Reconciliation, or Confession, is one of the 7 Sacraments. I can sum it up in one word: Humility. Think about how hard it is to tell someone you're sorry for something you did to them. And then to ask for forgiveness. That is Reconciliation: Facing another human and admitting your sins, taking responsibility for your actions, and asking for forgiveness.
Now think about how relieved you were when you asked for forgiveness from someone for some wrongdoing. That's how it feels after Reconciliation.
When I made my First Confession (as it was called back then), I went into a confessional, knelt down, waited for the door of the window screen to slide, and did the following:
Made the sign of the cross while saying, "Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been (however long it had been) since my last confession and these are my sins." That would be followed by a list of wrongdoings, then, "I am sorry for these and all the sins of my past life." The priest would then say words of absolution, and assign a penance. The penance may be anything from fasting, doing some kind of charity work, or, more often, prayers.
Last night we had a communal penance service. The opening prayer was beautiful:
"Jesus said, 'There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous who have no need of repentance.' No matter how hard we try, we are a people who always stand in need of repentance, and our gathering tonight brings joy to the Lord." There was a reading of a Bible passage by one of the priests, followed by a Responsorial Psalm, a Gospel reading, followed by a Homily. During the Homily, the priest recounted a story that had been going around in e-mails: there was a man from the country who was in the big city for the first time. He stood in front of an elevator, and saw an old woman go into this small room. The doors closed, and when they opened, a beautiful young woman stepped out. The man looked at his son and told him to get his mother.
Then, he related that story to Confession. I thought it was a great analogy.
Following the Homily, there were a couple of prayers. There were about 8 priests at the service; each priest had a "confession station" (as I call it). Parishioners can go to one of their parish priests, or they can go to somebody they don't know. I had always gone to a priest I didn't know (it makes it easier when you know you won't have to see him again!) until we lived in SC. That was when I felt comfortable enough with the parish priest to admit that I wasn't perfect and I had done some things I was ashamed of. I forgot to mention that now confession is done face to face. No more hiding.
So, last night, I got in line for my parish priest...the African...my buddy. As I stood in line, examining my conscience and deciding just what I was going to say, I wasn't nervous. Then, I started thinking about how I've let that priest down. He has told my mother how happy he is to see me at Daily Mass or at Sunday Mass. He always has a hug for me and thanks me for coming or tells me that he's happy to see me. He went out of his way to write a sweet personal note in a birthday card. And I started to panic. I was about to let him know that I wasn't just full of rainbows and sunshine. I was going to tell him that I'm not perfect. Humbling? Absolutely. A relief? You bet. That is Reconciliation.
I feel like I have to address the question: Why do Catholics confess their sins to a priest? Why not go directly to God? The answer can be found in the Bible:
John 20:19-23 "Now when it was late that same day, the first of the week, and the doors were shut, where the disciples were gathered together, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them: Peace be to you. And when he had said this, he shewed them his hands and his side. The disciples therefore were glad, when they saw the Lord. He said therefore to them again: Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you. When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained."
The apostles were the first priests. In saying those words, Jesus was giving them the power to forgive sins, and to pass that power down to future generations. In Matthew 5:23, Jesus said: "If you bring your gift to the altar and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar. Go first to be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift."
Going to Confession is a difficult thing. I kept putting it off because it's not easy to go in front of another human being and admit your faults. Pride kept me from going before last night. I would like to think that it might get easier. Especially since the priest knows my secret: I'm not perfect.