Only barely do I remember my first Confession. I was in fourth grade (yes, it was in that era) and did not have a good grasp then on what the Sacrament of Penance was. I was underprepared, under-catechized, and nervous, almost terrified.
More clearly do I remember my first Confession after I had been “away for a while” from the sacrament. I was a recent college graduate, and it seemed an eternity since my last Confession, maybe back when I was in eighth grade. Now I can laugh and say it had been “only” eight years. The place was Saint Matthew’s Cathedral, and the priest was Father Bob Wharton. I was nervous, but not terrified; and afterward I was very, very glad I had gone. I resolved that I would do that more often.
Even so, I didn’t just jump on the bandwagon right then and there. I think that until I entered seminary, I would seek the sacrament at least once a year, but not much more often. So it was a slow train I climbed aboard, but it was rolling in the right direction.
Now, along with all the other activities and obligations that Lent brings for me, the Sacrament of Penance is perhaps the most prominent. I increase significantly the amount of time I spend in the confessional, maybe three or four hundred percent. But it is not just a “workload” consideration, since the amount of grace at work in the confessional during Lent increases at least fourfold as well.
The Holy Spirit works faster and more furiously during Lent, judging by my experiences and the drained-but-energized feeling I have when I finish a round in “the box.” There is a whole lot of grace flying, and an astonishing amount flows through me. It leaves me thrilled, but beat.
Yes, people who have been “away for a while” come back more during this season, and that is a marvel to behold. But also with the people who confess once or twice a year, or even more often, there is also a detectable difference. There is something about Lenten penance; it is more powerful, more intense, and even more effective.
This weekend we begin First Confessions, which are rightly a source of drama. Because of what I remember about my own, I try to make them less likely to terrify. Most of the kids leave the experience with a lightness and manifest delight that reassures me that they will not be afraid to come back. We call it the first, after all, because there is the expectation of a second – and a thirteenth, and a forty-fifth. Please keep these young, blossoming Christians and their life in the sacraments in your prayers this Lent.
I would also ask you to count among your Lenten intentions one soul, someone you have never met, who will come, often in the entourage of a first penitent, who has been “away for a while.” It may seem to him, or her, an eternity since last he made the Act of Contrition; she may be nervous, even terrified. But with the help of your prayers, and the lift from the Holy Spirit so hard at work in these forty days, that self-conscious penitent will become conscious of the love of God in a way that can only be experienced by hearing Him say, Your sins are forgiven.
So by your example, by your encouragement, and by your prayers, offer a hand to someone who is hesitating to get on this train. You know that soul you help will remember the moment fondly and well once on board and rolling, and finally, when we reach our destination.