You may remember last week that at the end of Mass I mentioned that this
coming Thursday there will be a Reconciliation Service, which will end with
the opportunity for individual confessions, either with me or you can go to two
other visiting priests. Confession is something that is part of being a Catholic
and something we are supposed to do, but not everyone finds it easy.
Sometimes, even priests find it at least a bit difficult to go to another priest, or
at least, certain priests. There are even certain occasions when it is best not to
go to a certain member of the clergy. There is the story that a certain previous
archbishop of Birmingham used to help out occasionally with confessions in
the cathedral. A priest joined the queue, and, rather than naming the priest
behind the grille, the sign just said “Visiting Priest”. Anyway, when he got
inside and discovered it was the archbishop he made his excuse and left.
So, today we hear about the figure of John the Baptist. It can sound so much
easier to just have gone to him and been baptised by him and that was it. But
that’s not what the text says. If you read it carefully, what it actually tells us is:
“and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their
sins”. I didn’t make that up. You can go back and check it in the text in front
of you if you don’t believe me. Even they didn’t get away.
So why do we have to go to confession? Quite simply, because it’s one of the
sacraments that Jesus gave us. When He appeared to the apostles after His
Resurrection, He said to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins
you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are
retained” (Luke 20:22b-23). We tend not to struggle quite so much with the
other sacraments, because they don’t involve revealing the deep and hidden
flaws that we have. But let’s just explore a few other dimensions of this
In the first reading, “A voice cries, ‘Prepare in the wilderness a way for the
Lord. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert.’ ” On Thursday,
someone told me that when Fr Randolph Traill came to Thame in 1913, the
only Catholic family here had to travel fourteen miles to get to Mass in
Oxford. The roads were not quite so direct back in those days. It reminded me
that in days gone by in England the roads were sometimes in rather poor
condition. They don’t seem to be quite so bad here as they were in parts of
Stoke-on-Trent, but I’m sure that was nothing compared with the days of
In the days of the stagecoach, there wasn’t always the money to pay for road
repairs, so at least some of the roads were privatised, and toll booths, called
turnpikes, were set up. But despite the money collected, the roads weren’t
always smooth, or even necessarily passable either. My school history
textbook said it was an issue not fully resolved until the days of the motor car,
when standards improved.
Moving to the West Midlands, where I grew up, there was, and still is, the
problem of snarl-ups on the motorways around Birmingham. In fact they used
to sometimes say on the traffic and travel on the radio that there were still
spaces on the M6 car park. Ironically, a toll road has been built, called the M6
toll, taking an alternative route and helping people avoid all the traffic at busy
periods, but at a cost. And you have to queue up for it. It’s a bit like joining a
queue for confession. Afterwards, rather than traffic being able to flow, God’s
grace is able to flow through our lives, as it is supposed to. The effort of going
to confession is well-worth it.
We can also liken our soul to a window. When it gets dirty with accumulated
sin, the light of God’s grace is impeded. When it is washed in confession, then
more of God’s light is able to penetrate into our hearts.
Sometimes, people struggle to know what to say, or they think they haven’t
really got anything to confess. If that’s you, here’s one idea, if you dare: ask
someone else what they think you need to confess! Maybe more seriously,
have a look at a good examination of conscience – there will be one read out at
the Reconciliation Service as well. Also, just a further warning: sometimes, if
we have difficulty spotting sin, it can mean that, spiritually, we are heading in
the wrong direction. It’s a bit like your car. When you are travelling away
from the sun, the windscreen might look rather clean. That’s a bit like when we
are travelling away from God and we think everything is fine. But when we
travel towards the light, that’s when all the dust and dirt and other things show
up and we need to give it a good clean to see clearly.
So, yes, confession isn’t always easy, and even priests can find it a bit difficult,
too – after all, we should know better. But it was given us by Christ as a
cleansing sacrament, and the restoration it brings us is worth all the effort.