Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Evangelistic Power Of Sacraments

Shaun Growney shares how, after nearly 40 years away from the Church, he was brought back to faith through the sacrament of Reconciliation

Shaun GrowneyAlthough I grew up in a catholic family, I became more casual in the practice of my faith in my teenage tears and left the Church altogether when I was twenty. I disagreed with much of the Church's moral teaching and could not reconcile the idea of a merciful God with eternal damnation. So I became an agnostic. I retained a kind of personal spirituality, and observed, loosely, a more or less humanistic moral code of my own design. This brought me (and others) a great deal of grief in different ways but I did not attribute that to any serious shortcomings in my philosophy. Successes and failures alike were all part of the learning process on the road to wisdom. So each mistake was an opportunity to grow (I suppose I was rather "new-age" in my outlook but without the hippie beard and sandals). I stayed on that road for the next thirty-odd years.

Then, in 1999, both of my parents died. This led to a discussion about the afterlife one evening over supper with my sister Chris. Chris is very devout and she had been praying for me constantly throughout my agnostic decades. So she got really tearful when I told her I didn't know whether or not there was an afterlife.Then she asked me to promise her something. Without knowing what it was that she wanted me to do, I found myself saying "Okay, I will". "If I make the arrangements for you, will you go and see a priest?" she asked. "Okay" I said, again. I enjoyed a good argument and thought it might be fun to argue religion and morals with a priest. I did not for a minute think I would change my views though. I was pretty well set in my ways and felt no need re-examine my reasons for leaving the Church.

So, about two weeks later, I found myself in a Hampstead sitting room with a fully cassocked Opus Dei priest, Fr. Robert. I told him my story and outlined all my "conscientious" objections to catholic teaching and morality. He made a few short remarks and offered some brief explanations in passing, but mostly, he listened. I admitted that I had done many things which I sincerely regretted, but that some things I had done contrary to catholic teaching, I did not regret because I did not think they were wrong. This led on to a discussion of the nature of sin and in particular of the need for sinful intent before anything could be called a sin. Fr. Robert seemed to be saying that if I was truly clear in my conscience that something was not wrong, then it could not properly be called a sin. This surprised me. My youthful understanding of some forty years earlier was rather different.

We continued our talk for some two hours at the end of which Fr. Robert said, in the sort of voice one might use to invite someone for a cup of tea "Would you like to go to confession before you leave?" I was astounded. I said "How many hours have you got to spare?" This was not what I had come for. I didn't even remember the words you were supposed to use in confession. Fr. Robert smiled and told me that we could proceed using a question and answer approach which would take no more than ten minutes and that I only needed to mention those things for which I was truly repentant, the rest being a matter for my own conscience. I hesitated. This was not going the way I had imagined it at all. Then, inexplicably, I began to feel rather emotional (the Holy Spirit?), and without really knowing what I was doing I said "Okay - if you like, let's do it."

I got onto my knees, recited words to Fr. Robert's dictation and answered his questions truthfully. Before long, I was weeping and when we had done, I made my act of contrition in a voice that was cracked and broken. Then Fr. Robert pronounced the words of absolution, and made the sign of the cross over my head. I realised at that moment that even when I had said "Yes" to confession, I had not really thought I would be considered worthy of absolution. And so I could hardly believe that the sacrament had been granted to me, that I had been sacramentally reconciled with a God I hardly knew or believed in. Then I felt the forgiveness welling up inside me like a gigantic spiritual embrace. Some might say that it was just a very emotional thing - to be reminded of my many errors and failings. But I have since come to understand that the Holy Spirit was moving me at a very deep level. That was the turning point in my life.

I said my penance of three Hail Marys on the tube going home (Only three! after forty years!), and I received the Eucharist at mass the following Sunday. Since then, little by little, my faith has grown anew, only not as it had been before when I was just a schoolboy. Then it was a matter of habit, and guilt, and a fear of damnation. Now it is a source of great joy and strength. Not that I am perfect yet - not by a long way. But the change God has made in me is so great that I am daily in awe of it. I was a lump of dead wood which He grafted onto the healthy vine and by and by, I have come back to life and I have even sprouted some new green leaves. The fruit is yet to come.

Source: Good News Magazine

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