“I only confess to God,” a co-worker recently told me when a conversation on Confession popped up in the days preceding the selection of Pope Francis.
I could totally understand where he was coming from since it’s something most non-Catholics would agree with, as well as most secularists, especially those who reject the notion of sin or its consequence. Others might argue that we don’t need a priest; confessing to one another is sufficient.
Let’s be honest, the idea of telling another person (a priest no less!) our most intimate transgressions and taking full responsibilities for our actions (and failures to act!) without excuses, may seem as distressing and trepidatious to some people, as if, well, the Miami Heat's Chris "Bird-Man" Andersen showed up to pick up their daughter for a date (He might be the greatest guy in the world but yikes!), which might be why the first thing Christ did, after the Resurrection was to give His Apostles the power to forgive and retain sins in His name; thereby forcing His followers to have to confess for absolution (or they wouldn't know what sins to forgive or retain!).
Yet, putting it into perspective, this wasn’t such a radical concept for first century believers. For generations preceding Jesus, Jews had to travel to the temple in Jerusalem, regardless of the hardships that it might entail, confess their sins to a priest and offer a sacrifice in atonement. In other words, it was public, it required humility and sacrifice, and it came at a cost (not to mention, the messiness involved, since they had to slaughter their own animal, gut it and clean it, before presenting it to the priest to burn).
Needless to say, Jesus streamlined (and sanitized!) the process, which considering that I get queasy when I cut myself shaving, is a great thing!
Several weeks ago, my eight-year-old daughter’s entire second grade class (3 classrooms) got their first chance to experience the healing power of God’s mercy and forgiveness in the sacrament of Confession (also known as Reconciliation), in preparation for their First Holy Communion later this month. It was truly a family affair!
As I sat there in the jam-packed parish with other second grade parents, siblings and grandparents (although, by the looks of things, possibly even some aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and neighbors!), waiting for our little ones to receive their sacrament, as I had done four years earlier with my older daughter, I couldn’t help but recall my first Confession at Holy Rosary Catholic School in Port Chester, New York many moons ago; although mine had a little less fanfare.
As I remember, after months of preparation, Sister Denise, the Salesian nun, who, in retrospect, reminds me a little of Major Benson Winifred Payne (aka Damon Wayans) in the movie Major Payne, and always seemed to catch me in compromising positions (like the time she stepped out of the classroom and several kids started throwing paper balls around the room and the minute I picked one up and tossed it, she walked back in, as the paper landed near her feet!) lined us up in two single files at each of the confessionals at the back of the chapel and tried to maintain decorum, in her Major Payne sort of way, as we took turns talking to the priests.
It was a far cry from my daughters’ first Confession. There were no parents. There were no siblings or grandparents, no background organist, pastor and kids singing, balloons, flowers or cotton ball lambs. In fact, I kept waiting for a high school cheer leading team to come out of the sacristy chanting, “S-P-I-R-I-T, Spirit! Hey, let us hear it! Holy Spirit!” (I’m just kidding! I realize the idea was to make it a positive experience to establish a lifelong commitment to the sacrament)
In my day, there wasn't much emphasis on establishing a lifetime commitment. Maybe because, it was treated more like taking medicine; you do it whether you like it or not!
Therefore, my first Confession was somewhat austere; just the penitent kids, two priests and Major Payne (who actually wanted me to repeat second grade because of my conduct; not that I hold any grudges!).
In any case, although, I can’t recall what I confessed or what the priest told me, I can remember the peace and relief I felt when the priest said the words of absolution, which I have since learned are, “Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Even at that age, it was as if the weight of the world, and at eight, that world feels pretty heavy, was lifted off my shoulders (although, I didn't realize it gets heavier the older I get!) or as our pastor told my daughter’s second grade class, “It’s like taking a spiritual bath and getting nice and clean.”
I love that feeling of cleanliness and peace. I still get it every time I leave the confessional. But, more than a feeling, it's the knowing. It's the certainty that through the ministry of the priesthood, Christ has truly and unequivocally forgiven my sins.
In fact, outside of the Eucharist, which is the pinnacle of the Catholic faith, and center of all other sacraments, there is no greater gift that Christ gave His Church then the sacrament of Confession, which, for the past seven years, I have tried to receive every three weeks or so.
People pay thousands of dollars for therapy to find peace. The Church offers it for free!
Anyhow, after all the pomp and circumstance, the kids in my daughter's class started going up to receive their sacrament from one of the four priests that were stationed at different locations throughout the parish.
Soon, after waiting patiently for over an hour, our daughter finally went up to see one of the priests sitting at the front of the church, behind the altar. Unlike my first time in a dark confessional, she went face-to-face in the open parish (obviously in a secluded enough spot, where no one could hear them).
At first, she was doing all the talking while the priest just leaned back in his chair and smiled.
For the priests hearing the second graders confess, I could only imagine must feel like the old Archbishop Fulton Sheen joke about nuns, "Hearing nuns' confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn."
Then it was his turn to talk and after several minutes of telling her something (probably important), he raised his hand over her head and gave her absolution.
Afterwards, when she got done with her penance, she strolled down the aisle to where we were waiting and we headed outside. I hugged and kissed her and told her how proud I was of her. Then, noticing how happy she looked, I asked her how she felt.
She coyly answered, “Good.” Oh well, hopefully, "good" is enough to lay the foundation for a lifetime of "great!"
So, I followed up by asking her, "What did the priest tell you?"
She looked at me a bit puzzled and in all earnest said, "I don't know." Unfortunately, she confessed with our Polish priest, who has a very pronounced accent. Now, on the positive side, at least he couldn't have said anything she didn't like!
Then without skipping a beat she added, “Can we go to eat now?” I guess first things first; there must be something to be said about a grumbling stomach in a repentant's heart!
In any event, going back to my friend at work, although God can forgive sins without a priest, after all He is God, He can do anything, Christ did give His Apostles (who were all imperfect!) the power to bind and loose and to forgive and retain sins for a reason. Far be it for us to question His reasons why; although requiring humility, which counters the very essence of why sin came into the world in the first place; pride, and is needed in abundance for a person to sincerely open up their heart to a priest (along with courage), may be the answer.
Moreover, as I heard another friend once say, we can try to do it on our own without a priest, without the sacraments that Christ established or without the Church, but why would anyone want to jump off the boat without a life jacket and try to swim to shore on their own, when the Lord gave us the Bark of Peter to carry us?...