The Reluctant Penitent

This car­toon cracks me up. I iden­ti­fy with it in a round­about way. I, too, need to get con­fes­sion “beat­en” out of me. I am not one of those who has a love­ly cathar­sis after I’ve been giv­en abso­lu­tion. Nope, I breathe a huge sigh of relief !! I think some­times I am stuck in the Con­fes­sion mem­o­ries of childhood:in church- wait­ing ner­vous­ly with my schoolmates,under the watch­ful eyes of Sis­ter, while lis­ten­ing to the yelling com­ing from the Con­fes­sion­al, try­ing to remem­ber WHO had gone in there last. Yes, there was lot of yelling in those days. I think it was a game of my male class­mates — to see who could get Father going the loud­est. So many boys came out of the box just beam­ing or even laugh­ing. In ret­ro­spect I guess it could have been cathar­sis.

But my reluc­tance goes way back. It’s cer­tain­ly not for a lack of sin! Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and the grace of a good con­fes­sion are recur­ring themes in hom­i­lies, espe­cial­ly in Advent and Lent. My pas­tor, espe­cial­ly, has a fond­ness for sound­ing the wake-up call-often. After one of his week­day Mass­es last year, my friend and I were dis­cussing our reluc­tance to go to Con­fes­sion. She brought up the real­i­ty of always con­fess­ing the same sins over and over…the feel­ing of get­ting nowhere, nev­er improv­ing. We talked about how so much of what we saw in our­selves as sin­ful, were bad habits or ingrained parts of our per­son­al­i­ties. It seemed so point­less.

Father Michael was very ill at the time and I could only call or write to him. So that week , I wrote a let­ter about this to him. He called me , but I missed the call. Father M left me a mem­o­rable, love­ly voice­mail, though. Father Michael advised:

” I wouldn’t be so wor­ried about Con­fes­sion and repeat­ing the same thing . I always say to pen­i­tents-when we con­fess the same thing over and over again, which we do for years and years and years, every one of us, some­how it’s like chip­ping away at the Pietà and even­tu­al­ly some­thing beau­ti­ful emerges, which is our free­dom from our bur­den. Michelan­ge­lo basi­cal­ly knew that the Pietà was inside that piece of mar­ble. And by chip­ping away and chip­ping away, it soon pre­sent­ed itself. So, don’t be too wor­ried about that sacra­ment; it’s just an instru­ment of grace.”

So I was inch­ing my way along to going. But not long after this, I was in church after Mass on Sat­ur­day and the chil­dren in the Reli­gious Edu­ca­tion pro­gram all arrived for Reconciliation.The Pas­tor showed up and per­haps six more Domini­can priests. He assigned the oth­er priests to dif­fer­ent ‘sta­tions’ and then said some­thing like ‘please allow the chil­dren to be first, then you peo­ple who are my age can come up’. Well that was so weird- what a way to put it! I was the only oth­er per­son present who was his age . I felt like a tar­get. I left.

I fired off a text mes­sage to Father Michael in the church park­ing lot. I was upset- feel­ing guilty, yet intim­i­dat­ed and some­how targeted.…a lit­tle para­noid too. I knew that Father Michael would be able to put it all into per­spec­tive. So imme­di­ate­ly Father Michael texted me back:

You are filled with grace. No crowd or priest has any right to intim­i­date us!!!! I am still not feel­ing so well, so I am exper­i­ment­ing with ‘bland food’. Hope it’s a good day despite the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion intim­i­da­tion.”

Always the good shep­herd, I think Father Michael under­stood that some of us sheep need some space. At the time, I was com­fort­ed so much by his reas­sur­ing words. But I can­not ignore Father’s gen­tle reminder of the ‘instru­ment of grace’  always avail­able to us. I joked about hav­ing con­fes­sion “beat­en” out of me. It’s real­ly more like a wear­ing down. I do go.…eventually. I think for those who can read­i­ly respond to its graces, it is a joy. I’ve known people(a few) who loved  Con­fes­sion. Must be nice.…