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How to Change the World

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. The Return of the Prodigal Son.
(Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. The Return of the Prodigal Son. [Source])

Most good people in the world want to "make a difference" as the saying goes. They want to leave the world a better place for their having been there. Some people seem able to do it quite simply in the course of their lives, (or so it seems to onlookers). Others become discouraged and cynical. But Catholics have a very simple, convenient, (though not always easy) way to change the world, and that is by going to confession.

Yes, I've had a lot to say about confession in recent columns and I expect to say more. It is one of the two most accessible of the seven sacraments, and tragically one of the most neglected. We cannot "save" the world, Jesus has already done that - may His Name be praised! - but we can help move more of the world under the safety, healing and joy of that salvation; beginning with ourselves.

This is because we are part of the mystery of the Mystical Body of Christ, and in that Body there is a mysterious solidarity. We know that massaging one part of the body may have beneficial results to an organ in a completely different part of the body. So too, in God's mysterious economy a good act done, no matter how small, will benefit the Body of Christ in ways we won't know until Heaven. Even a small act of mortification done in faith may help someone on the other side of the world.

So too, it is sound Catholic theology that any sin, no matter how small or "private" does damage to the Body of Christ. This is one reason we go to confession to a priest whose absolution forgives not only on behalf of God, but on behalf of the whole Church, which we have harmed with our sin. There is no such thing as a "private" or "victimless" sin. We, of course, are victimized by our own sins, as is the person or persons we sinned against directly, but so is the entire world and the Church; the Body of Christ, and of course Christ is the Innocent Lamb of God who suffered for each one of our sins.

All this damage! How depressing!

But there is healing and redemption, accessed most directly in the confessional. Every once in a while we may experience the grace of true contrition and sorrow for our sins, when we see, as it were, some extent of the damage we have done. It is as if our heart has been cut open (pierced with a lance?). We experience such a deep shame, that, without grace, it could drive us to despair.

This is especially true when we have hurt someone we love, for example, by committing adultery, and later coming to our senses. But with grace also comes hope, which may not take away the pain of true guilt and shame but will balance the despair. When we feel we don't deserve forgiveness is when we need it most, we long for mercy, not justice, because we are confronted with the horror of our sin and what justice would mean.

G.K. Chesterton said, "The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world." (See Chesterton; Orthodoxy.) Perhaps in a sense we could also say that going to confession is the opposite of committing suicide: It is the triumph of hope over despair in the midst of despair; dying to sin once again, and rebirth as at our baptism in a bath of Christ's Blood.

As I have said before, an old Jesuit told me, "when we go to confession our soul is dipped in the Blood of Christ." Imagine our dry, cracked, wounded, parched hearts dipped in the very fluid of salvation, the Precious Blood of Christ, filling in the dry cracked wounds, flushing away the dirt and debris of our sins.

When this occurs, a little part of the world, your heart, is healed, and this healing benefits the entire Body and makes it better.

Imagine what would happen if everyone in the world went to confession regularly! Imagine the grudges that would be dropped in gratitude for the relief and joy of forgiveness. Wars would cease. The hungry would be fed, the naked would be clothed. Now imagine what would happen if every Catholic in the world went to confession. The world would be transformed. It would be unrecognizable!

But for that to happen it would have to include you, not just everybody else. Imagine if everyone in your diocese went to confession regularly. If I were Pope I would require every bishop in the world to spend at least three hours a week hearing confessions. He could do it as he goes around administering confirmation in the parishes. (Sure, he would hear everybody's gripes about the Church, but he could gently remind the people that he is there to hear their confession not his or the pastor's second-hand!) He would also learn a lot about the real needs of his people.

In the past few years we have seen many disasters, both man-made (sin) and natural disasters. When this happens a big buzz goes up among some Catholics about whether it is God's punishment, a sign of the times, a chastisement, the end of the world, etc. Is it? I don't know. But if it were a warning-and there's no harm in presuming that it is-all disasters should carry the message "Memento Mori" -remember death-so, if it is a warning, what should be our response? To go to confession!

It is one thing to get excited about reported apparitions of Our Lady, but in those that have been approved, what is the message? Repent! Come to Jesus! Obey Him! Some people get all excited about things just because they appear to be mystical or supernatural, but when these things occur, they are always in service of the practical, and the most practical thing of all is you going to Heaven. I am confident that Our Lady would agree with me. She is not in the business of putting on shows, and staging events, she wants you in Heaven. Period.

As for natural disasters we know that when sin entered the world, disorder entered the realm of nature, and as sin increases nature itself reacts. "We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now." [Rm 8:22]

Many people are fascinated with doomsday scenarios about what these things portend and think they can't do anything about them, but we can-you can-and that something is go to confession-and keep going regularly. In doing so, we will find that we are participating not only in changing the world but in saving it.

Copyright © 2005 John Mallon.

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