This column begins a three-part series on the sacrament of reconciliation that may help and challenge us in our celebration of this wonderful, yet difficult sacrament. During this "Year of Faith," one of the objectives is to focus on the sacrament of reconciliation. The Albany Diocese is participating in an initiative during Lent called "The Light is On for You" that encourages Catholics to come back to reconciliation.

The U.S. bishops have also encouraged a better knowledge and use of the sacrament and, as we continue the third year of the diocesan "Amazing God" initiative, the sacrament is a great way to be led by the Holy Spirit to encounter Christ, the healer.

Many have noted a huge decline in the practice of the sacrament and even speak of a crisis. Various reasons have been put forth for this: bad experiences in the confessional, suspicion, fear, living in a "blame culture" (which, ironically, also imparts the loss of a sense of individual or personal responsibility; it's always their fault, not mine), confusion about what sin is or what "grace" is, or the belief that there are many other substitutes for the sacrament.

One person recently commented that it had been so long since they had been to confession that they were worried about going now, as they could not remember what to say or do. Another person noted that they had plucked up the courage to go and had had a great experience of peace and healing, but then thought, "Well, that's it for a while" - until they realized that the sacrament is a key part of an ongoing and developing life of conversion and reconciliation.

As they put it, "It is not just a flash in the pan!"

A recent survey of young people ages 18-30 yielded some interesting results. Some 81 percent took the sacrament seriously and recognized its value, even if they did not use it, and 59 percent saw the added value of the sacrament above and beyond just saying sorry to God directly.

However, 52 percent saw sin as simply breaking a rule or doing something wrong, as opposed to a broader and deeper understanding in terms of a falling short of the ideal (personal holiness, a good lifestyle and so on) or as the misuse of our human faculties, resources and gifts. (Significantly, the root of the word "sin" comes from the sport of archery and means a missing of the target!)

If we look at the Scriptures, we can see the very deep roots of our present-day sacrament. One theologian observes that sin, reconciliation, forgiveness, mercy, conversion and love are fundamentally biblical concepts. Jesus' own ministry was absolutely about conversion and reconciliation; we might say that He is the foundational sacrament of reconciliation.

Think of His many encounters with sinners or outcasts such as Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10) or Matthew (Matthew 9:9), or parables such as the prodigal son (Luke 15:1-32). Jesus sought out those who thirsted for reconciliation, so much so that the so-called "good" people complained that He was a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Imagine that!

We also believe that Jesus wished His body, the Church, to continue this mission and ministry of conversion and reconciliation, and that He commissioned His Apostles and their successors to do just that (John 20:20-23 or Matthew 16:13-19, 18:15-18). The sacrament is therefore a special, unique and privileged moment where we can experience an encounter with Christ, the healer.

There's more: To quote the Catechism, Jesus Christ acts through the sacrament, giving us pardon and peace, and in this we can also grow in an honest understanding of who we are. Finally, the sacrament really comes into its own when it becomes part of a lifelong project of conversion, healing, reconciliation and a growing closeness to the Lord.

Over the next few weeks, let us rejoice in this great gift. As moral theologian Bernard H?ring put it so beautifully: "It is a sacrament of liberation, of Easter joy, of praise, of healing hurt memories and restoring healthy relationships, of ongoing conversion, of coming closer to God and of restoring the unity of His family. In it we experience the blessedness of those who praise the Lord for having taken upon Himself sorrow, suffering and death to make us free again."

Whatever the form of the sacrament we celebrate and with so much choice and, hopefully, increased availability - especially in the season of Lent - let us think about making use of this great sacrament of God's love, care and mercy.

(Father Barratt is pastor of St. Ambrose parish in Latham.)