Cleansing Fire

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Reconciliation Rant: Part IV

May 4th, 2018, Promulgated by Diane Harris

Reconciliation Rant in Four Parts: Part IV

This 4-part series, on use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, aka Penance or Confession, is simply a view from the pew. It is an opinion, although making an effort to be consistent with Catholic Teaching. It is presented without being aware of any inconsistency with Catholic Teaching, and will be corrected promptly if any conflict with Catholic Teaching is brought to the author’s attention. Nevertheless, please note that the author’s opinion claims absolutely no “teaching authority,” with or without “correction.”

What can the penitent do for the sake of the Sacrament and its Seal? Here are just a few ideas, although incomplete. (Add your thoughts to the list, correct where necessary.)

  1. Use the Sacrament frequently: It’s easier to remember sins over two weeks than over two months. Daily Examination of Conscience helps. The more time that elapses, the “ONLY venial” sins tend to get swept out of memory, yet they are doors worth shutting down through the graces of the Sacrament. Graces MATTER!
  2. Encourage others: We live in a very unholy world. For the world to be holier for ourselves and our families, there is no better place to start than with our own confessions, and encouraging others. Mention the confessors who are kind, understanding, helpful AND faithful to Church Teaching, so that others can benefit. Avoid the ones who diminish the seriousness of sin. Better to go to a grouchy priest than to one who is lax and validates us in sin.
  3. Be sensitive and sympathetic to what the priest faces, beginning with the risk he takes in just hearing confessions. Many priests today have inherited the post-Vatican II confessional mess, and it is not of their doing. It is often difficult for them to repair the situation (e.g. to improve confessionals). Some sympathy is needed for them, and assistance where possible. Appreciate. Be grateful. Take advantage of the Sacrament. Don’t take advantage of the priest. What does that mean?

During a business trip to Phoenix, I went to a downtown church for confession before Vigil Mass. I joined the short line, the one for the pastor. Many more people were lined up waiting for the Vietnamese priest. That surprised me, because most did not look Asian. Later, outside during the ‘lemonade hour’ after Mass, I mentioned the Vietnamese priest must be a wonderful confessor as so many people were waiting for him.  A woman replied: “I really don’t know if he is or not. But we go to him because he doesn’t understand English!”  Not funny. Sad. Unfortunately, confession times are often limited to the pre-Mass time slot. Adding a confession after daily Mass might relieve the Saturday “short shrift.”  (In Old English a “short shrift” meant a brief time for confession and absolution given to a condemned prisoner before execution. The word shrove is a form of the English word shrive, so Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, was a time to confess and be absolved (be shriven) before Easter. Now it is more likely to be called “Fat Tuesday” or “Mardi Gras,” which says more about us than about the Church calendar.)

4. Leave enough time:  It is not a good idea to arrive at the confessional line 5 minutes before the confessor/celebrant has to begin Mass. It sends a message of not wanting the gift God is offering us.  Where else would we delay and get on the end of the line, hoping the gifts run out before we get there?

5. Protect the Seal: Leave enough space to avoid overhearing confessions, including not saying Penance right outside the confessional. Earplugs can be handy. Don’t take a smartphone into the confessional, or discuss your confession carelessly with others.

6. Witness the importance of confession to children. Line up with them, and go as a family. (But NOT as one priest remarked when he said it was good for the entire family to go TOGETHER; i.e. in the same room listening to each others’ sins. No, I am not mistaken. That IS what he said.)

7. Avoid secular ‘conversation’ in the confessional: There may be parish issues people want to raise with their pastor which they find ‘convenient’ to bring up in confession. From many viewpoints , it is a bad use (a misuse! an abuse!) of confession, and not just because it makes other people needlessly wait to confess.  Save complaints about the flower arranging, the parking situation, a rumor floating in the pews, or an idea for fundraising for separate discussion, when the confessor is not “under the Seal.” Prolonging confession by appending a ‘chat’ is a lose/lose. The priest will likely act on the side of being scrupulous about not using what is said to him under the Seal and the penitent might pout over not having his ideas followed up by the priest and even mentally rebuke the priest who couldn’t do anything with the information anyway. (It seems likely that it is easier to slip into ‘conversation mode’ when confessing face-to-face than behind the screen.)

8. Don’t extend confessional discussion outside the Sacrament either. It is very poor form to begin a later conversation as an extension of a confession, outside the Seal. Examples to be avoided include updates, third parties, and “revisiting”:

  • “You know, Father, I was thinking about what you said when I confessed ____(whatever)___ and since then I decided to ____blah blah____.”
  • “Father, I told so-and-so about the advice you gave me in confession and she asked me to ask you____blah blah blah____.”
  • “I’m making progress with my problem on ______(whatever)____; thank you for your advice. But now I find that _____blah blah blah___.”

Such continuation puts the Seal of Confession at risk, not only regarding a specific situation but also in becoming lazy about consciously protecting the Seal. Continuation of Confession outside the confessional seems more often to be a problem created by the penitent than by the confessor. Part of the reason may be that, afterwards, especially from a face-to-face confession, it begins to seem like it was only a regular conversation, further weakening the understanding of the Sacrament and protection of the Seal.

So, if we continue a thread from any prior confessional discussion, it is a burden on the priest. His desire is (should be) to forget individuals, their sins and their confessions, but penitents who remind priests of a confessional discussion create unnecessary problems for themselves and for the priest.

9. Choose a confessor well.   Any Catholic priest can forgive our sins.  It is rather egotistical to think we need a “perfect” confessor for our own smelly sins. A wide range of confessors may even provide a more “balanced diet” of spiritual advice and insight over a period of time. However, a priest’s preaching and other remarks can give us a clue as to whether or not he should be avoided. IMO, any priest who asserts his disobedience to what the Church teaches about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, who makes jokes about confession, who seems lazy about strictly keeping the Seal, or who minimizes sin, gives us some justification for avoiding his confessional.

Here are four “real life” local diocesan examples. I find two compelling to avoid in confession, and for two I find comfort in their obedience and care, and appreciate their directness. Which is which for you? Notice how it is possible to do much good, or to do much damage, by how the Sacrament of Reconciliation is witnessed (or not witnessed) from the pulpit.

  • A couple years ago, I went to a weekday bible study class and heard a great ‘buzz’ about what had happened in church two days earlierThe attendees (who had been at the same Sunday Mass) concurred that a young priest had announced something they remembered as: “I wasn’t here to hear confessions before Mass so, therefore, no matter what sins you need to confess, it is alright to come up for Communion, and just confess at another time.”  He even cited Canons 961-2 as the basis for his words, but those canons do NOT give authority to do what he did. (As a point of background, there never were confessions scheduled before any of the parish’s Sunday Masses. People could not have expected to have come to confession.) Unfortunately, my bible study friends were delighted at this “change in Church Teaching”; I was horrified. I spoke to the priest later about it and he confirmed all that had been said and tried to justify it, citing again those canons and arguing that some people had actually come back to confession “as a result” of what he said. But the end does not justify the means and, unless he were on a crashing plane or a sinking ship, it is hard to imagine any justification for what he did. A soul receiving Communion in serious sin does not glorify God; and any permission to do so demeans the Sacrament –– a very clear example how some confessional practices can even attack the Eucharist.
  • Approximately two years prior to the above example, I attended Easter Mass where a somewhat   older priest warned between his homily and the Offertory something like: “As a Catholic Priest I am charged with responsibility to  protect the Holy Eucharist and obey all that the Church teaches. I see many new faces today, and you are most welcome, but I am obligated to tell you that you may only receive Communion if you are a practicing Catholic in a state of grace, attending Mass on Sundays regularly, and fasting. If you need to go to confession, there will be confessions after Mass, but you may not receive Communion until after you go to confession.” Every single person in that Church knew that the Eucharist was something (Someone!) special; there was no room for misunderstanding. He gives similar statements at funerals and weddings, further witnessing to his obedience. 
  • A short time earlier, I heard a visiting African priest in a local parish speak about Reconciliation at a weekday Mass, and it took my breath away! There had obviously been some ‘dust-up’  in the parish from someone whose family and friends insisted “Just pray to God, say you’re sorry, and He will forgive you.” The priest spoke eloquently of John 20:21-23, the beauty of the Sacrament, and the surety we have of forgiveness. Then, very much ‘sealing the point,’ he said: “But if you really think the Sacrament of Penance is a ‘do it yourself sacrament,’ why don’t you also stay home on Sunday morning with a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread and ‘do it yourself’?” There was a gasp from the pews, but I think they got the message in a way nothing else had reached them, AND they had words to bring home to family and friends to explain the Sacrament.
  • Finally, the example of the 4th priest in this series happened at least 10 years ago. I was in a parish which received a new pastor. He used the homily to talk all about himself, which of course was of some interest, but then he wandered into things he should never have talked about, telling in particular about one woman whose sister who had ‘run away’ with that woman’s husband, and some of the dilemma of his giving forgiveness to someone who needs to forgive others.  I was shocked, and felt he’d inappropriately alluded to something implied to be under the Seal of Confession, which would seem not to be that hard to identify. I immediately went on high alert to NEVER go to him for confession, and so I never did.

“A Provided Death”

A priest mentioned once that a frequent penitent to whom he gave communion at daily Mass, died about an hour after Mass in a car crash. The priest said: “I didn’ t know I was giving her Holy Viaticum (“Food to go with us on the road into eternal life”).

A Home "Sick Call" set used to be common in Catholic Homes.

Home Sick Call set used to be common in Catholic Homes.

There used to be an expression, used frequently, to pray to avoid an “unprovided death,” at least meaning to receive the opportunity for confession and communion before death. We don’t hear those words so much any more, but the concept is still just as relevant. Frequent confession helps to “provide” for such a time.

We can remember in a morning offering all those who “will die an unprovided death today,” as well as praying we do not have an “unprovided death” ourselves.  It is not merely a matter of getting health care proxies in order for the body, and hopefully to conform to Church Teaching. Rather, it is a matter of care of soul, so much more important. Being familiar with all the opportunities for a Plenary Indulgence will help to orient us toward “providing” for our souls. Less well known is the Apostolic Pardon (see links below.) If you’ve read this far, here is a closing gift for you:

Apostolic Pardon Brings Total Forgiveness Before Death
What is the Apostolic Pardon? – Aleteia
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