While in Rome recently, I went to confession at St. John Lateran. It’s the cathedral of Rome, and I’d heard the grace was better there. I got an old Irish priest, soft-spoken, deliberate, patient, and with a habit of sighing frequently as you spoke. He sounded — and looked, when I saw him a little later — like the old Irish priest from central casting who loves dogs, is patient with rambunctious boys and ironic to the old women, and is never surprised by any wickedness this world can produce.
I soon realized that I could confess to stealing a dime or murdering an abbess, and he would have sighed in the same way. The sighing may have been a technique, but it worked on me. The absolution came more powerfully because he had sighed, and put me in my place far better than some earnest priests I’ve had, whose very earnestness made me feel important and my sins dramatic.
On the other hand, when I told an Irish friend of my experience, he said, “I hate it when they do that.” He then muttered something about Ireland and Jansenism.
Confession ought to be a great selling point for the Catholic Church. Years ago, I saw some young Evangelicals ask an older Catholic convert about confession, with the guarded but lurid interest of college freshmen in an anthropology class studying comparative sexual practices. As they kept talking, however, many of them seemed to long for the certainty of forgiveness the Catholic had.
A friend of mine recently spoke to the theology class at an Evangelical Protestant college. Both Catholic and Protestant friends had told him that the students would grill him about theological issues, particularly justification by faith, and he spent hours preparing himself to answer their questions. They didn’t mention the subject at all: What they wanted to know about was confession, and more the practice and experience than the theology. They really wanted to know what you did and why you did it, and how it felt to tell some man what could be your deepest secrets. They approached my friend as sick people approach someone who’s been cured of the same disease by an established but still alternative and fringe treatment.
One can guess the reason. Many people who believe they can simply pray to God and be forgiven, whatever they’ve done, long for the chance to tell someone out loud, someone who will then declare God’s forgiveness and give them some penance, some way of expressing their sorrow and growing closer to God at the same time.
They want what Catholics have. In Rome, I knelt, listening to the priest sighing, in that place where prayer has been valid, with Our Lord in the Sacrament about 30 feet away, and the relics of St. Peter and St. Paul about 70 feet in the other direction. I felt the usual mixture of shame and relief and the sense — this I’ve only come to see after several years as a Catholic — that, as my Evangelical friends like to say, I’m really here to do serious business with God.
I would think others will feel just as I did. Confession ought to be one of the things that draws people in, that brings them to knock on the pastor’s door and ask to be received. Yet it doesn’t seem to, or at least not very often. Confession, and the understanding of morality and the Church of which it is a part, actually leaves the Church at a disadvantage.
A few months ago, I happened to attend a chapel service in an Evangelical seminary, where I was teaching a short course on writing. The dean preached a powerful sermon in the high Calvinist mode on forgiveness, and called anyone who felt he had sinned too greatly to be forgiven — he mentioned adultery among other sins — to remember God’s grace, to repent, and then to go out of the chapel to love and serve the Lord without a second thought, and to come to the Communion service the next day to receive the sacrament.
I could see how someone paralyzed by guilt would find it liberating. God’s grace is free, direct, and immediate. Your life can change on a dime. You can simply let go, and Jesus will take away the crushing burden of your sins. It sounded like the Gospel. A man across from me sat up straight and began to smile.
And yet, I realized with a jolt, the dean was calling people who had committed mortal sins simply to say a private prayer and go on. No waiting for confession, no taking the time and effort to get to the church when confessions were being heard, no abstaining from communion until then, no sense of alienation from God till then, no having to tell the priest (and God through him) what you’d done, no having to accept whatever penance he ordered. The dean’s declaration of God’s grace didn’t include all the inconveniences and pains of confession.
The dean’s sermon was not, I want to stress, an example of cheap grace. He did not let his hearers think that repentance was not required, nor that it was painless. But though not cheap grace, it was inexpensive grace, and perhaps discount grace.
It wasn’t a sermon a priest could preach in a Catholic church. In comparison with the dean’s proclamation of God’s offer of immediate forgiveness, the priest who talked from the pulpit to the adulterer oppressed by guilt and pointed him to the confessional would only seem to be adding burdens to his life and making him suffer more.
It’s not immediate enough; it’s too much a part of a system, too routine and mundane. Indeed, ex-Catholics have told me how liberating it was to find out (as they thought) that they didn’t have to go to the priest for forgiveness, that without moving from their seat they could wipe the slate clean and start over right, without telling anyone.
The Church has a great treasure in confession, but not one many people want to acquire. We can do some things to change that.
First, priests must preach as if confession were the crucial and regular part of the Catholic life that it ought to be. They have to talk about it frequently and keep telling their parishioners to go. I have heard too many sermons where the lessons of the day or the direction of the sermon led to the confessional, and the priest instead trailed off into some words of affirmation or moral exhortation. I have heard priests lament the small numbers who came to confession who never spoke of it from the pulpit.
To do this well, they must speak much more of sin than they do. Not of failing and weakness and all the ways by which priests avoid speaking about sin; they have to tell us in ways we can’t ignore why we need to go to confession. They need to say, preferably with examples relevant to the day’s lessons and the congregation’s lives, “This is the kind of thing you do,” so that they can then say, “And in confession God will forgive you and help you stop.”
We are happy to be helped to forget that we’ve done things even we can’t justify, but even so, we have that nagging, inescapable, unsilenceable feeling that we have not done what we ought, that we are not who we ought to be, that we have hurt those we love and others. Being told that in plain words will be a liberation for many, and a needed challenge for others.
Second, confession times ought to be listed prominently in the bulletin and on the parish’s Web site. Many parishes hide these times several pages down, as I found when travelling. You can find the days and times of the AA meetings the parish hosts more easily than the times the priest will hear your sins.
Third, we need to recover the use of the word “confession,” while quietly dropping “the sacrament of reconciliation.” We need to hear the blunt word, because, before everything else, we want to say, “I did this and I’m really sorry.” That’s the appeal of confession, the chance to get it all out in the open. To emphasize the result is a bit like renaming the emergency room the “healing center.” It’s true, but not as helpful or as encouraging as you’d think, particularly when you really have an emergency.
Finally, the laity need to speak about it and to urge their peers to go. Most of us will ask a friend with a chronic illness how he’s feeling and when he last saw the doctor, and if he’s taking his medicines and watching his diet. We ought to be just as quick to ask him — original sin being a chronic illness — if he’s been to confession recently.
In confession, the Church can give her people something they will not get anywhere else, something that will make them happier in this world and better prepared for the next. It gives them something they really want, even if they don’t know it. But it’s a hard sell when the alternatives claim to give the same results with so much less effort. The only thing to do is push it harder.