Years ago a woman who had been received into the Catholic Church wandered into an Episcopalian church by mistake on a Saturday afternoon a few months later. The Episcopalian, or Anglican church, as it’s called in England, came into existence back in the 16th century not as a result of any doctrinal differences with Catholicism—as was the case with Martin Luther and his followers—but because King Henry VIII of England broke away from the Church when the Pope refused to grant him a divorce. Henry’s new church kept the outward form of Catholicism, and so many Episcopalian churches, especially prior to the Second Vatican Council, looked just like Catholic churches, even to the point of having confessionals—and so this Catholic woman came in by mistake. Like many new Catholics, she was very nervous, and so when she hesitated to confess a serious sin, a gentle voice behind the screen said, “That’s all right, my child—if there’s something you’re too ashamed to confess, just leave it out.” Like a flash, the woman realized that was something no Catholic priest could ever say, and she blurted, “Oh, my goodness—I’m in the wrong church!” (Tonne, Stories for Sermons, Vol. 4, #258).
Many Protestants observe “Reformation Sunday,” which celebrates Luther’s revolt against Church authority and the establishment of their own Christian denominations, which now number more than 30,000. In fact, this is nothing to celebrate, for it was Christ’s express wish at the Last Supper that His disciples remain united as part of the One Church He established. With all due charity and respect, it must be stated that many millions of Christians are in fact in the wrong church. If they are honestly and sincerely trying to serve God, they will be blessed and rewarded for it—but even so, it is not God’s will that His children remain divided. Jesus does not want His people to remain blinded by sin, pride, and stubbornness. If we are truly to follow Him, we must do so in a spirit of humility, obedience, and trust.
These are precisely the traits demonstrated by Bartimaeus, who humbly begged Jesus to have pity on him, who came immediately when summoned by Jesus, and who trusted enough in His divine power to ask that his sight be restored. Bartimaeus gives an example for sinners to follow; rather than remaining spiritually blinded by our pride, we must in all honesty and humility recognize or see our sins, admit our need for God’s forgiveness, and trust in His mercy. The Letter to the Hebrews (5:1-6) speaks of how the Jewish high priest offered sacrifices in hopes of obtaining God’s forgiveness for the people’s sins; this symbolic act becomes real in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or Confession, which Jesus instituted for His Church. What the Old Testament foreshadowed has come to pass through the loving and merciful authority of Christ—and as the prophet Jeremiah (31:7-9) foretold, those who have been forgiven and restored to grace are able to rejoice and exult.
We are all in need of God’s mercy—and, ideally, we should regularly experience His forgiveness in the confessional. Last weekend I was at the annual Marian Conference held in northern Michigan and on Saturday afternoon I was hearing confessions. A room had been set up as a confessional, with myself near the door and one other priest in the far corner. Through the glass door I could see a two-year-old boy exploring, and when someone opened the door to come in, he seized his chance and dashed into the room. His father hurried in after him and grabbed him, and as he carried him out, apologized—but I said, “Oh, that’s all right; it’s refreshing to see someone run into the confessional.” Many Catholics act as if the Sacrament is something to be avoided or put off as long as possible, but that doesn’t express much confidence in Christ’s mercy; many others seem to think they don’t need the Sacrament, but that’s a form of spiritual blindness far worse than the physical blindness which afflicted Bartimaeus. Consider this alleged message from Jesus supposedly given to a woman in Chicago two months ago; she claims Our Lord told her,
“Take this opportunity of grace to change your lives and turn back to God. Don’t think that just because you haven’t murdered anyone you are not in need of repentance for your sins. Remember you can sin in thought, word, and deed. If you harbor any resentment against anyone and refuse to forgive them, this is a serious sin in need of repentance and God’s forgiveness. If you allow sins of the flesh to linger in your thoughts and make no effort to get rid of them, this is also a serious sin in need of repentance. If you put your parents in a home and never visit them or see to their needs, this is a serious sin. So you see, My children, most of you are in sin and don’t make any effort to amend your lives. You are taking chances with your souls and may end up losing them” (message given by Jesus to a Chosen Child in Chicago, August 21, 2012).
No one is required to believe in a private revelation, of course, but the points made in this alleged message are valid ones. Most people—including many Catholics—have lost a sense of sin, and are in grave danger due to spiritual blindness. As members of the One True Church, we are blessed to have the confessional as a place of healing and spiritual growth—but it can only help us if we use it. Based on the numbers I’ve seen in my four months here, relatively few people take advantage of this Sacrament; based on my knowledge of human nature—including my own sinfulness—almost everyone in the parish needs, or at least can benefit from, this Sacrament. There’s never a need for fear or embarrassment, and if the times are inconvenient, I’ll gladly schedule more. Unlike the woman who wandered into a non-Catholic church by mistake and tried to go to confession, we don’t have to worry—we’re not in the wrong church. However, if we never make use of the special blessings and gifts available only in the Catholic Church— most especially the Sacrament of Reconciliation—we’re no better off than persons who belong to denominations lacking these gifts. Bartimaeus said, “Master, I want to see,” and his request was granted. If by going to confession we say, “Lord, I want to recognize my sinfulness, to feel Your forgiveness, and to grow in Your grace,” Jesus will look with favor upon us and be pleased to grant us His mercy and His blessings.