Monday, March 25, 2019

Of confessions, truth, compassion and exorcism. What's the link? Read on.

It’s that time of the year when the line of penitents at the confessional become significantly longer. After all, Lent is the season where Catholics are encouraged to face their own shortcomings in a more serious way, and when they ought to be doing their ‘Easter duty’ of making a good confession at least once a year, and preferably before the celebration of Easter.  

When I approach a sin being confessed, I often follow up with a few related or secondary questions like ‘why did you find yourself doing it?’ and, perhaps when it is a sin of lying that is confessed, I'd then ask ‘to whom was it that you lied?’. As a confessor priest, I am always trying to give my penitents some insight into their lives and the way that they have somehow programmed themselves in life, and hopefully, be able to give them the sufficient tools to face these same situations in a better, more enlightened and mature way that next time the temptation to sin comes around again.

When it is the sin of lying being confessed, you may well ask "What does being able to identify the reason of our lying help us to do?"  To illustrate this, a story may help.  Imagine a penitent coming to me and confessing that he has lied, perhaps even repeatedly, to his parents, and leaves it there without elaborating it further. Of course, the sin of lying is grave, but when asked why he had lied to his parents, he reveals that he doesn’t want his parents to know the real reason for his staying out into the wee hours of the morning on Saturday nights, so he cooks up a story of being with some friends who are considered ‘safe’ company by his parents.  The truth is, however, that he had been mixing around with friends whom his parents considered dangerous company, and had instructed him clearly about not hanging out with, and because they have been known for bad behaviour due to overindulgence of alcohol.  

If the penitent just leaves the confession at the sin of lying or dishonesty, he would most likely not arrive at the real root of the issue at hand, which is his disobedience of his parents, and that he is mixing with questionable company.  Repeated confession merely of the sin of lying will not get him to face the fact that the choice of his preferred company on Saturday nights is what needs to be changed.  There are of course, variants of this issue, where young children confess to lying to their parents about not having homework when asked, when in fact they do have undone homework, and the reason they lied was so that they could have more game time on their computers or electronic devices.  The issue is far more than just lying – it is their choice of pleasure over being conscientious students and responsible students.

Reading this, you may wonder why as a confessor-priest I seem to be so inquisitive and doing what may even be termed ‘digging’.  Certainly, I can just leave it at the sin of lying and carry on with giving a penance and asking the penitent to pray the Act of Contrition, and as it were, move on to the next penitent and clear the line that is long and waiting outside the confessional.  It really boils down to one thing – compassion and concern for the soul of the penitent.

I just came out from a 5-day course on Exorcism and Deliverance, conducted by a team of Exorcists and their lay assistants from another Diocese.  We learnt many things about this misunderstood and under-appreciated ministry that has roots in our Catholic Tradition which have been somehow either glossed over post-Vatican, or suffered from too heavy an emphasis on the post-modernist culture.  It is clear that the Church has really resulted in losing something that has given it a good reason to be holy and to always aim for the heights of heaven as our goal in life.  Could it be that the Church is currently suffering the crisis of moral failure even at the upper echelons is due to the fact that it has put aside or let dust settle on some very important traditions that had been assiduously adhered to in the past?  I came across a very insightful quote from Gustav Mahler recently regarding tradition, where he said that tradition isn't the worshipping of ashes, but the preservation of the fire.  

One of the things that came out loud and clear in the course is the need for compassion for the demoniacs in every exorcism that is carried out.  As much as there is a need to be very firm (and perhaps even unflinchingly fierce) in his approach to the demon he is battling, there has to be a very sincere care and tenderness at the same time for the person who is possessed by the demon in question, who needs to be seen as a victim.  

In truth, it is the love of the oppressed son or daughter of God whom God loves so unconditionally that brings the exorcist priest to want to bring him or her out of his diabolical shackles that he or she is in.  Video footages of real life exorcisms that are authentic do not see the priest standing several feet or some safe distance away from the demoniac, but sitting or standing very close to the afflicted sister or brother, placing the exorcism stole that he wears around the shoulders of the demoniac, and having his hand placed over the person’s head.  All these are clear demonstrations of a love of the person, while rebuking the evil spirits that infest the person at his or her soul.  

We were clearly taught that if an exorcist doesn’t have compassion for the afflicted, and sees him or her as a beloved child of God that he truly is, the ministry of exorcism will lack something so necessary – love and charity – not for the demons, but for the person harassed and trapped within.  His ministry will only be something that is purely mechanical, and hence, he may not be a very effective exorcist.

All the while as I was learning from the course, it became clear to me that something similar needs to be on my consciousness when I minister as a confessor-priest.  While I would love to be able to say that I am always aware of the need to be compassionate in the confessional, I cannot.  There are times when we get physically tired, and are not giving our all on the other side of the screen.  I am reminded that we cannot just be perfunctory because we are dealing with peoples' souls.

If a confessor priest is merely mechanical and perfunctory, the lines outside of the confessional may be efficiently cleared,  but if compassion is lacking, we priests may not be able to convey the love and mercy of God in a way that is perceived at the heart.

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