On Monday, the Diocese of Brooklyn declared "A Day of Reconciliation." All churches stayed open late so Catholics could partake in the sacrament of Penance.
I called my wife as I left work to say I would be late, as I was "going to confession." Her first response was an accusatory "what did you do?"
Part of the problem is that we have made confession so difficult these days. Many churches offer it now only on limited days. Partly this is due to the change in Catholic society the past 4o years. As a child, my mother would take me to confession at least once a month. I admit now I do not go as often as I would like.
When I lived in Chicago, I would go more. Near my office was Saint Peter's in the Loop, a Franciscan church where one of the Friars was always available to hear confessions. One additional benefit was that the Franciscans were very easy on penance -- so long as you were kind to animals that is.
So why Confession? I get comments from non-Catholics at times not understanding the whole thing. They see it as some sort of institutionalized guilt trip. Partly this is due to Catholics ourselves not understanding it.
It is not about guilt but about forgiveness. God is Father after all. A stern but extremely loving father at that. He wants us to do right, but even if we do wrong, loves us so long as we are truly sorry. After all, when Jesus refused to order the adulterous woman stoned ("Let he who is without sin cast the first stone"), He not only said "I do not condemn you" but also said "sin no more."
So we leave the confessional, saying an Act of Contrition promising to sin no more. But we do. For most of us those sins are minor. We say a few white lies here and there. We lose our temper with our spouses or children. We get too caught up in the ways of this world. But it is OK. Maybe it is the struggle that is important.
In the end it is all about redemption and forgiveness. So I tell this story I read once in Lord Norwich's history of the Byzantine Empire.
There once was a Byzantine Emperor named Romanus the First. Romanus was one of Byzantium's greatest emperors. He worked hard to protect his people. Leading a nation beset by enemies, he protected the empire's borders from attacked by the Arab, Turkish and Persian countries to his south, and Slavic nations to his north. He worked hard to protect the lands and property of the common workingmen from grasping aristocrats. He worked hard to expand commerce and trade. In short, he gave the Empire peace and prosperity.
But Romanus was troubled, for in reality he was a usurper. He elevated himself to co-emperor, married his children into the royal family, but ushered the rightful emperor off into obscurity. He mourned the many soldiers who died or were wounded fighting his wars. And Byzantium was not a democracy, so although he was fairly benevolent, he had, as Emperor, sent men to the dungeons to protect his throne.
His sons, realizing this and fearing for their future power, sent Romanus, to his relief, off to a monastic exile.
There, Romanus stripped his garments, knelt before the altar, and while his brother monks chants hymns of contrition, confessed his sins while another monk wrote each into a book. Romanus sent the book to another monastery, one know for its piety and asceticism and asked the monks to pray for him.
Romanus received a message back -- the pages of the book were empty.
Whether or not yo believe the monk was speaking literally (that a miracle had occurred) or metaphorically (which is how I read the story), I find this as the essence of the Sacrament. It is about forgiveness, not guilt.