Confession is an act of God’s love

2 mins read
A memorial to Maryknoll Father Vincent R. Capodanno, a Navy chaplain who was killed in 1967 while serving with the Marines in Vietnam, is seen July 15, 2019, at Fort Wadsworth in the Staten Island borough of New York. Father Capodanno, a native of Staten Island, was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1969. His cause for sainthood is being promoted by the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

It has been 112 years since the British luxury liner, “Titanic,” sank in the mid-Atlantic after colliding with an iceberg, ending the lives of 1,517 people, but the tragedy still fascinates people. Many stories are told.

Among these stories are references to three Catholic priests who were aboard the ship: Father Thomas Byles from England, going to a family wedding in the United States; Father Juozas Montvila, a Lithuanian fleeing Russian persecution of Catholics; and Father Josef Peruschitz, a German Benedictine monk traveling to Minnesota to become the head of a school in St. Cloud.

None of the priests survived. All perished when the ship sank, but many survivors remembered them, as they worked their way through the crowds of passengers, most of whom were awaiting their doom, quietly hearing confessions.

The only chaplain killed in action, on either side, in the American Civil War was a Benedictine, Father Emmeran Bliemel, serving in a Tennessee unit of the Confederate army. He was kneeling beside a wounded Confederate soldier, hearing the soldier’s confession, when a shot fired by a Union soldier killed the priest.

A desire for absolution

In the more recent past, Maryknoll Father Vincent R. Capodanno, a chaplain in the Vietnam War, now being considered for canonization, was killed by enemy fire as he moved among the men of his unit on a battlefield, in many cases hearing their confessions.

These priests followed wherever, and to whomever, the Lord led them, bringing to the dying and the desperate the healing forgiveness of the Lord.

Their stories should make all Catholics proud, but a lesson is to be learned not just from the priests’ unwavering devotion but also from those who reached out to the priests for absolution.

The passengers and crew on the Titanic, and the soldiers amid battles, wanted to be at peace with God, but they hardly were the only Catholics who experienced the desire to be one with God when death was near.

Confessions in decline

The interesting point is that Catholics, who do not feel themselves in danger of dying, do not feel a similar desire.

It is no secret. Sacramental confessions are on the decline. Once upon a time, churches on Saturday afternoons and evenings were busy places, as so many parishioners went to confession.

In some places, going to confession on Saturday was as much a part of religious practice for Catholics as attending Mass on Sunday.

Observers of religious patterns cite many reasons for this decline: the general weakening of religion in Western society and widespread confusion about what is, or is not, what is right or wrong.

Still, whatever influences have made their pressure felt, rare is the Catholic who does not feel better, more secure and invigorated after confessing his or her sins and receiving from the priest sacramental absolution.

Several years ago, CNN interviewed a newly ordained priest in Lansing, Michigan. He already had heard confessions.

The CNN reporter asked him why anyone would come to him, a “young Michigan farm boy,” to confess something so personal as sin. The priest answered that they were not coming to a “young Michigan farm boy,” but to the Lord, whom the priest represented.

Nothing is clearer in the Gospel than the Lord’s conferral of the authority to forgive sins upon the apostles (Jn 20:23). It was an act of love. Jesus wanted believers to experience the rewards of renouncing sin, of coming close to the Lord and of sensing the inner peace and joy that accompanies this union.

The young priest in Michigan got it right. He, and priests like him, are available everywhere, to act in the example and upon the mandate of Christ, to bring peace and strength to souls.

Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody sins, but also true is the fact that the Lord loves us all, is ready to forgive us, and will bring us, in that forgiveness, to that peace which nothing else in the world gives.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.