The Dominican writer Colman O’Neill’s opening line on Penance is: “One of the simplest and best ways for a person to discover whether he appreciates the doctrine of the mystical body, not just as an abstract idea, but as a guiding influence in his life is for him to question himself on his attitude to confession.”
The threads of what we understand as Catholicism meet right in the experience of the sacrament. The mystical body of Christ is a mystery of God and so it cannot be reduced to sociology or psychology or simple utility (e.g., “I will need a priest at my funeral.”)
When Pius XII wrote about the mystical body he said: “Mysteries revealed by God cannot be harmful to men, nor should they remain as treasures hidden in a field, useless. They have been given from on high precisely to help the spiritual progress of those who study them in a spirit of piety.” So let us follow the truths that converge in going to confession.
For example, in the scripture reading at confession, we might hear: “If we say, ‘We have fellowship with [God],’ while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth. But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of his Son Jesus cleanses us from all sin.” (I John 1:6-7)
First, there is God, and we have a relationship to him, one that depends on the truth. Then there is our sin, and sin is closely related to denying the truth: “Lying is linked to the tragedy of sin and its perverse consequences.” (Benedict XVI) Confession is about our reflecting on our living the truth in the world. In the New Testament, Benedict continues:
the word “world” has two meanings and thus points to the problem and to the reality [we are] concerned [with]. On one side is the “world” created by God, loved by God, to the point that he gives himself and his Son for this world; the world is a creature of God, God loves it and wants to give himself so that it may really be a creation and respond to his love. But there is also the other conception of the “world” kosmos houtos: the world that is in evil, that is in the power of evil, that reflects original sin.
Yet in the midst of this agonizing tension, which we experience day in and day out, we are to worship God in spirit and in truth (cf. John 4:21-23). “Worshipping in spirit and truth really means to enter through the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ, into the truth of being. And thus we become truth and we become a glorification of God.”(Benedict XVI)
Truth is at the heart of Catholicism because Jesus is the Incarnate Truth, the Incarnate Word. And the mystical body, the Church, is an actual body right here in this world, with bishops, priests and laity with whom we deal right here in this world. But that’s not all. Pius XII went on to say:
they err in a matter of divine truth, who imagine the Church to be invisible, intangible, a something merely “pneumatological” as they say, by which many Christian communities, though they differ from each other in their profession of faith, are united by an invisible bond. But a body calls also for a multiplicity of members, which are linked together in such a way as to help one another. And as in the body when one member suffers, all the other members share its pain, and the healthy members come to the assistance of the ailing, so in the Church the individual members do not live for themselves alone, but also help their fellows, and all work in mutual collaboration for the common comfort and for the more perfect building up of the whole Body.
Catholicism is not about the atomized individual. It is about the individual within the living breathing community linked by all of these different bonds. Yet these can be disrupted by our sins. As Benedict has repeatedly pointed out: “The one threat of which the Church can and must be afraid is the sin of her members.”
In such a Church, confession makes the greatest sense because it is in “the Church, with all of its external apparatus of law, teaching authority and liturgy through which we can come into bodily contact with our Mediator-Priest to receive from him, in the human fashion that the Incarnation implies, the law of grace and the word of life and so participate in his sacrifice.” (O’Neill)
Freed from sin in this concrete fashion, we can participate fully in the Church’s offering glory to God, not only for Her own members, but for all of humanity.