The Emperor’s Pardon

(Why go to Confession?)

Confession involves telling the story of our brokenness, of our failures…honestly and simply acknowledging what we are.

The story is told of a prince who was visiting Napoleon, and whom the Emperor wished to honour. Napoleon, it is said, gave the visiting prince permission to pardon a prisoner of his choice. The prince accepted the honour and went to a prison, but with no idea of whom to release. He spoke to very many prisoners, and every one of them said: ‘I, of all people do not deserve to be here.’ Each one had a tale of woe, a justification for their crime, a protestation of innocence, a rationalization, an excuse…

Finally, the prince spoke to a very notorious prisoner, one who had committed terrible crimes. This man, unlike the others, spoke plainly to the prince: ‘I committed evil deeds and I am receiving the punishment I deserve. I abused my freedom, and so my freedom has been taken from me. I, of all people deserve to be here.’ The prince granted that man the Emperor’s pardon.

When word went out that the prince had chosen the most notorious and brutal prisoner in the place, decent people were outraged and demanded to know what he was thinking. The prince explained: ‘The Emperor Napoleon granted me the right to extend his pardon, but nobody can pardon the innocent: I could offer the pardon only to the guilty.’

There is a humorous twist to the story, where the prince, after finally hearing an admission of guilt, says to the jailers: “Throw this man out of here, he is corrupting the innocents.” Legend and embellishment aside, the story underlines one of the main ingredients we need to make a good confession: honesty. Honesty with ourselves and before God.

Confession involves telling the story of our brokenness, of our failures, of our betrayals, of our falling flat on our face – of our need for mercy. It is about naming our need; not denying, not rationalizing, but honestly and simply acknowledging what we are. And the love of God comes pouring into that honesty.

This also sheds light on the old question, why not confess directly to God? There are several reasons, but to consider just one of them, we have a remarkable capacity to be subtle, with ourselves, to explain things away, to distort, downplay or exaggerate. To name things in the presence of a fellow human being, while it can certainly be more demanding, is also far more healing than simply turning things over in our mind. In every single relationship involving healing, be it with a doctor, a therapist, a spouse or a friend, the foundation is open, honest communication on the part of the one who is in need.

So, when the Church asks us to confess our sins honestly to a fellow-sinner entrusted with the Emperor’s pardon, she invites us to be honest with ourselves. It is ironic, not to say rather sad, that while the secular world has come to see the wisdom of ‘naming one’s stuff’ to another, Catholics often disregard this wisdom in the very context where it is liable to bring most healing.

Married people don ‘t expect their spouses to be perfect, but they do expect them to be honest. Love and honesty are closely related: honesty is a response to love and an openness to love. The same applies in our relationship with God.

I’ll conclude with an image I once heard for God’s judgment. Our faith assures us that each one of us will, when the pilgrimage of our life is over, be ‘held to account.’ But to be held to account is nothing other than to be invited to tell our story. And our judgment, this image goes, will be the whispering of our story into the ear of an understanding, loving Father. Confession is not the last judgment, but it is an opportunity to speak something of our story, of our neediness, of our brokenness, into the ear of our loving Father. Let’s not put it off; let’s not hold it back. Let’s not be afraid to approach a priest for the sacrament of reconciliation, and to confess or sins trustfully to a fellow sinner entrusted with the Emperor’s pardon.

Taken from Totus Tuus Edition 15 by Fr Chris Hayden

Totus Tuus website

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