My (Forthcoming) Confession
Gary Stern of the Journal News reported that in the wake of Pope Benedict’s visit to the United States, some seminaries have reported an unanticipated increase of inquiries to join the priesthood. The Pope’s visit was a very good thing for American Catholicism, and an important moment of reflection for at least one American Catholic.
I am contemplating confession.
It’s been more than five years since I made one and in that half decade, I’ve racked up a host of sins. Not least of which includes my ongoing cynicism about the sacrament.
My idea of a good time does not generally include a jaunt into the dimly lit box of a confessional, sitting down with the strange man inside, and telling him all of my deepest, darkest, most discomforting secrets. My failings are between me and God, I have told myself for these years. I don’t need to bring anyone else into it. Add another failing to list, and bless me father, for I was wrong.
Pope Benedict’s homily at Washington Nationals Stadium was made up of the kind of stuff that make Catholics proud. He condemned a culture of violence, materialism and hostility to family life –an amalgamation of moral issues that transcend political partisanship and form the ‘seamless garment’ on life ethics. And just as I found myself nodding in agreement, the Pope made one more plea: that American Catholics return to the sacrament of Penance. For a moment, it seemed he was talking right to me.
Suddenly I thought ‘maybe he’s right,’ and something inside me cracked. While I’ve always believed that I have much to learn from the wisdom of the ages, I could not surrender on the point of confession. The Lord may be slow to anger, but I am rich in obstinacy.
I don’t believe in mere ‘feel good religion.’ My life is made up of highs and lows, sufferings and joys, and, I know, rights and wrongs. So perhaps just trying to ‘do good,’ without acknowledging where I’ve gone wrong, is the same lame religion I despise.
I want accountability to myself, my community, my world and my God. Going to confession will move me on that path towards greater accountability. It will also grant me forgiveness, of which I am in need.
But of course, confession isn’t the only way to gain communal accountability. Our pragmatic Protestant friends get faith sharing groups and Bible studies. They crusade, they testify, they minister and they meet. There is no such trend among young Catholics. Too often, this lack of community degrades into a paranoid ‘me against the world’ religiosity, or perhaps worse, total spiritual apathy.
In an essay on penance, Patricia Hampl examines the evolution of the sacrament and notes that the way it functions today is essentially different from its character in the early, insular Christian church:
“Confession –a precise recitation of sins large and small –didn’t figure intoUnless they’re forced into it –my own former governor, Eliot Spitzer, comes into mind –few people would willingly, publicly air their dirty laundry. And, as Hampl elaborates, the secrecy of today’s confessional is antithetical to the way it was practiced in the early church. But at its heart, I think it recognized that sin is not just something one person does on his own; it is also deeply social. In an age of disconnects, would public penance bring us closer to holiness and each other?
the sacrament. There was nothing, really to confess because the ancient
community already knew the penitent’s sins: They were common knowledge to the
congregation, not a personal flaw held in the secrecy of the heart. That was the
whole point. This was public business, with an essentially public sacrament
fashioned to handle it.”
Maybe it’s futile to speculate on a change that will never happen. And, another confession –my inner gossip is just plain curious about my neighbors. Add another indiscretion to the list.
Elizabeth Tenety is a graduate student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, where she studies Reporting and Writing
From the Washington Post