By DONAL ANTHONY FOLEY
7 Secrets of Confession, by Vinny Flynn, MercySong/Ignatius, 208 pages; visit Ignatius.com or call 1-800-651-1531 for price and ordering information.
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A follow-up to the author’s very successful 7 Secrets of the Eucharist, his new book 7 Secrets of Confession seeks to make the Sacrament of Confession into a more meaningful encounter with God’s mercy, rather than just a ritual to be reluctantly gone through, most probably with the same old “shopping list” of sins.
Because Vinny Flynn isn’t afraid to relate his own experiences regarding Confession, both good and bad, you don’t feel he is preaching at you; rather he comes across as someone trying to help Catholics to have a deeper understanding of the sacrament. He wants to get across the idea that Confession, instead of being something we endure because we have to, should rather be seen as something we want to do.
He focuses initially on what sin actually is — that it isn’t just about behavior, but also about our relationship with God, who is our loving Father.
As he says: “Sin is when we refuse to let God father us,” and so, “the real problem is in our hearts, in our refusal to accept and respond to the Father’s love.”
God never stops loving us, no matter what we do, and our sinful behavior doesn’t change God in any way; rather it separates us from His love. So sin is when we deliberately turn away from God. But since He has given us free will, He allows us to do that; and so the remedy for sin is a change of heart, a turning back to God.
To illustrate this, the author uses an idea from St. John of the Cross, that God is like the sun shining on our house, always there; but if we keep the curtains shut we won’t see it. Likewise God’s love is always being poured out on us, but we have the capacity to accept or reject it.
Vinny Flynn looks, too, at the principle of forgiveness, and emphasizes that God wants to do much more than just forgive our sins in Confession, as important as that is. There should also be a focus on healing as a primary purpose of the sacrament. That is, God want not only to forgive us, but also to “heal us of the attitudes, disordered desires, problems, and wounds that are causing us to keep committing . . . sins.”
And as he points out, this is actually the teaching of the Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts Confession in the category of “Sacraments of Healing” (CCC nn. 1421, 1484), giving us an image of Christ as a great physician rather than a harsh judge.
Flynn emphasizes that we need to understand that even after our sins have been forgiven in Confession, because of our “woundedness,” we still need healing, and so we should see the sacrament at part of a process of healing.
The book has a very useful discussion of mortal and venial sin and a reminder that, ultimately, only God can distinguish between the two in any given case.
Flynn also points out the need to develop a positive spirituality — and not just a list of things we shouldn’t do — if we are to have real spiritual growth and holiness in our lives, that is, we should be seeking to do the things God wants us to do, rather than just avoiding evil. As he says: “We need to get beyond the Commandments, beyond focusing merely on behavior to focus on our personal response to God.”
He also stresses the importance of seeing Confession as a personal encounter with Christ, with the priest acting in the person of Christ. And of course, where Christ is, the other persons of the Trinity are there too, and so when we confess our sins and receive forgiveness and healing, the whole of Heaven rejoices.
Confession too, puts us in intimate touch with the events of Calvary, 2,000 years ago — Christ died then, but we receive His forgiveness now. And in fact there is an intimate relationship between Confession and the Eucharist, given that both sacraments were instituted in the same place — the Cenacle in Jerusalem — with Christ instituting Confession on the very evening of His Resurrection (John 20:19-23).
And as Flynn reminds us, we shouldn’t doubt God’s mercy: “If you have sincerely repented of your sins, confessed them, resolved not to repeat them, and received absolution, then they’re not just forgiven, they’re gone!”
He also underlines the point that Confession should lead to a dramatic change in our lives, a totally new attitude toward God on our part. Otherwise, “. . . the sacrament can all too easily become a kind of mindless mechanical observance, in which I simply confess my bad behaviors and receive absolution. Confessing my sins is not enough; I need to make a firm resolution to change.”
Flynn quotes St. John Paul II, to the effect that we should see our sacramental penance as a personal commitment to begin a new life, and not reduce it to a mere formula to be recited, and also that even after absolution we remain wounded by sin, and so need to resort to mortification and penance.
Likewise, in a chapter entitled, “You have to let go of your chains,” he looks at the barriers to our making such a change, which include anything which we set up as an idol in place of God, be it career, appearance, social life — anything which stops us from putting God at the center of our lives.
In particular, he points out that a failure to forgive others on our part sets up a huge barrier to receiving God’s mercy ourselves, and this includes feelings of hurt, anger, frustration, and resentment. All of these things have to be given to Christ on the cross in prayer, so that we can be liberated from them.
Flynn is insistent that the more often we go to Confession, the greater will be our growth in grace, providing we see the sacrament as an opportunity to radically change our lives. He points out that Pope St. John Paul II went to Confession weekly, and that recent Popes have encouraged frequent Confession, even for venial sins. He also highlights the importance of a good examination of conscience, before which we ask our Lady to help us, and also pray for our confessor.
Then we should focus on the root problems behind our habitual sins, those areas of our lives which we have not given to Christ, and where we need to practice forgiveness.
7 Secrets of Confession is written in a very engaging and down to earth way, and in it, Vinny Flynn both distills the wisdom he has learnt from his extensive ministry experiences, and convincingly expounds it.
The book has many useful quotations from the Bible, the Catechism, St. John Paul II, and from St. Faustina’s writings, which give it an air of authority. This is not a book, though, to be rushed through; rather it should be read slowly and prayerfully. Anyone who does that is sure to find it of great benefit spiritually.
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(Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian Apparitions, and maintains a related website at www.theotokos.org.uk.)