I have mercy on the brain this month. At LIFT we talked about the sacrament of Confession, and several parishioners shared powerful stories of how God’s mercy had strengthened their faith. Then, in recognition of the Pope’s Year of Mercy, our parish retreat focused on God’s message of Divine Mercy. Fr. Alar’s presentations were both consoling and challenging—showing me clearly the great ocean of mercy that stretches before us and how slow we are to tap into it for ourselves, much less for others.
I made my first Communion around age 10, during a brief period in which my mom returned to the church with my sister and me. As a young husband, I attended Mass with Jodi, out of respect for tradition and curiosity more than anything else. When I became a father, I began to open up to the possibility of becoming a practicing Catholic, but I had many questions and was deeply enmeshed in many of the typical sins of young men. I hid those sins under a thick blanket of pride, convinced that I knew better about right and wrong—but Jodi’s solid, peaceful faith played on my curiosity. So one evening, I sat down in the rectory to talk with our priest.
I told Fr. Bill I wasn’t sure it was possible to know if God exists. I told him I disagreed with the Church’s teaching on birth control. I told him I didn’t understand the Church’s teachings on the real presence of Jesus in the consecrated bread and wine at Mass. I told him I couldn’t believe that a merciful God could condemn good men to Hell for not believing in Him.
Fr. Bill addressed my issues calmly and thoughtfully. He told me I had a good head on my shoulders, and God gave it to me to use. He told me not to be afraid of my doubts or questions—that even priests struggle with the same and need faith to follow God.
“But you’re not going to find the answers to these questions by holding your faith at arm’s length,” he said. “My advice is to go to Confession and begin receiving Communion again, and ask your questions from inside the Church.”
I thanked him, and he said, “I could hear your confession now, if you want.” I protested that it had been many years and I didn’t remember how, and he said, “Don’t worry—I will help you.”
So right there, in the living room of the rectory, I made the first Confession of the rest of my life—my first face-to-face Confession—with the priest who first showed me the depths of God’s mercy. I began receiving Holy Communion again the following Sunday, was Confirmed in the Church a few years later, and began a lifelong march to Calvary and Christ, because Fr. Bill saw my dignity as a son of God under layers of pride and years of sin.
Here’s the kicker: I know now that my Confession that evening wasn’t technically valid. The sins I was struggling with come in buckets; I confessed most of them that night, but not all, because some I didn’t agree were sins and had no intention of changing. But I made the best Confession I could in my ignorance and was sincerely contrite—as sorry as I could be in that moment of faltering pride and budding faith. Fr. Bill started me on a road I may not have taken otherwise. Had I waited a week, that spark may have gone out, and had he said, “Good effort…but come back when you’re ready to confess everything else I suspect you’re doing,” I may never have come back.
I need to remember that my first steps on the path to an adult faith were baby steps, small and unsteady, and that Fr. Bill saw enough in me to invite me back to communion with God. We need to see each other as he saw me—as Jesus sees every sinner—and encourage those first faltering steps.