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Three Steps of Confession

Fr. Scott A. Haynes

“There will be joy among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Luke 15:10

Most of you have heard of the great Italian poet, Dante, who was member of the Third Order of St. Francis. His great literary masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, is an account of his trip through heaven, hell and purgatory. An artist by the name of Gustave Doré has painted some of the scenes that Dante described.

Doré painted one powerful scene depicting Dante approaching the entrance to purgatory. At the entrance of purgatory stands a great angel wielding his flaming sword. This angel, acting as warden, refuses entrance to all who are unworthy. Looking more closely at Dore’s depiction of purgatory, we see three steps leading up to the entrance of purgatory. But what do these steps represent? These three steps represent the three steps of making a good confession. Every time you make a good confession you walk up these same three steps.

What are the three steps you may be wondering? Let us turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for the answer. The Catechism tells us that these three steps are three acts of the penitent in the Sacrament of Confession (Reconciliation): contrition, confession, and satisfaction. Dante describes these three steps:

"Thither did we draw nigh, and that first stair
Was of white marble, polished so and clean,
It mirrored all my features as they were.
The second darker than dusk perverse was seen,
Of stone all rugged, rough and coarse in grain,
With many a crack, its length and breadth between.
The third, which o’er the other towers amain
Appeared as if of fiery porphyry,
Like blood that gushes crimson from the vein.”

What a striking image of a good confession! As the penitent waits to make his confession, he bends his head in humility; he prays. He has contrition; he is sorry for his sins. Bending his head in humble prayer, he looks down to see the shiny polished marble step he is standing upon. Behold, he sees his own image reflected. He sees his sins and his imperfections reflected in the polished marble.

This first step opens his eyes to his true spiritual condition. It peels away his worldly mask. It shows him how he has offended our Lord by his own personal sins. He sees why he should be sorry.

Dante says that the second step, confession, is “darker than dusk,” rugged, coarse and cracked. As the penitent comes to this step and he kneels down. He now prepares to confess his sins. Blessing himself with that powerful Sign of the Cross, the penitent, one by one, tells his sins to the priest, just as a patient reveals his wounds to a physician. Instead of rationalizing his sin and explaining himself, the good penitent simply accuses himself of his sins without making excuses for himself.

At this second step the priest peers into the heart of the penitent and gently pulls up the roots of sin. And if those roots of sin go deep, or if the sinner clings to his sinful habits and vices, there will be rending and groaning.

Dante says that the third step, satisfaction, is like the letting of blood. St. Paul tells us that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin. But in Confession we turn with confidence to Calvary, where Christ shed His blood to the last drop for the salvation of sinners. Christ did not shed His Precious Blood in vein!

On this third step the penitent offers himself in reparation to God. He accepts and performs penance. He rises from this third step, absolved from sin and restored as a child of God. His sins, once scarlet red, are now white as snow.

Dear friends of the Cross, Christ has established the Sacrament of Confession to forgive sins. He gave the Church this holy sacrament for you and for me. Christ has given us contrition, confession, and satisfaction, these three blessed steps, to lead us back to HIim, back to the life of sanctifying grace, back to the life of supernatural charity.

The Holy Gospel reminds us: “There will be joy among the angels of God over one sinner who repents, more than over ninety-nine just men who have no need of repentance.” My prayer for all of you is that you take the opportunity to make a good Confession on a regular basis. Try to go to confession at least twice a month. For, as you exit that tribunal of Divine Mercy, wrapped in the love of God, with your baptismal robe washed white in the blood of the Lamb, “There will be joy among the angels of God [because a sinner has repented].”

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