Monday, March 26, 2012

Going fishing in the confessional

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. 


  1. That was beautifully said :)

  2. Your mention of the ‘’drag and dread’’ in fulfilling of our Easter duties makes me remember what the bard said, “Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all.’’(Hamlet). When we were school children we were told that this conscience is the voice of our Guardian Angel and in adulthood we know it to be the voice of the true self that tells us in no uncertain terms if we have wronged against another, that we cannot be scape-goating another for our own lapses or sins. So it is with nervous trepidation that we cast anxious looks at the confessional, even when we have a not too ‘’weak understanding of the Church’s teaching on grace and mercy.’’

    Because – it is like you said – going for confession is an act of honesty and humility and ‘’goes against the grain of the self-preserving ego.’’ In similar vein, Bishop F Sheen said, ‘’sin is an act of freedom by which we throw the whole harmonious nature out of joint. It is not just self-interest, but it is the affirmation of self at all costs.’’ Truly, it is very difficult for the ego to die. And that is what we are doing when we go for confession- it is actually a our false self - that has prided itself to be superior to others, that has been so overly confident of our righteousness with our Maker and our neighbours, that wants to re-assert and re-assure itself that we are faultless or nearly !

    What has been of help to me over the years is to remember that it is not the Church but Christ, the Lord who instituted this sacrament. We cannot deny this if we only look up Matthew 16:19 or John 20:23. However, I feel that merely going for confession to fulfil this Easter obligation would only be a cosmetic make-over if one’s heart is not truly engaged. I remember how as a new Catholic , many years ago, I was taught that mere confession of sins without sorrow and a firm resolve to mend my ways or a firm purpose of restitution, would render the absolution invalid because it is termed Imperfect Contrition. I am not sure if this is still the ruling today. But this I do know, that when I try to make a good confession, I carry back with me a deep sense of a home-coming, of harmony with self, others and with God.

    God bless you, Fr.

  3. Dearest Fr Luke,
    Thank you for your sharing from a priest’s perspective… and I particularly like the ending statement. =)

    I grew up going for confession only during such “mass confession”, where it had been more of family obligation than any true repentance. So I never saw the need for confession. In fact, I had always rationalised that I had already “confessed” on Sundays at mass, so why did I have to confess again?
    Or if I do go, it was just for the standard protocol for being catholic.

    It was at a 7 days retreat in Sabah, where I asked from God, for something that will change my life. I asked for - the fear (reverence) of God, for I had been too much a doubting Thomas… And so God answered my prayer, and in the face of such greatness, one can only bow down and worship. My sins became apparent to me and I was desperate to seek forgiveness so that I could worship this awesome God without shame.

    That night, I had trouble sleeping… even my bed seemed to prevent my resting. I remembered having this fear and nervousness that “something” will prevent me from receiving forgiveness, and the thought of death before confession petrified me. Since I couldn’t sleep, I decided to go outside the priests’ house to wait for the first priest who stepped out to give me absolution. It was a pries t from Myanmar, who was also attending the retreat. (I am not sure if he had a troubled sleep… ;-))

    As I knelt there after uttering “Bless me Father for I have sinned…” my anxiety turned into sorrow, deep sorrow for having sinned and hurting God. Tears of repentance flowed and it was truly the first time I experience true repentance and liberating forgiveness.

    For many years after, I tried to rationalise and psychoanalyse this experience, and I can only humbly conclude and embrace the fact that God’s ways are not my ways, and that I should not short-change this experience that allowed me to be ever mindful of sins that can hold me in bondage, separating me from the love of God.

    My sharing is to testify God’s real presence in His sacraments. Not only at St. Jean Vianney’s times, but in our current times too. Our God is ever so loving and forgiving.
    And I thank God too, for the gift of priesthood, which enables us to receive beautiful encounters of His amazing grace… that save wretches like me.

    Thank you Fr Luke, for being our Priest. Have a blessed happy Day of Priesthood (Holy Thursday).

    God be with you always. As we all continue to persevere in this constant spiritual battle.

  4. My first experience of the sacrament of reconciliation was a beautiful one. I was not yet a baptized Catholic but was one of the participants at a retreat. We were told to reflect on the love of God & the Catholics were encouraged to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. I was touched during my reflection & was very, very remorseful of my imperfect ways. I approached the priest (it was Fr Frans De Ridder) anyway & was given a blessing at the end of my "confession". That experience strengthened my desire to become a Catholic.

    After I became a Catholic, participating in the sacrament of reconciliation became perfunctory. I participated because, well, it was time to participate since the penitential services were organized by the church. Through time, the experience degenerated into one of doom & gloom because I didn't know what I should confessed. I had confessed countless of times that I got mad at people, I lost my tempers; I had confessed countless of times that I didn't like certain people - the sacrament of reconciliation didn't help. I still lost my tempers spectacularly & I still didn't like those people.

    It was only two years ago I realized that I had gone about it incorrectly & I didn't see it because of a lack of prayer life. I had gotten angry & dislike people because I had de-humanized them; I had not treated them as children of God. I had so many misconceptions about the teachings of the church. I was only operating at the surface but had failed to delve into the deeper understandings & implications of many of the values of the church.

    & now whenever I'm enlightened, I'm able to see how I had sinned or am still sinning where previously all these would have remained blanketed. I will approach the confessional with contrition & a firm resolution that I will be able to walk a little closer in truth & freedom towards God's Kingdom.

    Thank you, Father, for your sharing.

  5. Still a fry learning to swimMarch 30, 2012 at 3:51 PM

    You mentioned in your earlier blogs that whenever you write on death, you will have many people reading your blog. I would think that writing about confession will get you readership too. After all, confession or reconciliation is really another form of dying – dying of self. With this week being the penitential week, I will surmise that your blog are going to get many hits.

    I have a confession to make - I am one of those who actually googled about confession this week. I was looking for “confession for dummies”. Somehow, I felt inadequate whenever I prepared for the sacrament of reconciliation. Anxiety and even despair set in – I had doubt that I would be able to make a “worthy” confession that truly deserved God’s immense mercy and love.

    Then it struck me as I search for the “dummies” answer. I hadn’t really been dying to myself. My ego had me believed that my stumbling blocks to reconciliation were anxiety and fear. The truth was that I had been putting too much “I” into this equation. The sins I was going to confess was never going to “equate” to the amazing grace that I am going to experience. I realised then the reconciliation was never about me; it is a sacrament because it is what it is – God coming to us through the healing words of absolution.

    I may still google for guidance when my next reconciliation comes around. But what I will definitely do is to pray that I am able to die to myself. My focus has to be on Christ, it is his suffering on the cross we can be reconciled with God. I have to be like the penitent thief on the cross knowing that I am guilty and condemned, and all that mattered is to say to Jesus, "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom."