Heart pounding furiously, the little girl opened the door and walked into the darkened closet, knelt down and waited for the priest to open the little window in the wall. She had been prepared by the good Sisters to tell the priest of her seven year old failings and wrong doings. Doing this would please God whom she knew was very disappointed in her for arguing with her brothers and sister, for hitting them and for not obeying her parents. She remembered the formula for forgiveness; she remembered the Act of Contrition. She felt enormous relief when it was over. Her first experience of the sacrament had inadvertently taught her God was a harsh judge who loved her only when her soul was clean when she should have learned of the joy of God’s loving embrace. This was an image that stayed with the little girl for far too many years. Poor little girl. Poor God.
Walking into the dark to confess transgressions then walking back into the light after being cleansed of sorrow and guilt for one’s sins are forgiven is a great image. The seven year old me didn’t see it that way. The dark, the secrecy, the whispered confession was scary. I was taught God was so angry at sinfulness that He sent His son to be killed so that He could then be mollified and the gates of heaven could be opened which were closed due to Eve eating an apple. All of humankind’s sins nailed Jesus to that cross; when Jesus was on that cross he thought of me, me who hit her brothers and sister and disobeyed her parents.
I learned about the different kinds of sin, learned I had to confess venial sins but they could wiped out by a “good” communion. I could not go to communion with a mortal sin on my soul. When I heard the list of mortal sins I was confident I never had to worry about committing one of those, but had I done so, to receive communion with a mortal sin on my soul would have been to commit the worse sin of all, a sacrilege.
I believed in a God who could send me to hell with a flick of his wrist. When I died, no matter how good of life I thought I had lived, God could decide at the last moment I hadn’t done a good enough job and send me to hell. For many years my childhood bedtime prayers always concluded with “Don’t let me die.” So I went to confession. And just in case confession hadn’t taken, I wore a brown scapular which I knew that if I wore it I would never be sent to hell. It was kind of a religious lucky rabbit’s foot.
Why did I stick around a church that had a God that had to be appeased? Because I also had the image of Baby Jesus, of the child Jesus, of the Jesus who held children on his lap and admonished adults not to send them away. As scary as the God of Penance was, I sure loved all the other stuff about the faith.
To quote “When I was a child, I used to talk like a child, think like a child, reason like a child. When I became an adult, I put childish ways aside.” My image of God changed as I became older and experienced life. My image became ever so much richer as I became involved with RCIA. Unbeknownst to me I had put God in a Catholic box. Thanks to the Methodists and Presbyterians and unbaptized people who came to the Catholic faith in search of a deeper relationship with God the lid came off my box. I saw how they came to love God and listened to their God stories. God wasn’t denominational. Go figure! As I taught and preached about the faith, I came to see the practices of the Catholic faith through different eyes. I came to see and experience Penance in a whole different light.
“Why can’t I just tell God I am sorry? Why do I have to go and tell a man?” the good non Catholic folk would ask. “You can and should tell God you are sorry,” I would reply. “But the second part of forgiveness is receiving the Sacrament. You physically hear the words of forgiveness from a man, but we believe the man is sitting in for God, so in essence, you hear God say you are forgiven. ” That was the company line. That was my stock answer. I was becoming uncomfortable parroting that line
The last time I received the Sacrament of Penance was eye opening. The candidates, sponsors and team in our RCIA process were going to confession before Easter. There were three priests to hear confessions. The priest I chose a colleague of mine. We were talking and I was confessing something and he asked me to explain what I meant. I tried over and over to help him understand what I was talking about when a very clear voice in my head said “This isn’t what the sacrament is about.” Father was only doing his job and he was trying to help. But what I realized at that moment was that God knew what I was talking about. God always knows. I don’t have to explain anything. I didn’t need to hear Father say anything. I didn’t need to say a number of prayers or perform any work of mercy to know I was forgiven. My experience was refuting my learning.
One cannot feel any more sorrow that in the minute when one realizes one has sinned. A heart-wrenching “I am so sorry, God” in that moment is what reconciliation is. That is when God is most present. For example I remember years ago when I looked at the faces of my sleeping children and realized how I had yelled at them for an inconsequential incident during the day. I could not have felt any more sorrow than at that precise moment. That is when I needed to hear God tell me I was forgiven. That is when I needed the grace to forgive myself. Saving that up to tell a priest in the future would do me no good. Hearing “You are forgiven” months or years away from the incident would do me no good. I knew I had to work on that sin then and there.
Let’s add an addendum to the ritual of Penance. Could we teach that yes, one can go to God in the moment and ask forgiveness and that the sin is forgiven? If one would like to talk to a priest that is absolutely still available. But the emphasis in teaching would be on being in the present moment to recognize sin and make right whatever needs rectifying THEN. The sacrament would then become part of one’s everyday life.
How does Holy Family celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation? Personal experience again has come to the forefront of what I have come to believe about the celebration of this sacrament. I have attended parish Penance services during Advent and Lent and have been uncomfortable with them. The prayers leading up to individual confessions are fine; it is the individual confessions that antithetical to what is meant by reconciliation. Priests line up at the foot of the sanctuary. People get into lines as they do for communion to confess their sins to the priests, only after they have been instructed to hit the highlights of their sins. This is a time saver. This helps the service not run over its allotted hour. Ugh.
I believe in the power and cohesiveness of community. Just as the community celebrates marriages and baptisms, funerals and first communions, communities can celebrate reconciliation together. There is no need for a public wailing and gnashing of teeth. A community coming together to express their need for reconciliation is a powerful enough sign without any added drama. At Holy Family we offer General Reconciliation with General Absolution at a Mass.
If someone comes to me wanting to go to confession, I be happy to do that, too. Contact me and we can set up a time for that to happen.
The bottom line on this sacrament (as with all sacraments) is to come to experience the kindness and love of our God who is present within each of us, God who doesn’t condemn, God who doesn’t keep track, God who helps us up when we fall and sets us on our way again