The struggle with the Sacrament of Confession is a lifelong one for Catholics. Our struggle is a deeply human one in that the Sacrament requires us to look at our lives and voice our failings. We're not perfect people, and Confession is a stark reminder of that. We love the feeling of cleanliness after Confession, but we struggle with comprehending God's great mercy.
Recently I've been reading books about World War II. I love history and learning about so many of the characters that helped shape world events. Some of the stories are so sensational that it's hard to believe that they can be real. One of those characters is Rudolf Hoss. Rudolf was the commandant of Auschwitz for many years during World War II. Under his direction, somewhere between 1.5 and 3 million people lost their lives, whether by outright murder, death by starvation, torture, disease, or cruel medical experimentation.
I fail to come up with words strong enough to express how reprehensible Rudolf's actions were. He's considered by many to be the greatest criminal to have ever lived. The compete disregard for human life is shocking, even today, 70 years later. The magnitude is unimaginable. 3 million lives, snuffed out on his orders.
By all accounts, most people would consider him to be eternally damned. Of course, that’s not our place to judge and we’ll never know. You’d think that after the end World War II, his story would be over. It’s precisely then that it starts to get interesting. After some time on the run, Rudolf was caught and convicted of crimes against humanity, and sentenced to execution by hanging. The authorities built a gallows on the spot in Auschwitz where the camp Gestapo interrogated and tortured inmates. He was executed in 1947. The part of the story that we don't often hear about was that Rudolf was Catholic. Certainly his actions as commandant were in direct opposition to everything that the Church stands for and teaches. Indeed, there’s a great body of documentation showing the great lengths that the Church went to in order to save Jews and other persecuted people during the war. Yet, a few days before his execution, Rudolf received the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
We'll never know the disposition of his heart, how contrite he was, or what he even said. What we do know, based on Church teaching, is that God will forgive any sin for which we are truly sorry, if we bring it to Him in the Sacrament with a contrite heart. What that means is that Rudolf, the greatest criminal of all time, a man who ruthlessly and actively allowed 3 million souls to perish who were under his authority, if he asked God for forgiveness, was granted it.
The lesson here is this: God's mercy, through the Sacrament, can forgive any sin.
Fear plays a role in how we approach, or don't approach, Confession. We feel a great sense of shame as we commit the same sins day after day, week after week. That shame drives us to fear naming our sins to a priest who may know us or recognize our voice. This is, of course, unfounded. The priest may never reveal what he hears under the seal of the Sacrament, and further, he's undoubtedly heard much worse. Yet, even with this knowledge, shame still creeps in. This is, no doubt, the work of Satan. The fact remains that a faithful Catholic is devastating to his plans of destruction. That means that the more faithful and fervent you are, the greater the threat you become. It also means that if you're tempted more frequently, you just may be living the Christian life right.
We're all repeat offenders, even the priest. While he may not struggle with the same sin that you are, he knows all too well that the struggle is real. We all resolve to do better and we all relapse. Repeated relapses led us to believe that we're unworthy of forgiveness or that there's no point of going to Confession because we're just going to sin again. This logic is completely backwards. It's when the swimmer gives up that he's overwhelmed by the water and not a moment before. Confession is our chance to persevere and overcome.
In the Sacrament of Confession, we're confronted with more than just our past failings; we come face to face with the overwhelming majesty of God. Who is this that can forgive our numerous and repeated offenses against Him? Who can have an inexhaustible supply of mercy, love, and forgiveness? With the right intent, we're able to receive true forgiveness. Aside from being able to physically receive the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus, as He promised, through the Eucharist that He established, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the greatest benefit of being a Catholic.
We all face fear and shame when we reflect upon our lives and see how far we've fallen short of the bar we set for ourselves. Through grace and the Sacramental life of the Church, we're able to be healed, reconciled, and dusted off, prepared to rise again tomorrow, refreshed and joyful, ready to praise Him throughout another day.