We make a big thing of New Year resolutions, but January is not a great time to begin things: we just went through a whole Christmas season filled with activities and celebrations. It is more a time for a vacation or for getting back to work.
I have always felt that a great time for new beginnings is the season that we are entering now. Vacations are over, the school year is beginning. The weather is still beautiful though a note of crispness is in the air. I have great memories of beginning the new school year: new notebooks in hand; new subjects to tackle; no poor grades to try to limit success.
That freedom that one feels in beginning anew is particularly moving and welcome in the field of faith. The mistakes of the past, especially sins, can be repented and a new life of grace begun simply by going to confession and accepting the grace of God to change and challenge us anew. In our faith, repentance is always possible and the past need not dictate the rest of our lives. Certainly repentance does include a lifelong sadness over the harm caused by our past sinful mistakes, but it does not have to determine our future.
I don’t think we fully realize what a great gift the sacrament of Confession truly is!
In the early church, Baptism was an adult decision. After long instruction and often at the risk of one’s life, one decided to be baptized. This was meant to be a complete change of life and therefore a turn from any mortal sin. Baptism, even today when received by an adult that has gone through the process of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), forgives all sins without any confession.
In the early church, therefore, the expectation was that no one who is baptized would ever sin mortally. There were three mortal sins: Murder (including in the womb in Abortion), Adultery, and Apostasy (or the denial of Christ before the authorities to save one’s own life). Venial sins were forgiven in the rite of penance at the beginning of every Mass (still is true today!).
Gradually the Church realized that she should give someone a second chance and forgive them. This required a public confession to the community of the sin, a period of separation from the community during which one did penance (this often lasted a period of years!) and finally a joyful reunion with the community. This could only be done once in life—so the importance of deathbed reception of the sacrament to avoid the long penance and to make sure this only time of confession would be done right before death.
Therefore, people put off the reception of this once-in-a-lifetime reprieve until they were dying.
At this point, the Irish Monks changed the Church and the world. In monasteries in Ireland, a young monk would go for spiritual direction and counseling to an older monk. When sin was involved, the Director Monk would impose a penance to be done by the younger monk. Then his director forgave him. This was done in private.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe was reverting to pagan ways. The Irish Monks came and, through preaching, re-Christianized Europe. In doing so they brought their new form of confession that was both private and able to be received for as many times as needed for the penitent. While the Church at first condemned the new practice, everybody flocked to the new monks and history was changed.
This is what we have today: confession of sins any time we are moved to repentance, done in private. Truly a great gift from Ireland!
So this season of new beginnings, morally, can be celebrated at any time through the sacrament of Reconciliation.
Truly a great gift and a marvelous opportunity at any time of the year!