It’s that time of the year again for penitential services organized in parishes dotted all around the globe. Every year, several weeks before Holy Week, these are organized in a large way so that parishioners can fulfill their ‘Easter duties’ before the solemnity of Easter comes upon us. My experience has been that there is always a certain sense of dread hanging in the air on both sides of the confessional – on the part of the penitents as well as the confessor priests, and for different reasons.
If one were just to use one’s rational faculties, it wouldn’t be difficult to come up with reasons for the feeling of dread in the penitents. No one likes to ‘fess up to another human person for their personal foibles in life. It takes a whole truckload of honesty and humility to do that, and it just goes against the grain of the self-preserving ego. And for those who have a weak understanding of the Church’s teaching on grace and mercy, as well as a misunderstanding of the ministerial priesthood and its role in the sacramental life, confessing to a mere human person in order to encounter God’s mercy can seem to be just inconceivable. If one were to only have a secular, worldly or perhaps an irreligious mindset, it really isn’t hard to see why there could be a certain sense of dread each time this sacrament is encountered.
And for priests, it’s a slightly different story. I recall there being a certain sense of foreboding whenever the penitential services were around the corner back home in Singapore. The long queues, the hardly audible and understandable mumblings of the penitents, the back aches from either standing or sitting in one posture for such prolonged periods, and the need to be constantly alert to listen out carefully to what was being said from what was either deliberately or unintentionally left out. Each penitent needs to be seen as a person in dire need of God’s mercy, and it is ever so humbling as a priest to be of service to a soul knocking on the portals of grace. And it really takes a lot to give it one's all in the confessional, especially if it is going to be at least 90 minutes at a go, for two sessions a day. By the end of the week and a half of these non-stop services, we would all silently be relieved it was over. I recall having told myself just after being ordained that I would always approach the sacrament of reconciliation with a sense of joy because I was going to aid someone's quest for sainthood. But alas, I was to be humbled to discover that even the best of intentions can be laid waste simply because we are not at our 'peak' all the time.
Thus, there could easily be 'problems' on the sides of the penitent as well as the confessor. We often fail very miserably in truly understanding what the sacrament really is trying to provide. What it essentially is, is a true encounter with the mercy of God, and each moment is a celebration in the deepest sense of the word. But the moment either side sees it as a ‘chore’, a ‘drag’, ‘work’, ‘something that one is forced to do by mum or dad’, or ‘because the church said so’, it automatically brings the greatness of the sacrament down several hundred notches.
If one really thinks of it in the broadest possible sense, each celebration of the sacrament of the reconciliation is a prelude to heaven’s gate. What the soul needs most at the hour of death is mercy. What gets one to ‘enter into’ the eternal love of heaven is mercy. What one needs from God ultimately is mercy. When this is forgotten or displaced from the celebration of the sacrament, it easily becomes relegated to what it is often perceived to be a ‘drag’, a ‘chore’, and even a ‘job’, and we do such an injustice to this beautiful sacrament of love and healing.
Reading how great confessor saints like St Pio and St Jean Vianney could spend such long hours in the confessional availing of themselves so selflessly to this sacrament’s meaningful celebration makes one see how differently they saw this sacrament as something that every soul is in great need of. Apparently, the devil often rankled Jean Vianney on the eve of a ‘big fish’. His presbytery would shake and rumble, and it was evident that it was something that was diabolical, but he thought that it was only because the devil hated what this saintly man was doing in terms of living a holy life. But after a while, he noticed a pattern. Each time he was disturbed by such events in the night, when he went to the confessional the next day, there would be a penitent who would confess to having been away from the sacrament of mercy for a long period – something that the saint would refer to as a ‘big fish’. In fact, the greater the previous night’s disturbance, the bigger the ‘fish’ the next day.
This made the saint rather "happy" and "excited" whenever his house would rock and rumble in the silent evenings in the village of Ars, because he knew that it was a harbinger of a big ‘fish’ showing up in the confessional the next day, and that a long-lost soul would be won for God.
Would that confessor priests be similarly disturbed. I’d say – bring in the rumbles, because someone will be brought to heaven’s gates, because Satan is the one who is feeling a real sense of dread.
A soul saved is definitely worth a night of troubled sleep.