Bishop's Interview: Leaving sin behind and trusting in God’s mercy
Editor: Bishop Pope Francis is emphasizing the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation during this Year of Mercy and especially during Lent. What is the connection between God’s mercy and the sacraments?
Bishop Vásquez: For Catholics the number one way we encounter God is through the sacraments. The sacraments are the tangible and concrete ways that God encounters us. By repeating Christ’s words and pouring water, the church baptizes a person who now becomes part of the family of God. Original sin is washed away and the newly baptized begins a new life with the promise of eternal life. All seven of the sacraments impart to us the grace of God, which is the gift of eternal life.
In the sacrament of reconciliation, the penitent comes with a contrite heart seeking God’s mercy, and in the person of Christ, the priest stands there offering consolation and reconciliation to the penitent. With the words, “I absolve you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” the priest absolves the sins that have been confessed — and this is the concrete, tangible sign of God’s mercy.
Christ, who always looks at us with the eyes of mercy, knows that sin hurts and even destroys our relationship with God, as well as our relationships with others, even if nobody else knows we have sinned. Therefore, during this Jubilee Year of Mercy, we have this opportunity to experience what the Holy Father wants us to experience. I love that picture of the Pope Francis going to confession – it is a great symbol that we all need God’s mercy in our lives.
Editor: The Papal Bull for the Year of Mercy mentions that many Scripture readings are appropriate for meditations to help us rediscover the merciful faith of the Father. Do you have a favorite passage?
Bishop Vásquez: I do, but mine may be a little bit different. I love Luke’s story of the Prodigal Son, and we will hear it at Mass on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, but my favorite Gospel reading is the Woman at the Well from the Gospel of John. I think it is a great story and the exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is very powerful and real because it is about how Christ meets us where we are. The encounter is not demanding, it is an ordinary encounter that slowly leads to a change as this woman begins to uncover her life to Jesus. She doesn’t know who he is, but Jesus begins to stir in her an awakening of faith, so much so that she then asks him for “living water” that only Christ can give.
Jesus is telling the woman that the more she comes to know him, the more she is going to find out what life is. Many things she has tried have left her disillusioned, incomplete and unsatisfied, but with living water, she will have satisfaction and peace. “… Whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life,” Jesus tells the woman.
I love the way this story progresses: Jesus begins slowly, in a conversation, and then she uncovers her life. Jesus offers her the living water and she becomes a disciple; she goes back to her town and tells the people about Jesus. To me that is what happens in the sacrament of reconciliation as we experience God’s mercy. It starts out slowly as Christ uncovers what needs to be healed, and then we become disciples who invite others also to experience the same mercy that we have received.
Editor: What do you think are the most common misunderstandings about the sacrament?
Bishop Vásquez: I think one of the most common misunderstandings is that Catholics can commit sin of any sort, then come to confession and everything is OK. This cannot be further from the truth because in reality, sin has temporal consequences. This is why, when we confess our sins and receive absolution, the church still asks us to give restitution if at all possible. For example, if someone steals, then restitution should be given to the victim of the theft.
We should go to confession with a sincere desire to change our lives for the better because sin offends God. True contrition is a desire to leave sin behind and live according to God’s will. Celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation is meant to bring about true conversion.
The sacrament of reconciliation is not magic and we won’t experience an immediate, profound conversion of the heart unless we open our lives to God’s healing grace. Through the sacrament, Christ calls us to live our faith more deeply, and that happens when we truly experience the mercy of God. In Scripture all the passages about personal encounters with Christ –– Matthew the tax collector, Zacchaeus, or Peter, himself –– these people need to be forgiven. Those encounters were not magical, rather they involved each person being open to fully experience God’s mercy, which led each to a conversion of heart.
Editor: When should we seek the sacrament of reconciliation?
Bishop Vásquez: First of all, it is a precept of the Catholic Church, that “after having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year” (CCC, 1457). We should always go to confession, of course, if there is any serious or grave sin that we have committed. We have the Ten Commandments as guides to let us know if we have broken any of them and thus need to go to confession.
I believe most of us probably don’t commit grave sins like murder or theft. Most of us go to confession and come out with our souls clean, pure and honest. We go back into the world with good intentions. But sin usually invades our lives slowly –– for instance, with a small lie or an angry word or a negative attitude. These sins pull us away from God and the more we continue to repeat them, the easier it becomes to sin again. Therefore, as soon as we see ourselves going down this road of sinfulness, we need to seek out the sacrament of reconciliation. As we experience God’s mercy in the sacrament, we must open our hearts to change and to become the person God wants us to be. As we become more aware of our human failures, the sacrament open us up to the grace to overcome our sins.
Editor: Often times young Catholics celebrate their First Reconciliation before their First Communion, but they don’t come back for many years. How can we invite children back or have the parents introduce the sacrament accordingly?
Bishop Vásquez: I think one of the best ways to keep our children active in the faith is for families to experience the sacraments together. It’s great when mother, father and all the children go together to confession. Even if a child is not yet of the age to receive the sacrament, parents can invite the younger children to pray for their brothers and sisters and other family members. This is a great witness and a sign of unity, which our families need. I firmly believe that families can experience much grace when they celebrate the sacraments together.
Editor: Do you have any advice for priests, and for those who may have been away from the sacrament for a while?
Bishop Vásquez: First of all, to my brother priests: I thank them for celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation. I ask my brother priests to be as gentle and as inviting as they possibly can to those who have been away from the sacrament for a long time. Periodically I hear confessions, especially during Advent and Lent, and it’s one of the most satisfying experiences that I have as a priest besides celebrating Eucharist. I’m humbled by penitents who have been away from the sacraments for a long time and I feel compassion for them. God has given them the courage to come forward and he has moved their hearts to seek his mercy in the sacrament of reconciliation. I don’t think that anyone who has been away from the sacrament for a long time needs to be afraid. Fear is always from the devil who wants us to think that we are unforgivable, that our sins do not merit God’s forgiveness. This is not true!
So to those who have been away from the sacrament for a long time and now want to get close to God: don’t be afraid to seek out God’s mercy in this way! The priest will help you even if you don’t remember how to go to confession. If you don’t know the right words, he will help you. Pope Francis wants us to experience God’s mercy, particularly during this Jubilee Year. “How much I desire that the year to come will be steeped in mercy, so that we can go out to every man and woman, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God! May the balm of mercy reach everyone…” (Misericordiae Vultus, 5).
Editor: What are your hopes for the diocese through this Lenten season?
Bishop Vásquez: I hope we have many concrete opportunities to experience God’s mercy. Lent is about our looking at the areas of our lives where we need to grow. We have parts of our lives where sin has invaded and bad habits that disturb us. Yet we want to change and become better disciples of Christ. Lent is a great time to open ourselves to Christ’s power to change us. I encourage us to come to the sacrament of reconciliation to experience, as our Holy Father says, the eyes of a merciful God looking upon us, his children, with great compassion.