The Sins and the Fathers

The Sacrament of Penance is making a comeback as young people flock to confession. But repentance may not always look the way you expect.

The confessor is not the master of God’s forgiveness, but its servant. The minister of this sacrament should unite himself to the intention and charity of Christ. He should have a proven knowledge of Christian behavior, experience of human affairs, respect and sensitivity toward the one who has fallen. He must love the truth, be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church, and lead the penitent with patience toward healing and full maturity. He must pray and do penance for his penitent, entrusting him to the Lord’s mercy.

— Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1466

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A young college freshman in my family was complaining about those social and romantic issues that take up much of an 18-year-old’s energy. Noting that he seemed unfocused and undirected, I suggested he go to confession. “It will take some of that off your shoulders, and the sacrament imparts graces that will help you.”
My advice was answered with a meticulously raised eyebrow that meant either I was brilliant or I was quite mad and should be ignored, so I was surprised when, a few weeks later, this young man casually mentioned that he had gone to confession.
“The priests were in the dorms offering it, and you’d mentioned it. Figured I’d just do it.”
I asked him if he felt better, if he believed engaging the sacrament had helped.
“Well, it’s funny. I didn’t, like, confess. I just talked to him. Told him what was going on. It was good. I decided that I didn’t want to ask for absolution, though.”
It seems our protagonist and his priest had enjoyed a lengthy back-and-forth about the nature of sin, what constitutes sin, and what role conscience plays in that definition. “Some of the things I’ve done, I know I’m going to do them again. I didn’t mind confessing, but it seemed wrong to say an Act of Contrition when I’m not even sure I’m contrite. I know what the church teaches, but God knows everything; He understands my mind and heart. He knows I’m not out to defy him; I’m just living my life, and exploring and growing up. Me and Jesus, we’re okay.”
Apparently the priest enjoyed this. He told the un-penitent that he appreciated this thoughtful confession over the “lip-service” he so often heard. But there was the matter of absolution. “I don’t know how to do a ‘partial’ absolution, and it seems pointless. Your venial sins are absolved in the Mass, anyway.”
“I know,” the young man agreed. “I’ll just have to stay away from Communion until I can get this all sorted out.”
The idea of anyone withholding himself from Communion for what could be years threw me, but he explained, “I’m not going to live a casual, sloppy faith. I believe God would rather have me play fair and be respectful than make a rote confession. So many people just mouth the right words and only half mean it — as if you can game the system or fool God into thinking you’re alright. Who’s alright, anyway? Isn’t that why God is merciful, because none of us is alright? I love the Eucharist; I won’t treat it so carelessly. I can still make a spiritual communion. If it’s true, the grace should be able to sneak in.”
He had me there.
“Don’t worry about it,” he reassured me with a charming smile. “It will all work out. After all, the Father is very fond of me.”
“The Father is very fond of me,” is the last line of an old Irish story he loves, but the young man was serious. He was peaceful, and his focus and optimism had returned.
G. K. Chesterton has written of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, “When a Catholic comes from Confession, he does truly, by definition step out into that dawn of his own beginning . . . . In that brief ritual God has really remade him in His own image. He may be grey and gouty; but he is only five minutes old.”
That excellent description is as accurate today as it was in 1922 when Chesterton, an old man in a young century, entered the church. In explaining his main motivation to convert — “to get rid of my sins” — he took a deep theological and sacramental point and made it very simple.
That 80-some years later a young man in a new century — approaching confession from the same place of truth — could take the simple sacrament, make it rather complex, and still manage to find solace and grace therein, is a tantalizing mystery.
It was not so very long ago that confession was an integral part of a Catholic’s life and culture, and the unquestioning practice of weekly confession went hand-in-hand with meatless Fridays, parish novenas, and Benediction. My parents — who were a decade behind Chesterton — would tell stories about the scrupulous confessions wrung out of them by stern priests who wanted to hear a thorough recounting of the week’s fumbles and faults, and who would brook no double-talk or omissions.
“They knew us,” my mother would grimace. “They knew who was drinking away the rent money, who was flirting with someone’s wife, who was playing the numbers with the grocery change. There was no getting away with anything so we were better off just coming clean and doing the penance. No one thought anything of it, because we were all in the same boat.”{mospagebreak}
In my own generation, some of that was still true. Priests knew us because there were plenty of them to go around, and go around they did. The communal effect of neighborhood Catholics regularly practicing the Faith created a culture that deemed it unremarkable for a priest to hurry into a house to anoint a parishioner or baptize a sickly baby, or to pull a husband out of a pub. There was more frequent interaction with clergy on a casual, day-to-day basis; that translated into mindfulness, and it is undeniable that Catholics of that era had a well-developed sense of sinfulness in their lives — but not, perhaps, of mercy.
My recollection of confession as a child is a mostly positive one, partly because in the confessional, mystery could be wedded to imagination. The heavy velvet curtain admitted one into darkness, and a disembodied voice seemed like God was giving orders to busy angels before sliding open a window and turning His attention to my little spats and tantrums. But the truth was, half the time I was inventing sins because an examination of conscience didn’t turn up much. Okay, I kicked my brother. But he started it. I was going to confession not because I was burdened, not because I needed some direction, but because it was Saturday. The whole neighborhood went to Confession on Saturday, because to not receive the Eucharist on Sunday (or to receive it unworthily) was unthinkable, and because, well, if I died without confessing — and that could happen — I would go to hell.
I recall once, at a very young age, admitting to my brother that I had made up sins in confession. “That’s bad,” he told me, eyes widening, “lying in confession is the worst thing you can do. It turns your soul black!” I looked down, wondering about a small bruise on my arm and my brother, inspired to further glory, pointed at it and cried, “Look! Your soul is so black it’s leaking out of you!”
Terrified, I ran back to the church and admitted my lie of a confession, worried the whole time that if I got hit by a car or struck by lightening, I would meet up with the devil. The priest, who was probably craving some fresh air and a cigarette, was not pleased with my repentance or my double-dip confession, and no penance was ever said more fervently than was mine, that afternoon.
Small wonder, then, that as the recommendations of the Second Vatican Council were (often inaccurately) relayed to the folks in the pews, Catholics shied away from confession. That, almost overnight, the sacrament went from wide participation to rare indicates that perhaps there was something missing from both our practices and our understanding of its true nature and value. I suspect what was missing was the engagement of our intellect and reason.
In his Sunday Angelus of January 28, 2007, the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, Pope Benedict XVI said reason and faith are both “dimensions of the human spirit” that are “fully realized when they meet and dialogue.” This seems like a wonderful description of what my young relative experienced in his recent confession. He brought his reason into his faith — his faith into his reason — and they commingled like waves and seagrass. The result was not what most of us would consider “ideal.” After all, the point of reconciliation is to “reconcile,” and to get absolved — to seek after that elusive and slippery state of grace and be “five minutes old” for a little while.
His confession did not accomplish that. Forty years ago, his exchange with his confessor might not have been appreciated for what it was: an honest seeking, an application of reason to faith that did not leave him feeling excluded or condemned as a “bad” Catholic. The young man, acting his age and aware that he is “working things out” in his developing conscience, had not been given a message of rejection, or been made to feel unwelcome or second-best. He left confession feeling not humiliated, but graced (and who is to say he was not?), and his earnest resolve is to continue to worship and grow, not to depart because he fails the ideal.
His confessor, admirably, also blended reason with faith. His pastoral response undoubtedly left his deliberative penitent feeling encouraged to pursue further encounters with the sacrament — to keep seeking Christ, and to draw ever nearer. This is a win-win.
Excepting miracles, the healing of even minor physical wounds does not happen in an instant. The healing or maturing of a soul can also take time, and perhaps that understanding is what was lacking in the confessional practices of earlier generations. Faced with long lines of sinners they’d see again the following week, usually confessing the same sins, priests doled out Hail Marys and Our Fathers (which sent the confusing message that prayer was a penance or a “punishment” instead of a gift), and it all became rather complacent and superficial. The sacrament was never meaningless, but many might be excused for thinking so, particularly when post-conciliar homilies began to mush-mouth the notion of sin, which diluted the whole idea of mercy. The pre- conciliar practice of confession may have been miles wide, but it was an inch deep, and thus easily skipped over.
In early 2007, the Holy Father instructed priests and bishops to again promote the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and in September 2007 the Wall Street Journal reported that confession was “making a comeback” with thousands of people taking advantage of diocesan “Days of Grace” where they are offered. Those interviewed were enthusiastic about it and said they were glad to reconnect to a treasure of the church that suddenly seemed new, relevant, and helpful.
When Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, he famously remarked that the church needed to open its windows to “let in fresh air.” The ensuing cultural upheaval caused conjecture that a too-strong gale had ripped the shutters from their hinges and left nothing but disarray. But as Paul wrote to the Romans, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
How could we have doubted, then, that eventually — in God’s good time, not ours — what had been upset would be righted, and properly weighted. The church that some believed was in unstoppable decline 15 years ago has prayed and done some painful penance of its own; it is re-emerging — a little humbled, more patient — and ready to, as the Catechism says, “lead the penitent with patience toward healing and full maturity.”
After all, the Father is very fond of us.

Elizabeth Scalia is a freelance writer in New York, and a columnist and blogger for


  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Elizabeth Scalia is the popular writer and blogger known as “The Anchoress.” She writes a weekly column for First Things and is the managing editor for the Catholic Portal at Patheos.

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