Each year, as Ash Wednesday approaches, you will often find Catholics asking themselves (and each other) what they will be “giving up” for Lent. And, because Lent is a season of penance, it is a fair question. There is more to Lent, however, than sacrifice and self-denial.

Lent — the name for which comes from an old-English word meaning “springtime” — is a season of discipleship. These 40 days are a time for Christians to reflect on how we are living our commitment to follow Jesus and to simplify our lives by setting aside those things and relationships that often take up so much of our time. The Lenten “good works” of prayer, fasting, and giving alms are time-honored practices that help us to refocus on what is most important as we prepare for Easter and the moment when, on Easter Sunday, we renew our commitment to follow Christ by renewing the promises of our baptism.

As we focus on renewal and discipleship these days by recalling our baptism, our Catholic tradition encourages us to bring our sins, failings, and bad habits to God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Reflecting on this aspect of Lent, Fr. Joachim Studwell, O.F.M., of St. Francis Friary in Burlington, says that “from ancient times, Lent was the intense preparation for those to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. Since the restoration of the Catechumenate [after Vatican Council II], the traditional practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation during Lent has taken on renewed meaning.” Because we are on a journey with those women and men preparing for baptism, Fr. Joachim continues, “we bear them witness, and the whole world, of our own ongoing need for conversion to God’s restorative and healing grace as a sign of hope … This leads us all to the Eucharistic Table.”

As we mark the final days of the Season of Lent — which concludes on the afternoon of Holy Thursday — we might ask ourselves how we can best prepare ourselves to celebrate for a good confession. What advice can priests offer to help us make the most of this sacrament during these days of discipleship?

In answer to these questions, Fr. Thomas DeVries, director of Spiritual Formation at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, said that, “Often it is easy for us to remain ‘on the surface’; when we approach confession. We can all quickly list several sins that are easily detectable in our lives. But the places where authentic conversion and transformation need to take place can well be hidden.”

“Sometimes,” he continued, “I invite people to imagine themselves in the presence of Christ. He looks at them with love, but is a piercing look as well. There is nothing hidden from his sight.” And why is this honesty and vulnerability so important in the sacrament of reconciliation? Because, Fr. DeVries said, “It is Christ himself who points out the attitudes, actions, omissions that need forgiveness. This exercise may take practice, but over time it can lead us to go more deeply in recognize sins that we often do not see or acknowledge.”

Salvatorian Fr. Paul J. Portland of Saint Pius X Church in Wauwatosa, reminds those approaching the sacrament of reconciliation to begin by reflecting on the Ten Commandments but, he observes, we have to go deeper. “Think about what we hear in Chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is there with the crowds and he’s reminding them, ‘You have heard it said … you shall not kill … you shall not commit adultery … do not make false oaths.’ But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He takes these basic teachings and goes a step further: ‘But, I say to you …’ and Jesus tells the crowds to look at the attitudes and ideas that are lurking beneath their surface. Pay attention to these,” Fr. Portland continues, “often we have anger, we won’t forgive, we do a lot of damage with our tongues, but we don’t recognize these acts and attitudes as wrong.”

Understanding what is going on beneath the surface also helps us recognize our “sins of omission” — those good things that we fail to doo — as an important part of celebrating this sacrament in an adult way. To highlight this point, Fr. Portland recalls the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). “When we think about this story, we are being invited to think of what we neglect to do and the opportunities, needs, and people who aren’t even ‘on our radar.’ The Rich Man, didn’t necessarily do anything ‘wrong,’ but he failed to do the right thing by ignoring and neglecting the poor man who was literally lying outside his door.”

Fr. John Burns, the pastor of St. Mary Parish in Menomonee Falls, noted, however, that none of this is easy because, in the end, reconciliation is about conversion, healing, and renewing our relationships with God and with one another: “It’s an intimidating sacrament, it’s difficult for us, and, so often, it’s misunderstood.” Confession, Fr. Burns said, is the sacramental way God offers us the gifts of forgiveness and reconciliation. Sin happens, he continues, “When we fail to repent, and we fail to see that our minds and lives are not turned to God. When we fail to get ‘on track,’ we need confession because it sets us straight, it reconciles us again.”

To those who might feel overwhelmed by the prospect of confessing difficult sins or who might have been away from the sacrament for some time, Fr. Burns said “There is nothing that can scandalize us [priests] in the sacrament, there is nothing that can impress us. We’ve heard everything, everything that’s out there, I’m not kidding, and there’s nothing you could bring that would be new, or creative, or shocking. Sin is always shocking,” he said, “but the grace, the joy of confession, is you’re getting rid of something you’ve been carrying around. It’s a healing.”

In the end, healing, wholeness, renewed relationships, and beginnings are what the Sacrament of Reconciliation is all about. This sacrament is a gift that allows us to refocus our attention on the quality of our discipleship in these Lenten days, but it is also available to us at any time, most especially when we are need of God’s mercy and forgiveness.