Ever feel like you need a new beginning? Have you ever messed up so badly that you need to start all over again?
My brother once gave me some advice: At the end of a bad day, when we haven’t done what we wanted to do, nothing went the way we hoped it would, and we made many mistakes, one of the best things to do is just pray, go to bed, cut our losses, and have a fresh start the next day—that’s a recipe for hope.
If we meditate on the Gospel, we find this is what the people of Judea were looking for. It says, “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him” (Mk 1:4-5). Think about that: Why would all these people walk at least 30 kilometers on dirt paths, sleep in the middle of nowhere, and leave their work for a few days? And let’s not think these people weren’t busy; most were living just to survive. If they left their livelihood and jobs for at least five days, it was because God put into their heart a longing for a spiritual fresh start.
There are so many areas in our life where He wants to give us a fresh start, but, because of the Gospel, let’s just talk about having a spiritual fresh start.
Here’s a trivia question: What’s the greatest sin in the world today? It’s arguable, but Pope Pius XII, in 1946, said, “Perhaps the greatest sin in the world today is that men have begun to lose the sense of sin,” meaning that many people don’t believe in sin, or in right and wrong. This loss affects us too: We sometimes forget about how much sin is weighing us down.
One problem with many movies is that they show no consequences to sin. James Bond films, for example, typically show Bond using women, doing amoral things without any effect on his conscience. But that’s not how reality works: Whenever the human person goes against his or her conscience, we suffer.
As a point of comparison, and just to get us thinking more critically, why were the first three Jason Bourne films so good? It’s not just because of the action and plot. It’s because it’s rooted in reality. Someone who chooses to become an assassin will struggle to sleep, will have nightmares, lose his humanity, and suffer from guilt.
Because our conscience always has a sense of sin, even if we ignore it, there will always be psychological and physical reactions: we will become sad, lose our smile and appetite, not want to talk, want to be left alone.
This is where God wants to give us a new start! The Gospel says, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1). Jesus wants to come to each of us more fully—that’s good news! And how does that good news begin? With God asking us to prepare the way, to prepare our hearts to receive Jesus’ offer of mercy. But the only way to receive mercy is to recognize our need for it, that we’re sinners. Pope Francis said a few months ago: “If you want to be called by Jesus, recognize yourself a sinner.” This is what the people of Jerusalem realized: “I’ve got to leave my work for at least five days and go to the river Jordan to confess my sins.”
This is what I realize all the time. Every night, when I examine my conscience, I write down my sins on my phone (in code language, of course, just in case anyone gets their hands on it. Sometimes it’s so well coded that I tell the priest in Confession, “I have no idea what that one means, but I’m still sorry for it!”). When I don’t go to Confession for a while, I see that list growing and can literally see the weight of it, and then I realize I’ve got to go confess.
I’d like to tell you as your spiritual father that I think many of us wait too long to go to Jesus in Confession; I think we’re so busy that we put it off. But, since we’ve just started a new liturgical year, and in three weeks we’ll start a new calendar year, here are some suggestions to have a better fresh start with Confession. We’ve talked about Confession a number of times over the past years (To Overcome Sin Go to Confession More!; Why Go to Confession?; Excuses, Excuses, Excuses) so these ideas are somewhat more advanced.
1) What I just mentioned above: Think about doing an examination of conscience every night. Take the pamphlet that we have here, or some other version that’s good, and talk to the Holy Spirit every night about what we did well and what we did wrongly, and then write our sins down. Now some people advise against this because there’s a danger of someone else seeing it. But a number of people already do this, and I’ll leave it to you to determine how much risk there is. If you can hide it, password protect it, and code it, there’s no reason why you can’t do this.
The advantages to this are: We don’t forget any sins when it’s time for Confession, every night this shows us reality (and seeing our sins pile up motivates us to go), and we get to see how many times we’re committing a certain sin.
2) One of the hardest things we experience is making a good confession and then falling back into the same sins. We talked about this a year ago: We have three possible solutions here:
1) Stop going to Confession
2) Go the same amount of time
3) Go more often
If we stop going, what will happen? No moral growth. If we go at the same frequency, things will probably continue as they are. But, if we go more frequently, do it sincerely, and stick with it, eventually God will defeat the sin.
I remember reading one saint who said, “Prayer and sin cannot possibly dwell together; the soul will abandon either prayer or sin.” Sin and prayer can’t coexist; one will eventually get pushed out. With God’s grace, if we keep on persevering and coming back to Confession, we’ll get so sick of our sins that we’ll ask God to take away the sin and He will.
Never be ashamed of repeatedly going back to Confession. Because God loves us, we should never get discouraged. Remember what St. Claude de la Colombiere says in his “Despair Prayer”? “I will glorify You by making known how good You are to sinners… If I have grievously offended You, My Redeemer, let me not offend You even more by thinking that You are not kind enough to pardon Me.”
My brothers and sisters, let’s go more often to Confession in 2018! Question: How many times a year do we go? Now, here’s a list of how we can increase it:
- From 1x a year to 2x
- From 2x a year to 3x (every four months)
- From 3x a year to 4x (every season)
- From 4x a year to 6x (every two months)
- From 6x a year to 12x (monthly)
- From monthly to 2x a month
- Let’s use our phones to our advantage: We plug in ‘Fresh start’ into our calendars and make it a repeating event!
3) Part of the way of overcoming repeated sins and bad habits is going to the same priest and identifying ourselves. Now this is not obligatory, but it is wise and helpful. Why? When we’ve got cancer, we keep on going to a different doctor, right? We hide behind the curtains, tell the doctor our problem, and then hopefully won’t have to go back, right?
The reality is the devil tempts us not to do the exact things that would help us grow. By going back to the same priest and identifying ourselves, not only do we grow in humility, comfort level, and courage, but the priest gets to know our background and what we’re dealing with. One of the funniest things in Confession is when someone confesses, I give advice, and then they say, “Father, you told me that last time.” Well, how am I supposed to know!
It makes a big difference to know where someone’s at with their relationship with God, how their prayer life is going, to know the general situation of someone’s life, if this sin is a regular habit, is getting better or worse, and what’s surrounding it. This way, the priest can hopefully give us better advice and journey with us.
Here at these confessionals, remember, if you want to go face to face, then just ask the priest, “Father, can we go face to face?” and we’ll lift up the blinds. I think most priests are comfortable with this, and if they’re not, find another priest who is.
4) Someone asked if I’m suggesting spiritual direction. I’m not, but I am suggesting more fruitful confessions, and part of that means usually identifying one thing to focus on. Most of the time we can’t improve multiple things in our life at once, so we have to focus on one thing. We also have to be aware of the people behind us who are waiting in line. But, if we can just choose one area where we want to grow, then we can ask the priest for help in this area. So, a confession might sound like this: “Forgive me, Father, for I’ve sinned. It’s been three months since my last confession. During that time, I did this a few times, that many times, I swore daily, I missed Mass once (because we should try our best to say the number of times), but Father the thing I’m really struggling with is…” Does that make sense?
On the other hand, sometimes we may have nothing we want to talk about, so we just make a Confession to receive the grace of the sacrament, because we just want to be clean and get some spiritual strength. Just tell the priest, “Father, I just here for the grace of the sacrament,” and we know what that means, right? “Father Justin, keep it short and be quiet!”
5) The last situation many people wonder about is: Once we commit a mortal sin, then we’re aware we’re in a state of sin, and then we say, “Well, since I’m already in a state of mortal sin, it doesn’t matter if I commit another one.” So, if I watch pornography once, then I’m in a state of mortal sin, shouldn’t receive Communion, and it doesn’t matter if I watch more, right?
On the one hand, this is logical, because one mortal sin puts us into a state of mortal sin. But on the other hand, one mortal sin doesn’t develop a bad habit. So, let’s say I’m doing really well with sexual purity, and then make one big mistake with my boy/girlfriend. If it only happens once, it might be a mistake, but it’s not a habit. Just because I made a mistake doesn’t mean I’ve lost the virtue of purity! But, if I lose hope and keep on doing it, then I build up a bad habit, and then it gets harder to break it. Thus, it does matter.
The solution is to not lose hope, not to commit another sin, but go to Confession as soon as possible.
We all know how it feels to have a shower after a few days of not bathing. Our body is sticky, smelly and our hair is oily. And then to have a good shower is absolutely rejuvenating.
Confession’s better. Revelation 7:14 says that the saints have their robes washed clean and made white in the blood of the Lamb. In Confession, we’re spiritually washed clean by Jesus’ blood. His unconditional love lifts off the burden, and we get to push ‘delete’ on our lists of sins on our phone—that is an amazing reality!
Which of the five ways could we choose this Christmas to prepare the way for the Lord?
1) Examination of conscience nightly/writing sins down
2) Going more often to Confession
3) Going to the same priest/identifying ourselves
4) focusing on one thing
5) Not committing another sin, but going to Confession as soon as possible
Better confessions are a great way to have a fresh start.