The first time I walked into a European church I was surprised by the many confessionals lining the beautiful walls, and even more surprised by the fact that they were occupied by priests—who stayed there for hours…waiting. My eight-year-old mind then determined the priesthood to be a terribly boring profession. If I was a priest, I decided, I would not be the kind that sat around all day waiting for people to come tell me their sins.
I had grown up in the American Catholic community, which has usually implied to me that Confession is an outdated sacrament—something you do every now and then, but not something priests ought to wait around in little boxes for. Yet, as I grew older and began to feel the pangs of loss whenever I turned from God, I desired the sacrament strongly, and frequently. Not merely to relieve guilt, but to make amends with someone I loved. But as I soon discovered, my beloved reunions were not so easy to obtain.
Confession in most American parishes I have attended is usually offered once, maybe, twice a week. Then, as a sort of fine print, bulletins will tell us that we may also seek confession by appointment. Now, being a human, I have my fair share of vanities and insecurities, and I know that it’s much easier to decide to participate in something that is already humiliating enough if the decision is made easily available. I know very few people who would have the courage to call up a priest to make an appointment for confession. I have asked priests after or before Mass to hear my confession and it rarely goes well. Many times I receive an annoyed response at my asking and hurried glances when I begin to tell my sins. It is as if I am imposing on the priest by asking for a sacrament. And so I feel bad asking—I pick and choose which priests to ask, try not to ask the same one twice, try to make the scheduled confession time the next week. But is this how it ought to be?
These priests preach about the lost sheep, about running to the ends of the earth to help the discouraged, the disabled, the unwanted. How hypocritical it is to then turn us away when we come as that lost sheep. Not only have I (and countless others) been made to feel guilty for asking for confession, let alone found it often quite difficult to even track down the priest, I have been made to feel guilty for feeling guilty. Now I am quite aware of the sin of scrupulosity. I know that justice, like mercy, is nothing without the other. But that’s why I’m in confession, isn’t it? Because I trust that God heals and that I can walk out with my sins off of my heart. A God without mercy would offer no such thing. A God without mercy wouldn’t make it so easy to come back to Him. I come back, not because I need to fulfill some arbitrary requirement, but because I hurt someone I love and I want to make amends as soon as possible. No, I don’t want to wait until Saturday at 4 p.m.. No, I don’t want to have you rush me through my apology. And no, I don’t want you to tell me that it’s fine and that I did nothing wrong. I did something wrong. If you discredit my vices, what credit then do my virtues have? If you tell me that lustful actions aren’t a big deal, then of what value is purity? I want the priest to take my sins seriously, for if justice is true and legitimate, then mercy may be as well. We wouldn’t need God to die on a cross for us if our sins weren’t that big of a deal.
Priests and other spiritual leaders, understandably so, cater frequently to what the people want. What makes the prodigal types stay? If we tell them sex is wrong, they’ll go away. So our shepherds follow us into the wilderness encouraging us as we go of how great we are, meanwhile forgetting that what we need is to be led home. There is a rampant permissiveness from the pulpit, and more destructively inside the confessional. I have been told that sins which I know deep within my heart are sins—sins which the Church professes to be sins—are “really not that bad,” and perhaps even all right. I have heard stories of kids being told they don’t need to come to confession, being denied absolution, and encouraged to flirt with the line, particularly the line of sexuality. I understand that these priests have good intentions, or at least I assume they do. But good intentions do not excuse misdirection. I fear for those couples that go into confession for guidance and are then told that such and such is fine to do, and then go out and greatly mar their relationship.
Many people invest nearly all of their spiritual trust in the priest, and confession, with its unusual intimacy and vulnerability is a situation that needs to be taken extremely seriously. I know that a priest who is harsh – no not harsh, true to what is right and wrong – won’t necessarily win all of the popularity contests. Obviously this shouldn’t matter, but not so obviously, I think many people would be surprised at what the congregation, especially the young congregation really wants. Teenagers who are going to Mass, especially college students, and more importantly, those going to confession, are there because they care about their faith. They like it. And they want more of it. They want to be challenged.
Now yes, being hard on them might turn them away. But let’s compare the truth to a very rich chocolate. It might be a bit bitter and overwhelming to some at first. We could water it down, make it milkier, easier, and more people would come. But then, so many people would never get to try the real chocolate. They’d never know what it could really be like. Would it not be better then, to show them the truth, let them turn from it for awhile if necessary so that then they may come back knowing what they really want and need?
Sometimes we have to be the prodigal son if we are to ever have a real conversion. What if the father had followed the son away and sent him postcards encouraging him while he basked in sensuality? Would the son have any reason to come back? Would he have any sort of turning around? If he lived today, I fear the response his homecoming would receive. Not a party or rings or celebrations. Not tears of joy. But a wave of the hand and an, “oh you didn’t really do anything. You’re fine. Go say a Hail Mary.”
As a Church community, we’ve lost the art of repentance. Our excuse of sin and misunderstanding of mercy has dampened our understanding of the beauty of God’s love. It has turned confession into an old tradition reserved for penance services and when you do something “really, really bad, like murder.” It has marred our conception of the reunion between Father and son by claiming that there was never any going away. Sure, it has comforted and attracted those who might not otherwise step foot inside a church.
But what kind of church are they in then, if truth is being hidden?
And what about those of us who do care? Who really want to find the gold, and not the fools gold—who want a joyous homecoming to our Father, a homecoming that is taken seriously, that is encouraged above everything—that makes a priest drop everything he is doing and run joyfully into the confessional? We remain convinced that no one else cares anymore, and perhaps, sometimes, wonder if the Father’s really there, cheering us on. It’s hard to believe He is, hard to believe it’s worth really fighting evil, when so many of our shepherds don’t seem to care that we do. I long for the day when a priest tells me some sort of ridiculous penance like, “go kneel up those stairs and say a prayer on each step,” or even something as simple as “pray a rosary.” I want to be challenged because I want to be better. I want my relationship with God to be seen as something real and legitimate. If my friend hurts me, it means a lot more to me if they do something to make up for it. A husband may send flowers to his wife if they get in a fight. What is so wrong with that? Does it not make the reunion that much more meaningful?
And so I bring my plea to the priests and spiritual leaders of the world—please, help remind us of God’s beautiful mercy. But don’t remind us in Hallmark greeting card-style. Remind us by challenging us. Remind us, particularly, in that mysterious, glorious sacrament in which we meet God face to face in all His mercy and justice. It’s easy to forget that it’s Jesus who absolves us while in the confessional. But it wouldn’t be so hard if everyone acted like it actually was.
Now when I walk into a European church I’m so happy to see the confessionals lining the walls, and even more happy to see the priests waiting patiently inside them. And I think to myself, if I were a priest, I’d hope to be the one who was in there all day long. Priests have something really special. A lot of what they do many people can do. But not just anyone can place the hands of God over a Prodigal Son come home. And that’s something we’d better not forget.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.