“I’m afraid when I go to confession that I may not remember everything I want to say. What do I do if I later remember something I should have said?”
I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that said! I also wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve said that myself! It does happen once in a while that we go to confession and later remember something we forgot to say. Does that make our confession invalid? Or do I have to go back and do it all over? The answer is, “no” to the first and “not necessarily” to the second. It’s kind of hard for a sincere confession to be invalid. Only if you deliberately held back a serious sin with some intention to sneak it past the priest could it be invalid. It doesn’t seem likely that someone would forget to mention something serious that is really plaguing him. Most likely, anything we forgot to bring up was of venial nature. But it does happen. So what do we do? Well, one thing I always do in confession to make sure I’ve covered everything is to say to the priest, “for these sins and any which I don’t now remember or realize I have committed I am truly sorry.” That gives me a sense of peace. But remember, the priest says “I absolve you of all your sins…” so unless there was a conscious effort to avoid mentioning a certain sin or something we deliberately did not confess, all our sins are forgiven.
Now for the real test: what happens about sins we don’t realize we’ve committed? Maybe we know something is sinful but we didn’t realize we had actually done it, or maybe we never knew something was sinful, or maybe we’re totally unaware that we have that sinful habit? Well, one thing I always try to remember is that, in our imperfect state, we are sometimes totally ignorant of our own sinfulness, and that may not be our fault. Of course we want to overcome all our sins, but what about the ones we don’t see? God is very much aware that in our fallen state, one of our shortcomings is not always being able to see all of our weaknesses. That’s why I always add in my confession the line I mentioned above: “…and for any sins I don’t realize…” Part of our growth in holiness is coming into awareness of our weaknesses. We should not expect to be aware all the time of everything that is wrong in our lives, and God is patient with us while we learn what sin is in our lives and how to overcome it.
So how, then, do we figure out what our sins are, especially if we don’t think we have too many? First of all, an examination of conscience and a good spiritual reading book will help point out things that we may not realize are happening in our lives or do not realize are sinful. Other clues can come from other people. Listen, for example, to the criticisms that people will sometimes offer about you, even if they are not always offered in the most charitable manner. Not every criticism of us is valid, and sometimes we will get conflicting opinions. For example, early in my priesthood one parishioner told me I didn’t seem to care about anyone over 18 years old, and another told me I had no interest at all in working with young people. Obviously they can’t both be right! Just because one person says something doesn’t mean it’s true about you. But listen for repeated comments. If you frequently hear someone say, for example, “he’s so critical” or “she has no patience at all”, chances are you may be guilty of being critical or impatient. Another thing I like to do is imagine I’m having a conversation with Jesus. I imagine he is in a chair in front of me and we are speaking face-to-face, and I ask him , “Lord, what are the things about me of which you are pleased, and what areas in my life do you want me to work on improving?” Sometimes the answer comes almost immediately to me. But I also believe, and have found, that God never leave such a question unanswered, and in his own merciful way he has a way of showing me the areas in my life where he really wants me to grow and change. If we practice these skills, I’m certain we will grow in our awareness not only of the sin in our lives but also of our growth in holiness.
Remember that one confession is not going to automatically bring us to perfection; rather, every confession is a further step of growth in holiness. The more frequently and honestly we confess the holier we’ll be bound to grow. Just like learning to play a musical instrument, frequent practice and frequent lessons help us grow to be a virtuoso, so the same thing happens with holiness. While all of our sins are in fact forgiven every time we sincerely confess them, even if we don’t recall everything that was sinful whether it’s because we forgot or were not aware of it – provided we have not deliberately left out something – we do need to grow in our knowledge of exactly what is sinful and of precisely what sins we are guilty. God is patient with the understanding that we’re not always aware of all the weaknesses in our lives and if we make an honest effort to overcome them as he shows them to us, we will grow in holiness. So do not be afraid if you have not made a perfect confession. A perfect confession is not one where we remember every single detail that must be confessed but rather one in which we can truly say we are sorry from the bottom of our hearts for any sin we have committed, no matter how small. If we can do that, then just like the thief on the cross, when we stand before Jesus in judgment we will hear him say to us: “this day you shall be with me in Paradise!”
Let’s face it: we’ve all been hurt in life, often in little ways, sometimes in big ways, but we’ve all been hurt. And it stinks! It’s lousy, it’s painful, and it’s not right, but it’s the world we live in. Sometimes we feel we will never forgive somebody for what they’ve done to us, and it is certainly understandable that we would feel that way, especially when we’re in pain. But when the pain starts to subside and we think clearly, we realize that forgiveness is the only means to restoring peace in our hearts. If we continue to hold onto the pain of a wrong that someone has done we will never find peace. No one can change anything that’s happened in the past even if we want to, but when we don’t let go of the past we let the pain of the past continue to harm us in the present and the future, and we are forever victims of the harm. Instead of finding peace, we end up living as victims each and every day.
We know we should forgive people, but sometimes we think forgiving them kind of gives them the upper hand, that maybe they’ve made us into a chump by forgiving them. Maybe we think not forgiving them gives us the victory and ruins them. But it really doesn’t; it only harms us! Actually, forgiving somebody is the way that we have the upper hand in the situation; by taking the high road we win in the long run. Imagine this: suppose I do something to hurt somebody really badly and I know it and I go to them and ask for forgiveness and I’m big about it. I don’t make any excuses, I don’t try to say I was in a bad mood or I was cranky or anything like that. I say to them, “I did something to hurt you and I was wrong and I am sorry for that; will you forgive me?” Hopefully the other person will say yes, in which case we can make amends and move on with the friendship that we’re meant to have. But suppose the other person says no, suppose they say, “No, I will never forgive you for that!” Well, I can at least say in my heart that I tried to do what was right I did the right thing. I went to them and I apologized. I’m sorry for them that they could not find it in themselves to forgive me, but I can move on and leave it in the past and will have peace, but the person I hurt will continue to allow what I did to harm them into the future. No one can change the past even if we want to. We cannot go back and change something we’ve done. It is therefore healthy for us and even necessary to forgive other people who harm us.
But what exactly does it mean to forgive somebody? Let’s talk about what it doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean I always just forget about it and pretend it never happened, especially if it was something with serious consequences. Sometimes we do have to remember that something happened, but forgiving them means that we realize that they are weak human beings like ourselves and just as we fall sometimes and do wrong things, so are they, and we’re not going to hold them to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. Forgiving others also does not mean that we pretend somehow it was all our own fault, that we must’ve said or done something to make that person react that way. Maybe there is truth to that, but not always. Sometimes we’re perfectly innocent of saying or doing anything, and the harm that was done to us was totally unprovoked. It does mean to say “I understand that you are weak like me and I forgive you because we all need forgiveness every now and then.
Hopefully if somebody does come to us and ask us for forgiveness we will always say yes to them. But what happens if somebody never comes to us for forgiveness? What happens if the person doesn’t realize or will never admit that they’ve done anything to harm us? Or suppose the person who harmed us has long since passed away and could not come to us even if they wanted to? Well, this is what I always do: I bring it into prayer and I say, “Lord, if that person ever comes to me and says, ‘listen, I’m sorry for what I did to you. It was wrong of me; will you forgive me?’ then of course I would forgive them on the spot, and if they never ask me in life they will have to one day stand before you in judgment, and they will realize then that they have harmed me, and when they realize at that point that they need my forgiveness, help them know that I forgave them a long time ago!” That gives me so much peace, to be able to move on and have healing for the times in life that people have hurt me, even if they see no reason to apologize whatsoever. You never know! You might get someone to apologize to you even many years later. That happened to me once. Somebody who had harmed me big time repeatedly when we were young and with whom I had lost contact searched for me online and many years later finally found me and said, “listen, when we were kids I was really mean and cruel to you, and I’m sorry for everything that I ever did to you. I hope I didn’t hurt you too much, but can you forgive me?” I was able to tell this person that I did forgive him and that I have forgiven him a long time ago. I found peace many, many years ago. But I wonder if this person had been holding onto the guilt for all this time. Was this the first moment that he finally found peace for what he had done to me when we were kids? If that’s true, I’m glad at least he finally found it. But you see, I was able to go through my life with peace, leaving the harm in the past, and this other person may have been carrying the pain for all of these years. Now this doesn’t always happen; there are many people who have harmed me that have never apologized, and I am certain there are people whom I have hurt to whom I have never said I was sorry. But I ask God always to help anyone whom I have ever harmed to know I am sorry, and to please see that they are not forever hurt by my carelessness. That, too, gives me peace!
So when somebody harms us, were only hurting ourselves by not forgiving them. If they ask you for forgiveness, always say yes. If they don’t, pray and say, “Lord, if there ever comes a time when they realize they’ve hurt me and they need my forgiveness, help them know that I freely grant it. In this way, we can have peace in our lives. And of course if we have harmed somebody else and need to ask their forgiveness, then remember to apologize and make amends so that we may heal. If we withhold forgiveness we hold on to anger, which embitters us and cannot give us the peace that we look for in life. Refusing to forgive only makes us bitter. So forgive as God has forgiven you; that is the path to peace!