“Most Catholics I know, including myself, were raised with some pretty distorted concepts of what confession really is about,” author, speaker, singer, and musician Vinny Flynn says.
In his book “The 7 Secrets of Confession” (Mercy Song and Ignatius Press, $12), he tries to eliminate some of those distorted concepts and get Catholics back to the sacrament that he says “opens the doorway to the blood and water that came forth from [Jesus’] heart to heal us.”
Kris McGregor: Why do we have so many blocks in our hearts and minds over this particular healing sacrament?
Vinny Flynn: I think part of the reason is we’ve been taught wrong in some ways. But the other thing is, this sacrament is so important that I think the other guy is doing everything he can to keep us from realizing how important it is.
McGregor: You begin with the chapter “Secret 1 — Sin Doesn’t Change God.” Understanding what sin is the imperative, isn’t it?
Flynn: That’s the essential distortion I think many of us grew up with. We’ve learned that in the world, love is conditional. If I am nice to you, you’re nice to me. But if I’m pretty nasty to you, you tend to be nasty to me. We affect each other with our behavior, so we think behavior causes someone else to change in the way they view us, and we put that on God.
We think that when we sin, God’s mad at us, and we’ve lost his love, so we have to re-earn it. This is a distortion, because you can’t ever earn God’s love. It’s a free gift.
What we need to realize about sin is that it doesn’t change God, it changes us. When I sin, I pull away from God in such a way that I can’t experience his love.
McGregor: There’s a difference in our sins, right? It may look like the same type of action, but because we’re so uniquely different, our sins, and the effects, are different for each person.
Flynn: We have the 10 Commandments, and rules and regulations, things that are right and wrong. These are good guides and they help us form our consciences, but if we don’t go any further, then we’re focused on behavior.
God is focused on relationships. We are his sons and daughters, and he promised to love us forever. We each have a different relationship with God. We have different abilities, different levels of understanding, of woundedness, and only God sees all that, so he knows how guilty we are.
There’s that really scary phrase, in a sense, from Scripture: “From those to whom much has been given, much will be expected.” If I’m given more, God expects more. One of the examples I love is playing cards; we’re each dealt a different deck. If I have four aces and you have two threes, I’m expected to do better. But you can’t play my hand, and I can’t play yours.
We have to stop judging based on behavior. What if, instead of saying, “I follow the rules, I go to Church, pray the rosary, aren’t I great?” we say, “God, what would you like me to do today? How can I please you?”
Now I’m going beyond the commandments, I’m responding to God’s call to me, which is different from his call to anyone else. Regular confession helps us improve that one-on-one relationship with God.
McGregor: In “Secret 5 — You’ve Got Mail!” you say that confession really isn’t private.
Flynn: I did it for the shock value, but there’s a point. Confession is private in the sense that the priest cannot make any use whatsoever of these words — that’s very strict. But the priest is acting in the person of Christ, so really, Christ is hearing our confession.
As Pope Francis says, it’s not a trip to the dry cleaner. It’s a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, and wherever Jesus is, the Father is, and the Holy Spirit is, and all of heaven is.
In the confessional, all of heaven is rejoicing at a sinner returning. We’re encountering the three persons of the Trinity, and they’re on our side.
McGregor: What are we saying yes to in confession?
Flynn: Confession is a transformation. God created each of us in his image and likeness, because he wants us to be with him. Someday, the Father wants to introduce us into the Trinity itself. But we can’t be with him in that intimate dynamic relationship unless we’re like him.
Sin, the “Catechism” says, disfigures us so that we’re not in God’s likeness anymore. Christ came to restore us in that likeness. The main function of the sacraments, especially reconciliation and the Eucharist, is to transfigure us. Pope Benedict calls it “progressive transformation” — step by step, Christ is restoring us in his image, until we can be completely like him, and be with him forever.
McGregor: What’s the most powerful secret?
Flynn: People respond primarily to “Secret 7 — You Have to Let Go of Your Chains,” letting go of the chains, opening the door and allowing Christ in.
There are barriers preventing us from receiving God’s love, and it’s important to understand them. The main barrier is woundedness, and unforgiveness that results from it. We all have it. When we’re hurt, our tendency is to hurt back, to get angry and bitter and resentful. And this chains us, so we can’t function properly.
We need to learn how to take not just our behaviors but our woundedness into the confessional. We shouldn’t go just for forgiveness for particular sins and behaviors, we should go for the grace to help us grow and become free. Saint Faustina says we go for two purposes, and she doesn’t even mention forgiveness — she says we go for healing and education.
Kris McGregor is the founder of Discerninghearts.com, an online resource for the best in contemporary Catholic spirituality.
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