In this Jubilee Year of Grace, I’ve been very privileged in our Guest House to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation with many people who haven’t celebrated it for quite a while. It’s encouraging to see how opening that Jubilee Door in each Diocese has inspired Catholics to reconnect with, to have confidence again in their Church.
Many experiences can drive us from the Church and in recent decades the sins of her ministers have indeed tarnished her credibility. Many ask how can she be what she claims to be–no less than the Church of God and the deposit of Truth, the Body of Christ and the Way to the Father–and act like that. I have no convincing reply to such a question largely because it’s a question I’m not capable of asking. That is no strength on my part nor do I have any great insight. Perhaps its even some sort of Sicilian fatalism: I expect human beings to be inconsistent, conflicted and sinful. I certainly am, perhaps on a smaller scale. Perhaps I lack ambition and imagination or am just lazy. Whatever! I certainly value disillusionment as a path to the truth, because it frees me from my illusions, my wishful thinking.
But if you don’t experience life like that, that does not address what you suffer when you see the sins of the Catholic Church. It’s probably not ideas that you need in reply but a breakthrough that you could experience; a breakthrough not only about the Church but about yourself, too. That’s something both you and I can pray for in your life.
Sometimes the arena of struggle with the Sacrament if Reconciliation is much smaller and more personal. You may be afraid to face another person and reveal to him choices in your life that you want to be freed from while you are afraid of his response. There have been a number of courageous people who come for the sacrament not knowing what to expect but they take a chance on me anyway.
As a kid, I can remember lining up for confession with my grammar school class and hearing the booming voice coming from the pastor’s confessional (he always had short lines), “YOU DID WHAT?!!!?” As I look back I honestly wonder what could a seven year old do to merit that reaction? Half of us instinctively looked away so as not to see which child came out of that door; the other half, faces prayerfully lowered into cupped hands, watched through the spaces between their fingers. An ordinary Catholic kid had just became a defiant folk hero!
But certainly the embarrassment of such a reaction could definitely alienate an individual from all confessors and every opportunity of confession. As non-Catholics of that era would say, “Why should I need to tell my sins to a mere man? I go directly to God.” And that has become, over time, a question posed by Catholics. The priest is as fallible as I am–what can he possibly say to me that I don’t already know? If he were a wise sage, a truly holy man, perhaps; but aren’t most of those guys somewhere in the Himalayas? So that’s one argument against the sacrament: the human minister.
Another objection is the formulaic nature of the sacrament itself. Don’t Catholics treat it like a mercy-dispenser? Do they really change their lives? It’s like the sit-com scenario of the Italian American wife asking her husband, “Why are you late for supper?” He answers, “I just closed a real estate deal and had to go to confession on the way home…” As Archimandrite Leonidas Contos writes: Repentance is a term whose meaning we tend to habitually miss. It may be in part the fault of the Church that we have come to think of it as a matter of ticking off our sins and offenses, “pleading guilty” to a kind of legal indictment in order to receive some kind of juridical absolution. Is confession, then, just getting things off our chest to have a temporary clean slate, so we can go out and do it all over again? If there’s no moral change, how can this be mature Christianity? To quote Leonidas Contos again: But when we remember that as John the Forerunner preached it, as Christ Himself called for it at the start of his public ministry, “repent” was always followed by a “for”, a because; a reason and a motivation. Turn around, it said. Arrest the drift of the soul away from God and his precepts; face homeward once again; the gift of sonship is still yours to claim…
The priest to whom I confess is not just a functionary of the Church; as the minister of the Sacrament he represents the Church, represents not just the institutional Church but the Body of Christ, of which I, too, am a member. But which I have also wounded, disfigured by my sin. There are sins that require that I face-to-face make amends or apologies to the one I offended. There are sins that hurt–even if secretly–masses of other people that I could never gather all together, or strangers I could never find. In the priest, who, I presume, also confesses his sins to a priest, I meet the Church I have harmed–I meet even myself, harmed by the toxicity of my sin.
Is it humbling to speak so candidly to another human being? Well, yes. It shouldn’t be humiliating or belittling, but it is humbling. When I’m the confessor and not the penitent, I have the obligation to listen patiently and not with a narrow, condemning mind (nor with a sloppy, condoning, dismissive mind); I have no right to be shocked or offended. I should welcome the candor and transparency and build on that desire to speak honestly. It’s a humbling experience for the confessor to be granted such trust! But it is humbling to speak to a confessor honestly and isn’t that the point? As a penitent, I feel such accountability a spur to be frank with myself, to take responsibility for my sinful choices and not worry about how I seem, how my carefully constructed “image” or reputation is tarnished. The better part of me knows that no persona represents to me or anyone who I really am; and no persona holds up before God! I really can’t invent or re-invent myself. I don’t think that any “makeover” is even skin deep; it certainly isn’t soul-deep! If I can’t be honest before another human being, can I really be honest before God?
Maybe it’s just me, but I’m suspicious about a just me-and-God repentence, especially if I feel my reputation is at stake before another human being. It’s too easy for me to replace God’s mercy with permissiveness, understanding with indifference about what I do. That’s why I find the sacrament of reconciliation a good reality check on where I really stand with God.