In first century Middle East, at night, sheep would sometimes be gathered together in a sheep pen, a high walled pen, a sheep fold. This was a way to keep them safe, safe from thieves, and animals that might want a midnight snack. These pens were so constructed that there was only one gate there was only one way in and one way out. And in this gateway entrance the shepherd would spend the night. He’d sleep right there in the gateway. Hopefully, waking up if anyone tried to enter to steal a sheep or eat a sheep. To get into the sheep pen you’d have to go through the narrow gate and through the shepherd. The shepherd was the narrow gate.
And in our Gospel Jesus tells us, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” Jesus is that narrow gate; he’s that gate into the sheepfold of heaven. And right here at St. Jerome’s we see that narrow gate symbolized in three different places. First we have the gate of 72 inches leading us into the area of the baptismal fount, where once baptized we are washed clean we are made members of our Lord’s mystical body, made members of his flock. Second, we have the door, a gateway of 12 inches, opening into the tabernacle, which keeps for us, the holiest of holies, our Lord, our Lord who is our food, food to keep away the weariness, food to strengthen us, food for the journey home to Heaven. Third, we have the door leading into the confessional, a gateway of 36 inches, a gateway leading to a place of healing and cleansing. The journey home to Heaven can be rough and we sometimes stumble and fall. We need a place of healing. The narrow gate leading to the confessional is where we can more fully enter into the life of Christ, receiving his healing touch. The good shepherd heals us.
I want to talk a little more about this gateway to the confessional; I want to give you a view from my side of the screen. The confessional I think is a joyful, humbling, and inspiring place a place where people let God’s love win. So what do I see during confession? First, I see the mercy of God in action. I regularly come face to face with the overwhelming, life-transforming power of God’s love. I get to see God’s love up-close and it reminds me of how good God is. Not many people get to see the way in which God’s sacrifice on the Cross is constantly breaking into people’s lives and melting the hardest of hearts. Jesus consoles those who are grieving their sins…and strengthens those who find themselves wanting to give up on God or on life.
Second, in the confessional I see a person who is still trying. I see a saint in the making. It doesn’t matter if this is the person’s third confession this week; if they are seeking the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it means that they are trying. Going to confession is a sign that you haven’t given up on Jesus.
Now sometimes people will ask if I remember people’s sin from confession. As a priest, I rarely, if ever, remember sins from the confessional. That might seem impossible, but the truth is, sins aren’t all that impressive. They aren’t like memorable events in our lives, like the birth of a baby or a wedding…sins are more like garbage. And if sins are like garbage then the priest is like God’s garbage man. If you ask a garbage man about the grossest thing he’s ever had to haul to the dump, maybe he could remember it. But the fact is, once you get used to taking out the trash, it ceases to be noteworthy, it ceases to stand out.
When we begin to realize that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is less about the sin and more about Christ’s death and resurrection having victory in a person’s life, the sins lose all of their luster, and Jesus’ victory takes center stage. In confession we meet the life-transforming love of God…freely given to us every time we ask for it. We meet Jesus who reminds us, “You are worth dying for…even in your sins, you are worth dying for.” Whenever someone comes to confession, I see a person who is deeply loved by God and who is telling God that they love Him back.
Third, the third thing a priest sees when he hears a confession is his own soul. I am humbled when someone approaches Jesus’ mercy through me. Hearing someone’s humility breaks down my own pride. Jesus trusts me to be a living sign of His mercy. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once told priests that we scarcely realize what is happening when we extend our hands over someone’s head in absolution. We don’t realize, he said, that the very Blood of Christ is dripping from our fingers onto their heads, washing the penitent clean. The confessional is a powerful place. I offer God’s mercy, love, and redemption…and I don’t want to get in Jesus’ way. The priest stands in judgment of no one. In the confessional, the only thing I have to offer is mercy.
Confession is always a place of victory. Whether you have confessed a particular sin for the first time, or if this is the 12,001st time, every confession is a win for Jesus… and I, a priest, get to be there. I get to sit and watch Jesus win His children back.
Our Lord wants a relationship with each one of us. He wants us to know Him. And to regularly enter the narrow gate of the confessional is to know His merciful love and His deep forgiveness; it was for this that he died. Through the narrow gate we find Jesus, at the baptismal font, the Holy Eucharist within the Tabernacle, and the confessional. The sacraments are our gateway home. Let us stay within that narrow gate of his Divine love.
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley