Wednesday, December 18, 2013


It is the time of year for penance services and Christmas parties.

Generally speaking the one is better attended than the other.   One wonders why given the relative importance of each in the Grand Scheme of Things.

I suppose there are a lot of reasons, personal and societal.

For starters, generally speaking, there’s a lot more hype around the annual Christmas party (or, for that matter, any other party) than around the penance service.  There is often a targeted mailing, with a slick and beautiful invitation, there are posters, there’s always an announcement after mass—usually many--- and always, always, the announcement emphasizes the benefits of the party: the fun, the fellowship and the community that the party will bring to the faithful and to the Church.

By contrast, the penance service is generally announced in a bland little announcement in the bulletin.  Granted, the priest also announces it for a couple of weeks and emphasizes the great blessing of the sacrament but still…..if confession is such an important part of Christian life, why is so often passed over in the way we talk, the way we schedule our lives, personal and parochial?

My husband, facetiously, suggested that offering beer and burgers after confession might enhance turnout—but there’s more truth than error in his suggestion.  Why is it that we don’t see the sacrament of reconciliation as vital to our corporate life?  It is, after all, the way we reconcile ourselves to the community, the way we heal our family wounds.  That’s something worth celebrating in the sacrament and in our communal life.  Maybe we ought to set aside a Sunday afternoon for a penance service followed by plenty of time (and sufficient priests)  for good confessions, and follow it immediately with a joyful dinner—we are, in fact, restored, we are awaiting the arrival of our King and Brother and Savior…and God has reconciled us to Himself and to each other.  THAT is something worth celebrating!

But I think the roots lie deeper than just the way and order in which we offer the blessings of our corporate life.  We live in a society in which the very idea of sin has been lost, and too often, lost even from the language of the pulpit.  Granted, I didn’t grow up in the Church in the days of fire-and-brimstone, in which the experience seems to have been of one long list of commands and proscriptions that put too much emphasis on sin and too little on grace.  But I have grown up in an atmosphere that emphasizes grace almost to the exclusion of any concept that sin exists. 

The common understanding these days seems to be I am God’s child and He loves me even if I am a sinner—which is true enough, but not the entire story.  Lost these days is the notion that what I do and how I live has any bearing at all on my relationship with God—we forget that God’s immense and incomparable love gives rise to the deep need to respond to that love in kind.  The relationship is not one-sided, even though God initiates, potentiates and facilitates it all and in all.

It’s easy to see how the idea of the insignificance of sin took root in the world at large; the world has no particular interest in accepting the concept of sin, less in accepting the demands of what our relationship as creatures formed by a loving God implies.  It is the role of the Church to counteract that worldly sentiment.  For that reason, we start the mass with a confession that we are all sinners with no business being—let alone standing-- in the presence of God.

Except, these days, it’s become very common to skip the Confiteor and go straight to the  Kyrie.  I realize this is perfectly acceptable under the rubrics of the GIRM, but I think it has some consequences.  Yes, it’s a good thing to emphasize the mercy of God.  Yes, it is a good thing to remember that we are always and everywhere dependent on that mercy. 

But—and I think it is an important but—it’s relatively easy to ask for mercy and asking for mercy doesn’t automatically imply an understanding that one has actually—you know--sinned.  Asking for mercy can simply be an acknowledgement that life is tough and we need help, and not a realization of our brokenness, no matter what introductory words the priest offers to the contrary.  It can mean skipping the hard part and heading straight for the good stuff.

It’s much, much harder to stand up and say out loud for others to hear, for ourselves to hear: I HAVE MESSED UP BIG TIME AND I HAVE NO RIGHT TO BE HERE…SO PLEASE, PRAY FOR ME.  But saying that aloud is at least part of the hard work of repentance.  I know from my own experience—it’s too easy for me to believe that, really, I’m not such a bad sort….

Granted, the words of the Confiteor can become rote, said automatically almost without understanding.  But the great thing about saying things regularly is this: even if we generally say them unthinkingly and without understanding, if we do it often enough, there’s the chance that one day, with the right circumstances of life and heart, we will actually hear what we are saying and be convicted of our great sinfulness and our need for God. 

I’ve noticed that in some parishes, the Confiteor is not often said, not even on Sunday.  Perhaps it might be worth reinstating in the regular practices of parish life.  We all need reminding that we are sinners, and to hear it is powerful medicine.  But there are deeper reasons still….

Recently in the course of a far-ranging and lively conversation with Catholic friends (wine was involved), I discovered two other factors that, I think, have led to the loss of regular confession from Catholic life.  I mentioned in passing that two habits have made a sea change in my spiritual life: daily mass and monthly confession.  One of my friends in reply commented she had not been to confession since the previous Easter; another mentioned she used to go to confession with her laundry list of sins: hit brother twice, cussed three times…and that it seemed pretty perfunctory.  There seems to be a common understanding among Catholics of confession as a duty, a measuring of one’s life against a standard of all those rules and a reckoning up to be done once a year at least, but too often, not much more.  Our institutional and catechetical approaches to confession don’t always help; think of all those examinations of conscience—helpful in some ways, but reinforcing in others that confession is a matter of checking off our adherence to rules, not a way of reinvigorating our relationship to God who loves us and waits patiently for us inside that confessional.

And yet, despite all these obstacles and misunderstandings, each and every Catholic I know waxes rhapsodic about the great benefits of confession once the sacrament has been received. 

Confession being a private sacrament, we don’t talk about it much with each other, unless it is to complain about the terrible experiences we have had (and yes, I have been yelled at in confession by a priest who was either a complete grouch or was having a really bad day).   That’s a shame.  Part of being family is sharing our stories, especially the helpful ones.  Telling about our journey.  Confession is an essential part of the journey of faith.  Here’s my part of our story, my journey from dreaded encounter to joyful engagement with God:

I started going to confession, irregularly, as an Episcopalian, where the tradition is: all can, no one must, some do.  Having decided to be an Episcopalian, I wanted to experience all that was on offer, and confession was one of those offers.  After much internal discussion, I made an appointment with my priest, and nervously started my confession, reflecting that I knew I didn’t need to do this but felt the desire to.

He stopped me right there. In his best Eastern-European accent—he was a recovering actor-- he told me something I’ve never forgotten: Is BEEEG Holy Mystery.  Now be quiet and talk to Jesus.  And listen.

Be quiet and talk to Jesus.  Isn’t what it is all about? I remember my first face-to-face confession—quite inadvertent.  I came into the room expecting the priest to be with his back to the door and he wasn’t.  I stammered out my confession looking into the biggest, brownest eyes I have ever seen and I got lost in those eyes, so kind and understanding, even as the voice under them reminded me of what God’s love should elicit in me as a loving response.

For a long time after my first confession on entering the Church, little episodes kept surfacing—evidence, I think, of an increased sensitivity of my own heart to my own sins.  But it led me to make a better general confession than the short one I blurted out on that Saturday morning of Easter vigil; when one comes into the Church at 55, there’s a lot of sinning to bring to the box and I had at learned, however imperfectly, that anything I took there remained there.   I remember the closing words of the priest who heard that long confession: I want you to remember that, at 4:30 in the afternoon of November 6, your sins are forgiven.  The Adversary can never use them against you again.

Sometimes it takes a while to get that idea through a hard head and into a harder heart.  You have to hear it over and over and the place you hear it is in the confessional.  May God the Father of Mercies….grant you pardon and peace…I absolve you… It is so different, so powerful to hear that from a real man's voice rather than just in the recesses of the heart.  It is so powerful to feel the hand of the priest on my head, as happens now and again, a physical conveying of a great spiritual grace.

Once I finally heard that glorious news, really heard and began to understand it, laundry lists became far less important.  Understanding the ways in which I got in my own way in my relationship to God became far more important.  These days my confessions are far less likely to be of the “yelled at my husband three times” variety and more of the “here’s the way my sin of pride is playing out in my life this week” variety.  Which brings me to another point.  It sounds like most adults are making their confession in exactly the same way that they did as children: because someone told them they are supposed to and they do it according to a system they learned as young children and never grew beyond.

I used to say that the feelings of apprehension that I felt going into confession were more than offset by the grace I felt in receiving the sacrament, and that’s true enough.  But I have realized that making more regular confession has changed even that for me.

For starters, when I go regularly, I can bring what is bearing on my heart in an immediate sense.  Looking back over a year, it’s too easy to lose the rhythm of the days in which I live my life, either drawing closer or drifting farther from my God.  I ended up speaking in generalities—but I sin in the particulars.  Best to bring the particulars as they happen. 

And because I now really do begin to understand that God does in fact love me in my brokenness, coming to see Him, in the grace of the confessional is a joy, coming and going.  Some confessions are easier than others, some harder, and there are still very often tears; but I have found that the more often I come to see Jesus in the confessional and the more I hear Him remind me of His love and grace, the easier it gets to face up to the fact that—let’s face it-- on my best day I am a goober, not a Saint.  And Jesus loves this particular goober.

There is only one goal in the Christian life: Holiness, to be a Saint, to be holy.  I cannot do it on my own.  I need God’s grace, and I find it, in part, in the confessional.

The saddest thing is this:  I’m not sure Catholics really believe that.  If they did, there would not be enough hours in the day for priests to hear confessions from the People of God.  Louis Evely put it this way in his book We Dare to Say Our Father:

God is love.  He is gift.  It is He who gives grace.  But the strongest love is the one that overcomes the main obstacle: the perfect gift, the perfection of giving is to for-give and the greatest of graces is to pardon.  If we were not sinners, needing forgiveness even more than bread, we would not know the depth of God’s  heart…..absolute humility will alone enable us to bear cheerfully the comparison between our indignity and the splendor of God.  C.S. Lewis has written: “It may be that salvation consists not in the cancelling of these eternal moments of sin but in the perfected humility that bears the shame forever, rejoicing in the occasion which is furnished for God’s compassion and glad that it should be common knowledge in the Universe.”

He goes on to say the following :

            Nothing is more dangerous to the spiritual life than the wish to become “worthy” of God’s love for us.  We will never know God better than when we have got to know the extent of our sin.  It is though the immense, tireless patience of His forgiveness that we measure the immensity of His love.  We must be careful lest our repentance merely becomes a wish to be in order, quits and free.  Quits with what?  Free from Whom?

       Instead of enabling us to think no more about God—about the gift, the unbearable forgiveness of God because we no longer think of our sins, confession makes us enter a new life in which it is no longer possible to think of anything but Him.  God tells us: “Shut up!  Stop talking all that nonsense!  Do you believe Me?  Do you believe that I love you enough, that I care enough, that I have enough affection for you, that I rejoice in the slightest gesture that you make in my favor to forgive you even this stupid confession, which is one more sin?” 

If we know we are forgiven, loved in this way, we will be so overwhelmed with joy and gratitude that we will no longer be tempted to sin.  That is the meaning of absolution.

       Perfect contrition, imperfect contrition?  Requisite conditions?  We complicate things to such an extent that we forget the condition without which all confessions would be farcical: to believe that God loves us…to go to confession is to go nearer and love and be loved by God.  To go again and hear that God loves us.  To begin to believe it.  And to discover at the same time that we had never understood that it is of this we had to ask forgiveness, not of the litany of ineptitudes which only serve to mask our real destitution, our real refusal.

As my first confessor said:  Is BEEG Holy Mystery.  Be quiet and talk to Jesus.  And listen….

But to listen, first we have to come.


  1. Today is catch up on blogs day (or mustard, if you prefer). This one on confession really hits home. Last Friday the Protestant men's Bible study group was sparse, and so instead of talking about Scripture, they talked about their lives. A big topic was their failings, and how difficult it was to focus on them. I commented that one of the great blessings of the Catholic Church was confession. Yes, they can confess their sins to God at any time, but Catholics have a formal sacrament, with a time and a place, and someone they have to look in the eye. My monthly confession has me sitting quietly in the church for an hour or more, thinking about the last month. I rarely reflect on sins of murder or the like, but I do force myself to look at my actions --- and I always see what I could have done better, AND what I did not give a thought to at the time, and the people I hurt. And the focus helped me make a good confession, and gave the priest food for his pertinent, often Scripture-related comments. And because of it, I do focus on living my life better.

    They agreed with everything I said, and went on to discuss how they might schedule such a review of conscience regularly, and confess, and resolve to amend their life. I don't expect them to convert to Catholicism, but acting like them may be good enough, at least for a start.

  2. Beautiful post. May God bless you.