This past week, St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church, in Hamilton Square, New Jersey, hosted a four-day parish mission led by Father Larry Richards. I was unable to attend the event on Monday and Tuesday due to prior obligations, but I made it to Wednesday and Thursday. Wednesday focused on confession and Thursday focused on adoration and healing.
Wednesday, May 12 – Confession:
This is one of Father Larry’s most famous topics of discussion, so if you were unable to attend the event, you can see him speaking about confession at one of his other parish missions with a quick YouTube search. (Here is Part One on YouTube. It has four total parts). [see also: Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four]
Father Larry’s confession talk is extremely powerful in that he is able to make his audience examine their consciences in a way that probably goes deeper than ever before, but he is also able to cause them to feel absolute awe and wonder at God’s mercy.
At different times during the talk, I felt a combination of guilt, shame, gratitude, and overwhelming love.
He explained that mercy is when someone gives something good to someone who doesn’t deserve it. That’s exactly what Jesus did for each of us in dying on the cross. Jesus never sinned, yet He experienced excruciating pain in order to enable us to be forgiven for our sins and to one day reach the kingdom of Heaven. As Catholics, we know this to be true, but often we take it for granted.
Father Larry holds many conferences for men, so he initially spoke to the men and husbands in the audience. All of us, both men and women, should be praying daily, but it is the husband who is responsible for protecting and praying for his family. If that is not the case, he is not doing his manly duty and it is problems like this, sins of omission, that are often the most grave sins.
He spoke about the many scrupulous Catholics who are constantly going to confession over every little mistake, but they fail to realize that venial sins are forgiven during Mass. He says that Catholics should go to confession once a month, unless they have a mortal sin, in which case they must confess that as soon as possible.
He has a very blunt attitude about him, which is refreshing because he speaks the truth, not sugarcoating anything or trying to be politically correct. There are probably a lot of people who were offended by his words not because they were wrong, but because they were challenging. Any lukewarm Catholic was probably a bit frightened to understand that simply attending Mass on Sundays is not enough to inherit the kingdom of God. Even those of us who consider ourselves to be passionately Catholic were pushed in our faith, feeling humbled at the inadequacies he exposed in each of us. Priests were not exempt either, as he was very clear about the responsibility of priests to pray for their parishes.
He gave us a really good analogy of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. He once was working on a farm and had to carry a cow to a different area. While he was walking with the calf on his shoulders, it started to urinate, getting all over him and even into his mouth. This is the way that we treat Jesus. All He wants to do is bring us home to Heaven, yet we urinate all over Him through our sins while he is simply carrying us on His shoulders.
I have heard priests discuss the Passion and I watch the film, The Passion of the Christ, every year during Lent to remember Jesus’ suffering, but never have I heard it described the way it was on Wednesday night.
People sometimes wonder whether Jesus can understand their pain when dealing with the loss of loved ones, heartbreak, or even physical pain. Asking that sort of question is the equivalent of slapping Jesus Christ in the face. Of course He can understand our pain. The question is, can we understand His pain?
While Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, he was sweating blood. Father Larry told us how our capillaries can burst when we are enduring significant stress and fear. This is what was happening to Jesus because although He accepted His death for us, that did not mean that he was immune to fear. He was terrified about the pain that he would soon experience.
Then, Judas betrayed Him with a kiss on the cheek. When we are experiencing heartbreak, we sometimes wonder if he can understand. Jesus didn’t date or marry, so how could He understand the pain of a breakup or divorce? But those questions show our lack of full understanding.
Jesus IS love. He loves everyone with a deeper love than we can ever imagine. He loved Judas, the man who betrayed Him with a kiss. Did He experience heartbreak in that moment? Absolutely. We cannot fully grasp the extent of God’s love while we live in these earthly bodies, so it is we who cannot understand this heartbreak, not Jesus.
Father Larry continued to describe the pain of His Passion in a more detailed way than I have ever heard before. He described the way Jesus was scourged and how the pieces of metal and sheep bone that were attached to the leather straps on the rod would not just slap Jesus’ skin, but tear it away. This reminds me of the scourging scene in The Passion of the Christ when the metal on the strap gets stuck in Jesus’ side and is then ripped away with an extra tug. I am unable to watch that moment in the film, yet this was the way the entire scourging process unfolded.
Father Larry described the crown of thorns as more of a cap of thorns. The thorns were not like those on your average rose bush; they were one to three inches long and he said that they would have pierced his eyebrows, ears, and even his skull.
All of this pain, and yet the actual crucifixion had not even begun. It was then that Jesus had to carry the wooden crossbeam. It was tied to his arms, but he was so exhausted from the scourging that Jesus could barely walk. If I was to fall down, I would catch myself with my hands, but every time Jesus fell, He landed flat on his face, with the wood of the cross smashing into the back of His head.
On most crucifixes, Jesus looks to be in pretty good shape. We don’t want to terrify the people who enter our churches by portraying Him in a more realistic way, with chunks of flesh removed from his body and other strips of flesh torn and hanging, but that was the reality of the crucifixion.
I have heard so many people who refuse to watch movies about the Passion because it’s too much for them to handle. I, too, prefer movies that lack that type of gore, but it is necessary to understand. Father Larry did not mince his words in talking about the crucifixion. It was absolutely gruesome, but we must realize that in order to be truly aware of the awesome gift Jesus gave to us in His death.
Once He was nailed to the cross, His body would sag down and forward. He would be gasping for breath, only able to breathe once he pulled himself up by the nails in his wrists. He only spoke seven times while on the cross, probably because every word was a struggle.
He was hanging there, experiencing more pain than we can ever imagine, yet He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He was forgiving the people who were killing Him at the very moment of His crucifixion. Yet we sometimes find ourselves unable to forgive those who hurt us years ago.
During the crucifixion, Jesus also established His mother, Mary, as our mother, when he said to John, “Behold your mother.” He gave us the gift of Mary, yet some Catholics refuse to honor her as they should because they want to focus on Jesus. We take Jesus’ gift of Mary and say, “No thanks, I’m good.” She is a gift from God and we must give her the love and gratitude that she deserves as mother of our Savior. Father Larry told us how he completed St. Louis de Montfort’s Total Consecration to Mary and now wears a chain on his wrist to represent how he is a slave to Jesus through Mary.
Because God cannot be near sin, Father Larry explained that Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” when He had accepted all of our sins. God could not be with Jesus in that moment because Jesus was sin, which could only be overcome through His death.
With that, many of us were already feeling quite guilty, knowing that we had a hand in Jesus’ death. I’ve met people who don’t like to say “crucify him” aloud when we read the Passion during Lent. But although we didn’t say that word for word, we say it every time we sin. We are the ones hammering those nails into Jesus’ hands and shoving the crown of thorns into His head with every sin we commit.
At that point, Father Larry started to review the examination of conscience with us.
When people hear the term mortal sin, they often think about murder, adultery, and devil worship. But mortal sin has three facets:
As a practicing Catholic who understands the Church’s teachings, that means that any time I commit a serious sin, it is probably a mortal sin since I know the teachings and I have chosen to commit that sin. That is absolutely terrifying since it only takes one mortal sin to end up in hell.
Missing Sunday Mass or a holy day of obligation is a mortal sin unless we were really sick or otherwise unable to attend, yet there are tons of Catholics all over the world who are not at Mass each week. Sure, some of them fail to realize that is sinful, but many of them do and are therefore culpable.
When Father Larry spoke about the first commandment about not having false gods, he explained that most people never confess that sin, but all of us are guilty of it. Unless God is always first in our lives, then we are culpable of that sin. We often value money, success, and relationships more than God, which is shown in our priorities. If we don’t pray daily, we definitely are guilty of this sin.
Father Larry did not shy away from sins of a sexual nature. This can be an awkward subject for many, so some Catholics shy away from this topic, but it is a sin that so many people struggle with. He admitted to dealing with his own lustful temptations on a daily basis. I think it’s extremely honorable for a priest to stand up in front of over a thousand people and admit to that. It also helps us to realize that we are not alone, that we all face temptation, but that we also all have the strength to avoid that temptation.
He also said how too many people focus too much on feeling bad about their sins of lust while forgetting about the sins of omission, arguably the worst sins.
He said how he often asks people in confession what they have done to help the poor and whether or not they pray every day. Failing to do either of those things is much worse than many of the sexual sins that we focus on. We should all be helping those in need as much as we can, giving 10% of our income away.
We must confess the sin if we ever had an abortion or helped anyone to get an abortion. He suggests making a good confession and then asking God to reveal the child’s gender. Then they would name the child, pray to him or her in Heaven, and ask that child for forgiveness. They will then be united one day in Heaven.
It’s also a sin if we use artificial contraception. This is a topic that many priests avoid. Many people don’t want to make too many waves, but we must not forget about pivotal Catholic teachings as a result. They want to pick and choose which teachings they believe in, but that is not how it works. When we think back to Jesus’ suffering and death, we know that it was a result of each of our sins. It is not up to us to decide.
Many frequently people say “oh my God!” That is a sin that used to be punishable by death. Just because we hear other Catholics and sometimes even priests or nuns say it does not mean that it is not a sin. We have no right to take the Lord’s name in vain.
People often think they’re safe in terms of the fifth commandment since they haven’t killed, but we commit that sin every time we feel anger. Anger is not of God. Father Larry admitted to struggling with this on a daily basis. Again, it was refreshing to understand that we are not alone in our struggles. Priests aren’t immune from temptation and sin either.
After he reviewed the examination of conscience, we said the Act of Contrition aloud. There were eleven priests who would be hearing confessions and he told us to be quick, not using it as a time for counseling since there were so many people there. He also said that if we were one of those scrupulous people who had just been to confession three days ago, we needed to go to the back of the line to allow other people to confess their sins.
The next night, he said how he ended up hearing confessions until 12:10 am and how there were some people there who had not been to confession in over fifty years. He wanted to make sure that people in situations like that would not have to stand in the back of a line, possibly changing their mind and leaving with all of that sin hanging onto them.
Although I go to confession regularly, I felt even more renewed after confession on Wednesday. I had never delved that deeply into an examination of conscience. I had never felt so guilty about the sins that I have committed but simultaneously, I had never felt so loved and grateful for God’s mercy.
When my CCD students went to confession this year, I explained how fortunate they would be if they ever died on a day they went to confession. They were obviously taken aback, but Father Larry explained the same thing, how if we died following a good confession, we would go straight to Heaven. He even mentioned his movie idea of a priest who performs confessions and then slits the throats of the person who just confessed his or her sins since that would get them straight into Heaven.
Father Larry promised that during this mission, nobody would ever be bored and that their lives would be changed forever. Through his animated, enthusiastic speech, jokes, and storytelling, we were definitely never bored. And our lives were definitely changed forever. I will never consider my examination of conscience the same way I had before hearing this talk.
I am so grateful that I was able to attend Wednesday night’s talk and I hope to be able to share Father Larry’s messages with the people who were not able to attend the mission.