Saturday, April 4, 2009

I Must Confess...

Today is the first Saturday of the month, which in the world of Catholicism means time for Confession.

Confession, or Reconciliation, is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. A person humbles himself before God and man by admitting his sins, asking for forgiveness and declaring that he wholeheartedly desires to sin no more. The priest then absolves the person of his sins, provides a penance, and blesses him before sending him on his way. Reconciliation can and should be a very liberating and deeply emotional experience.

I must admit that I've always had a love-hate relationship with Confession. Early on, after I'd made my First Confession in second grade, I looked forward to the opportunity of saying what I'd done wrong and asking for forgiveness. I vividly remember begging my mother to take me to Confession one Saturday afternoon. I simply couldn't receive Holy Eucharist the next day if I didn't confess that I'd missed Mass the week before.

Father Palermo, the founder of the church where I grew up, was a no-fuss, sometimes stern sort of priest. He wanted you to get to the point about what you did wrong and why you chose to do it. Even at the age of seven or eight, I'd feel myself sweating under the collar. Why did I choose to disobey my parents, anyway?

You could imagine how nervous I was to tell Father Palermo that I had committed one of the biggies--missing Mass! I felt that even if he were gracious enough to absolve me of this sin, I still may have the chance of landing in you-know-where.

As I knelt down in the confessional, I asked God to help me give a good Confession. Then, the door behind the small mesh screen slid open, and I could see Father Palermo's outline. Time to own up to what I'd done.

"I missed Mass last week, Father."
Father Palermo wasn't one to let you get off with just saying that. He needed to know what had possessed you to skip church.
"So, you just didn't feel like going to Mass?" he probed.
"No, father!" I said in a pleading way. "I really wanted to go."
Father Palermo pursued. He was going to find out exactly what demonic urge I'd had last Sunday!
"So then, your parents couldn't take you and you were too lazy to try to find a ride?"
"No, father! My parents went to Mass, and they would have taken me."
"Why, then, didn't you go to Mass last Sunday?" You could hear Father Palermo's frustration at not being able to solve this riddle.
"I was sick."
There was a brief pause, after which Father Palermo kind of yelled, "That's not a sin! If you're too sick to go to Mass, you don't have to confess that!"

Boy was my face red. Not only had I not committed a sin, I'd wasted the priest's time by trying to confess this! I can't remember what he said after that. I just know that I was feeling quite goofy for having confessed a non-sin.

A few years later, when I was in parochial school, we had to go to confession every first Friday of the month. At the age of nine or ten, if you're any kind of a decent kid, you don't do too much sinning. As much as I wanted to confess my sins, I was always a little disappointed that I couldn't come up with a nice list every month. I mean, you can't just confess one sin! (Look what happened when I tried to confess the sin of not going to Mass, which turned out to be perfectly non-sinful. I wasn't armed with any backup sins, and so the priest was completely baffled about why I was kneeling in the confessional.)

So I kind of cheated on my sins. Crazy, I know, but it seemed the right thing to do at the time. After all, the idea is that we should be reflecting on our lives, discovering our shortcomings and constantly improving ourselves. So I basically came up with the same three sins that I committed each month (even if I didn't actually commit one of them within a 30-day period), and I always switched them around in case the priest started to catch on to me.

Here's the problem with that approach: If we are supposed to leave confession promising to try to do better, it doesn't look too good if you come back a month later and confess the same three sins!

By this time, I had gotten myself so riled up about Confession, I would get a nervous stomach before school, and my palms would sweat profusely as I waited in church for my turn. Relief was the emotion I felt when I walked out of the confessional. Whew, made it through another one!

As I got older, Confession became more of what it was supposed to be: a very cleansing spiritual act. But fast-forward to adulthood, and Confession became nothing more than a waste of time. "Why should I confess my sins to another human being when I can talk directly to God?"

Now, I find my attitude changing yet again. I realize the wonderful power of Reconciliation, and I understand bringing your faults before a priest, who is given the power by God to forgive you. Nevertheless, I often find myself steering clear of the confessional for months at a time before finally realizing that I need to go. Then I either spend a half-hour memorizing my sins like I'm going to recite the Gettysburg address verbatim, or I just wing it, dashing into the confessional to blurt out my wrong-doings as they pop into my head.

Both of these methods appear to be incorrect. There's nothing natural or thoughtful about memorization, and doing it on the fly often leads to omission.

Today, I am working on reflection to experience Confession in a meaningful way. Looking over the Ten Commandments is a great starting point. I'm also searching for guidelines on how to make a good act of Confession. American Catholic, a website created by St. Anthony Messenger Press and Franciscan Communications, is a nice resource. There is a thorough section on the seven sacraments and articles on what's necessary to make a good Confession. See

If you have any other resources, please share. Here's to rediscovering the true meaning of Reconciliation.
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