Over the past few weeks, I’ve been asked by several people whether it’s possible to go to Confession by telephone or email or video conference. Most of these questions were facetious, at least in part. The question about confessing remotely was posed to the Vatican many years ago; the Vatican’s response was that Confession can be celebrated only in person. Sorry, sinners.
There is consolation in the fact that the Church provides two remedies for sin in addition to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The absolution that is given at the beginning of Mass (during the Penitential Rite), suffices fully for the forgiveness of sins other than mortal sin. For all sin, heartfelt contrition with the intention to go to Confession at the earliest possibility provides the forgiveness necessary to continue to receive the Sacraments.
I would like to add a third possibility to these two above. This third possibility is not my own invention; it comes directly from the first centuries of our Catholic Faith. The third possibility for dealing with sin in one’s life is to stop sinning. Instead of continuing a habit of sin, and relying on the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a substitute for actual repentance, how about just not sinning?
The First Letter of Peter, the source of today’s second reading, was a baptismal homily; that is, it was instruction given to newly baptized adults. Today’s reading says, “you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Pt. 1:6-7)
The “various trials” mentioned in this statement might be a reference to the occasional persecutions that Christians endured at the hands of the Roman Empire. As this baptismal instruction was addressed to all the baptized, however, it is more likely that this reference to “various trials” refers to the normal, daily life of the baptized.
During the first few centuries of Christianity, it was the common assumption that once one was baptized one would avoid sin entirely, thereby preserving one’s baptismal innocence until the day the Lord returned in glory. Our ancestors in the faith proclaimed precisely what we proclaim, namely, that “we have been buried with Christ in Baptism so that we may walk with him in newness of life.” (Easter Sunday Renewal of Baptismal Vows) Unlike the Church today, however, our ancestors in the Faith took these words very seriously – so seriously that they expected themselves and all the baptized to refrain from sin until the Lord’s return.
They realized that this would entail great effort and “various trials,” but they considered the effort to be thoroughly worthwhile because it would preserve and respect the renewed innocence granted by Baptism. The people whose witness forms the foundation of our faith were convinced that they were obliged to avoid all sin. Shouldn’t we be equally convinced of this?
Those first generations of Christians faced the same trials and challenges that we face. They struggled in their relationships with parents, children, spouses, in-laws, neighbors, and the unbelieving. Some of them were persecuted for their faith. All of them struggled with their own human weakness. They knew that it would require extraordinary effort not to sin, and they were prepared to make such effort.
Today, we face “various trials, so that the genuineness of (our) faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Pt. 1:6-7) The economic and other privations that are the result of the pandemic, legitimate concern about the future, being cooped up at home with family – all of these can lead to serious trials. All of these can lead to sin, if one allows that to happen.
There is a remedy for all such trials, a remedy that the first generations of Christian practiced devoutly. It is possible to avoid arguments, despair, complaining, fear, scapegoating, and the like. Avoiding such sins does require extraordinary effort, but it is effort well worth making because it preserves one’s baptismal innocence.
Last Sunday I suggested that an appropriate way to celebrate the new life of Baptism was to renew the relationships you have with the significant people in your life. If you followed my suggestion, you accomplished that renewal by expressing your affection to your loved ones and friends. That renewal of relationships, however, is only part of the renewal necessitated by Baptism. The other part of baptismal renewal is the renewal of one’s relationship with God. Renewing one’s relationship with God requires an actual change of one’s behavior; specifically, it requires one to turn away from sin.
While you are enduring the “various trials” of the Stay-at-Home order, I recommend that you avoid sin and that you do so for the same reason that our ancestors in the faith did so. They believed that the Christian Faith is the Divinely revealed path to holiness. Do you believe that it’s possible to live a holy life? Do you believe it’s worth the effort to avoid sin “for the praise, glory, and honor” of God? Do you want to remain innocent until the day of the Lord’s return? Baptism makes this possible; it’s up to you to make it actual.