friendship with Christ fades away from neglect. Very few of the “Nones” are hostile to Christianity. They are simply indifferent.
This is where confession becomes important.
Confession is the sacrament that strengthen us. Like all the sacraments of the Church, it is a work of the Holy Spirit. And, like all the other works of the Holy Spirit, confession transform us, helps us become more fully the person God has created us to be.
But our transformation doesn’t happen overnight but slowly over time.
This is why I stress with penitents that we need to think about confession as a skill. It’s something we need to learn how to do and this takes time and practice.
Not only does the penitent need to learn how to examine his or her conscience and make a good confession, the priest needs to get to know us, know our strengths and weakness, or natural talent and spiritual gifts, the ways in which we typically stumble and how we respond to failure as well as success.
In other words, I say to people, you need to learn how to go to confession and I need to learn how to hear your confession. And we can only do this together.
This means that in confession priest and penitent need to get to know and, more importantly, to trust each other. Above all, they need to learn how to stand together before Christ and ask for His wisdom and mercy.
This means, and this has been my experience as a priest, confession doesn’t just change the penitent, it changes the priest.
This is what makes confession a great adventure! Just as the priest has an important role to play in helping us follow Christ as His disciple and witness, we have a role to play in helping the priest become a more faithful disciple and witness.
Confession, in other words, is never simply about my sin. It is rather part of our shared journey as brothers and sisters in Christ. Yes, we each have our own role. But priest and penitent need each other and neither can be who they are called to be in Christ without the other.