We’ve come to that time of the year again, when parishes all over the world organize penitential services (aka confessions) for parishioners before Easter. It’s a very busy time for us priests, and we literally hear confessions non-stop every night for about a week. Many of the penitents begin with saying that their last confession was at Advent, and when it comes to the penitential service for Advent, the very common phrase we hear is “my last confession was in Lent”. So, for many Catholics, this seems to be a biannual affair. As a priest, I cannot help but wonder what this shows. It could be one of the following:
1) It seems to be sufficient to admit of one’s transgressions only twice a year. Other than that, one is deemed to be living ‘at rights’ with God and with one’s fellowman.
2) Without the Church organizing such penitential services, there would be no compulsion to make some serious search into our souls.
3) Our lives are rather unaffected by this sacrament, because if it is, we would truly become more regular in this practice.
4) We are only doing this because the Church says so, and not because we truly believe that something wonderful and life-giving happens when God forgives us in audible words.
5) Many Catholics may believe that they are sinners, but don’t want to vocalize this in front of a priest, as he is no longer seen as someone giving the presence of Christ at the celebration of this sacrament. It flies in the face of the rational thinker.
6) Confessing to God directly is enough.
The list above is not at all exhaustive. It could well be one, or all of the above that applies to the many Catholics who have ceased to make confession a regular feature in their spiritual lives.
If the reality was that we have less and less sinners, and that is why fewer are making use of this sacred encounter with God’s mercy, it would be a wonderful sign of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. But I am sure that no one would be able to say this with confidence, as sin seems to have its grips on so many lives. I seem to, as a priest, have a difficult challenge in drawing the faithful to the mercy of God on a regular basis, so that the God of Mercy can be encountered.
Perhaps the Pope said it most succinctly in his address to 700 priests at the conclusion of a confessors’ course recently when he said that these times are marked by “a hedonistic and relativistic mentality that cancels God from peoples’ lives”. I’d just précis that sentence to say that many of us have become self-centered and no longer other-centered.
After all, isn’t the root of many sins that of selfishness? Most, if not all sins can find their basis in promoting or protecting the self. Cut away all the trimmings and the trappings, and it will be revealed that one was putting oneself and one’s needs, one’s ego and one’s pride in the forefront when the sin was committed. “This is how I see it”; “it’s according to MY opinion”. “I think that I can go to God directly”.
A good confessor must be one who can help the penitent to come to that ‘rock bottom’ admission that one was selfish in his or her choices, and to openly admit that God needs to be replaced at the center and the self be moved aside. If one takes the analogy of the potter and the clay, it’s a lot like getting started on the flywheel, where the moldable clay is thrown and ‘forced’ into the dead centre. It is only when the clay is no longer wobbly, no longer ‘out of control’, that the master potter can shape and mould the clay to become the masterpiece according to the will and hands of the potter. Our ‘self’ however, wants to go all over the place and refuse to yield to get to the centre.
I get a sense that there is an unspoken fear in many penitents that if they are really sincere about their confession, and reveal their most raw wounds, that something wonderful and enticing will be taken away from them. Sin never presents itself as something as a bad choice. It always masks itself as a good, as something thrilling and as something that is beneficial (usually in an instant gratification sort of way). But if as a confessor, I can help just one penitent to realize that confession doesn’t take anything away from them, but instead will make them richer, I would have done my part.
I don’t have a proper platform to speak about this openly, apart from this weekly blog, but I do hope that somehow, this message will spread. And when more and more people will see that mercy is what is needed by the world, and the only thing that makes this world a more merciful place is when more people are touched by God’s mercy, less and less Catholics will only encounter the tender mercy of God only twice a year, and become co-transformers of the world.