Today I made my First Confession.
I’ve heard from various friends about the sensations they felt the first time they took part in the Sacrament of Reconciliation — from joy, to peace, to release. For me, it was similar. I was very nervous going in. It was a new experience, and I would be laying my soul and my faults bare. I had written out my confessions beforehand. As I confessed them, I had the sensation of a pouring out of my soul — and in the end, catharsis. I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt clean. I didn’t smile; I didn’t skip away; I cried.
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
—Micah 7:18-19 ESV
This has always been one of my favorite Scriptures about God’s forgiveness. Today I truly feel that my sins have been cast into the depths of the sea.
What has moved me the most in approaching Confession is that it’s known as a Sacrament of Healing. I don’t know what I thought it was when I was a Protestant; but I conceived of it more as a burden, a legalistic obligation, than as an administration to the soul. Christ is the physician to our bodies and souls. Confession is the Sacrament of Reconcilation, the Sacrament by which we as sinners are reconciled to the Church, to each other, and to God. It is also called the Sacrament of Conversion, because through it, through Confession and Penance, we actively turn away from our sins and convert (turn towards) God and His path of righteousness (CCC 1423-1424). This whole chapter in the Catechism is powerful and poignant to me; I have quoted sections of it before; but to quote another:
“The whole power of the sacrament of Penance consists in restoring us to God’s grace and joining us with him in an intimate friendship.” Reconciliation with God is thus the purpose and effect of this sacrament. For those who receive the sacrament of Penance with contrite heart and religious disposition, reconciliation “is usually followed by peace and serenity of conscience with strong spiritual consolation.” Indeed the sacrament of Reconciliation with God brings about a true “spiritual resurrection,” restoration of the dignity and blessings of the life of the children of God, of which the most precious is friendship with God (CCC 1468).
One of the key scriptural foundations for Confession is telling to this point:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
—James 5:13-16 ESV
Here, confession of sins is intimately connected with healing, both physical and spiritual. And it is paired essentially with the other Sacrament of Healing, the Anointing of the Sick.
In the Christian tradition from which I’m coming, miraculous healings, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, are at the forefront of the Christian experience. When someone is sick, especially gravely sick, there is so much prayerful petition, so much faith and hope that God will work miracles of healing through prayer, anointing, and the laying on of hands — inspired by the healing miracles of Christ and the Apostles, and by this same Scripture that undergirds the Catholic Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. There is a genuine belief and an active faith that God heals; but even beyond this, there is ready credence and faith given to faith healers, individuals who profess to have individual, personal gifts of miraculous healing through the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, in the Great Commission of the “Longer Ending” of Mark (Mark 16:14-20), that “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” and that “these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues . . . ; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12, writes of gifts of healing and other spiritual gifts. While Catholics and cessationists apply these passages only to the Apostles and believers of the Apostolic Age, many Protestants and continuationists apply them to wider Church, to all believers in all ages, and believe that these miraculous, personal gifts of healing continue to this day.
I have no doubt that God heals today — that He intervenes in our lives in miraculous and mysterious ways. If this weren’t the case, I wouldn’t be alive today. But I believe that more often than not, these healings follow the course of the mysterious rather than the miraculous: of God’s infinite love and grace, and not His desire to make a show or spectacle. My own healing was miraculous, but it was a private, personal miracle, more for me than for anyone else. My experience, and the faith it engenders in me, is of little weight to anyone else; and to me, that makes it all the more personal and precious. I believe God works through medicine, through surgery, through the unexplained, through paths that no one sees, that few appreciate but those that receive His graces. When it comes to professed faith healers, to individuals with professed gifts of healing, I tend to be a skeptic. Many of them, I fear, are charlatans and showmen. I certainly don’t believe “word of faith” teaching, that professes that we can “speak” or “declare” God’s blessings and graces into our lives.
Do Catholics believe in divine healing? This was one of the most pressing questions I faced as I made this journey. When someone is terminally ill and dying in the Catholic Church, I have never heard a priest or anyone pray for God’s divine healing. There seems to be a ready acceptance that death is imminent. In many ways I think this is healthy; earthly death is a part of life, as much as being born, and I have seen firsthand the crises of faith faced by those who believed they had “spoken” a healing and “received” it, only to face death in the end. But do Catholics believe in divine healing? Most certainly. Catholicism abounds with stories attributing healings and other miracles to the intercession of saints; even attributing intercession against certain ailments and diseases to particular saints. St. Peregrine Laziosi, for example, is the patron saint against cancer.
And in the Catechism itself, in the mainstream, established doctrine of the Church, there is also hope in God’s healing. The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick — the so-called “Last Rites” — is not a sacrament of death or even strictly of preparation for it, but of healing (CCC 1499-1532). Though the emphasis of the Sacrament, as described in the Catechism, is the healing of the soul — on the gift of grace to face sickness; on the forgiveness of sins; on preparation to make life’s final journey — throughout is an acknowledgement that Christ is a physical healer. It affirms that Christ may heal the body to accomplish the salvation of the soul (certainly, this is what happened for me); but accepts that the salvation of the soul is paramount, and that crossing over into the next life is a grace in itself to those who belong to Him.
So do Catholics believe in divine healing? Yes, they do. Sometimes I think that there should be more faith and prayer for physical healing in this life; but what I see, more openly than that, is perhaps even more valuable: a full acceptance of God’s Will and Grace in our lives, that not ours, but His Will be done.