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(This essay was originally published on August 12, 2010)
Before a child’s First Communion comes First Reconciliation (the Sacrament of Penance). According to Church doctrine, prior to partaking in the Eucharist, one must confess, do penance, and be absolved of sins committed since Baptism.
I was both confused and nervous in the weeks leading up to my First Reconciliation. Even then, I was a bit baffled by the potential ramifications of absolution. If one could receive absolution simply by confessing one’s sins to a priest and doing the required penance/self-inflicted punishment, then what was the incentive to avoid sin in the first place?
I didn’t yet understand the central role that guilt and the obsessive avoidance of sin plays in the lives of Catholics. The cycle of sin/confession/penance/absolution becomes an addiction of sorts. It is impossible to avoid sinning; thus, unless you want to go to Hell, you must visit the confessional often. You do your penance and you are absolved. For a fleeting, blissful moment, you feel light and pure and holy. But soon you will sin again, the guilt will return, and you will go back to the confessional and repeat the process over and over again.
This cycle becomes deeply ingrained and almost impossible to escape. I left Catholicism fifteen years ago, yet, on occasion, I still catch myself wondering what I need to do in order to rid myself of the vague guilt that, in one form or another, is often my companion. I sometimes find myself feeling frustrated: why, I wonder, can’t someone just tell me what penance to do? I obviously no longer think in terms of sin or feel the need to go to the confessional, but the desire for absolution remains, like an itch that can’t be scratched.