I was surprised to see this couple, the leaders of a large prayer group in the Archdiocese of Bombay, who had been knocking at my door early that morning at the retreat house in Bandra, a suburb of Mumbai. On my blank refusal to leave my 200 retreatants and accompany them to the hospital, they began to plead their case.
Their son Joseph was sick and had been undergoing medical treatment at home. But after two weeks of medication he was not getting any better. Their family doctor finally acknowledged that he could do nothing more. He was not even able to diagnose the precise nature of his sickness, which baffled him. He recommended him to be admitted to this renowned hospital, where he would be under the care of the topmost specialists of the city. But here too, after he had gone through every diagnostic testing and been administered all kinds of medicine for a further two weeks, those eminent doctors owned up that they too could do nothing more. They too were unable to diagnose the young man’s illness and hence did not know how to treat him.
After coming to know all this, Joseph felt so disheartened and dejected that he told his parents, “I must see Fr. Rufus today.” I made it clear to them, when they approached me, that I could not absent myself from the retreat even for a short time. But they kept coming back again and again, saying that their son would not take no for an answer, and pleading that I come to the hospital – however late the hour.
I finally consented to come at the end of the day’s program, at about 10.30 pm. Seeing him in the ICU (intensive care unit) surrounded by all those sophisticated medical apparatus, I deduced that he must be very, very sick, and that is why he had called for me. But when I asked him, “What do you want? Why did you call me?” he answered to my great astonishment, “I want to make my confession!”
I was taken aback at first by this unusual request, since I had assumed that he had wanted me to come and pray over him for healing. Then I grew somewhat infuriated that he had dragged me all the way from the retreat in Bandra, instead of arranging for a priest in the parish where the hospital was situated to come and hear his routine confession. But on second thoughts, I cooled down and said to myself, “Perhaps, that is what he wants, and more important, what he needs.” And when he made his confession – it was a sincere and thorough confession of his whole life – I knew then that that was what he needed and therefore wanted.
My son, your sins are forgiven
I was about to leave his ICU private room, when there suddenly flashed into my mind the Gospel narrative of the healing of the paralyzed man. Whenever I refer to this Gospel incident during a retreat, I make it a point to ask the participants, “What did Jesus first say to the paralyzed man?” The unanimous answer I receive everywhere is, “Your sins are forgiven!” To their disappointment and chagrin, I tell them that this answer is equally wrong! I repeat the question, and with bated breath they wait for my answer to my own question, “The first thing that Jesus told this sick helpless creature was, ‘MY SON’.” And after a pause, I resume and tell them, “Then only did Jesus continue saying, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ (Mk 2:1-12).
For even though Jesus knew that this man was burdened by sin and needed the experience of God’s forgiveness, he also knew that he was oppressed by in a way the greater burden of guilt and needed also the assurance of God’s forgiving love. For God has sent Jesus to save the world, and NOT to condemn it (Jn 3:17). Jesus has indeed come not just to forgive our sins, but to free us from sin’s greatest consequence, the burden of guilt.
The miraculous healing power of Confession
It was therefore without the previous hesitation and with a new assurance that I returned to the sickbed. Looking up to heaven I prayed, “Lord, after you told the paralyzed man, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven’, you did not stop there; but you continued and said, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and go home’. Lord, you are the same: yesterday, today and forever. And so, in imitation of you, I am not going to stop after telling this modern paralytic, in your name and in the name of your church, ‘Your sins are forgiven’. I am going to continue and do what you did 2000 years ago, knowing fully well that what happened then will likewise happen now.”
I then looked down at the sick man and said, “Now that God has forgiven you your sins, I would like to pray for your physical healing too.”
It was his turn now to stare at me in surprise. He had not asked me to pray for healing before. Nor did he ask me to do so even now. It was I who took the initiative and made the suggestion. And after praying for some time, with his sister Jenny, a youth leader of the charismatic renewal in Bombay, I was so sure that what happened in the Gospel story then would happen even now, that I had the nerve to tell him, “Now move”. Before that he could not move his body, because of the intense pain. Now he moved. “Sit up”, I said. He sat up in his bed. “Get out of your bed.” He got out. “Bend over.” He bent over. “Walk about.” He walked about. Only I did not tell him, as Jesus did, “Take up your bed and go home.” For that was not his bed. And the next day he was discharged from the hospital.
How much more are we in the sight of God, our Father, his beloved sons and daughters first and only then sinners – and forgiven sinners at that. Jesus has indeed come not just to forgive our sins, but to free us from sin’s greatest consequence, the burden of guilt.
About a year later, I happened to recognize Joseph as a participant of the retreat that I was giving at Vinayalaya Retreat House, Andheri, Mumbai. When at the end of my first day’s talk on God’s initiative of forgiving love and man’s response of repentance, I retold the above incident, I remarked in passing that the young man whose testimony I had related was present here for this retreat, and that if he wished to confirm or change, add to or subtract from what I had said, – he was free to do so.
He got up at once, came on to the platform and facing the audience who looked at him with a sort of wonder, said only one sentence: “When I honestly repented and humbly confessed my sins to God and the Church, with the full assurance of God’s forgiving love in the Sacrament of Confession, I knew deep within myself that I was already even physically healed. – Even now I feel that there was really no need of Father having prayed over me for a physical healing”.
It is therefore through our repentance that we open ourselves to God’s forgiveness, that brings with it the experience of the warm embrace of the Father crying out with out joy, ‘My son, my daughter, was dead and is now alive.