Monday, February 10, 2003

I went to confession on Saturday. Three things occurred to me. First, it had been two months since my last confession—much too long. While I was examining my conscience before the Crucifix and being made experientially aware of the weight of my many infidelities, it occurred to me that there is nothing that I’ve done or can do to merit the grace of forgiveness that flows from the Cross of Christ. When that weight of sin is lifted from my shoulder, it is pure, unearned gift and my proper response should be humble, blushing gratitude and joy. That I don’t always feel the elation (“woohoo!”) that the grace should engender is a sign of my continued need for interior transformation so that I can be freed of such effects of original sin.

The second thing that occurred to me as I sat in the almost empty Church was that, considering my own experience of the weight of my sinfulness, it is a scandal that often the only people who are there at the regular Saturday afternoon confession time at the Church down the street from us is my family. Believe me, I’m no Jansenist, but how can these thousands of people who belong to this parish walk around with the same burden of sin that I walk around with and not seek frequent absolution and freedom, especially as one approaches the Sacrament of the Altar? I don’t care what your theology of the sacrament is, if it is available, why woul you not want to receive it frequently?

I believe there may be a correlation between their infrequent confession and the location of their tabernacle. Now, I’m not the type who thinks that putting the tabernacle in a side chapel is a denial of the Real Presence (although I prefer it behind the main alter, just as I prefer the priest to face “liturgical east”). When we first started going to this Church, the tabernacle was located in a chapel in the left transcept of the Church, just to the left of the main altar. It had prie dieuxs and a nice stenciling of wheat on the wall behind it. But, as the Church got more crowded, they decided to put seats in this trancept facing the altar. So, instead of finding another worthy place for the tabernacle, they simply shoved it to the side and put the seats in facing the altar. So, there is a little narrow isle on the right side of the seats leading up to the tabernacle. No prie dieux; so when my wife and I came out of confession, we simply knelt on the carpet facing the tabernacle to pray. No one in this parish genuflects before the Blessed Sacrament when they come into the Church, not even the communion ministers when they get hosts out to take to the sick. My wife once asked the pastor why he didn’t put the tabernacle behind the main altar, since there is room for it there. He just indicated that that wasn’t going to happen. The casualness and lack of awareness with which these people treat the Real Presence of their Lord and Judge may be related to the fact that they feel no need for frequent confessions.

God be praised that our own parish (which is several miles away) has long confession lines both on Saturday and before (and, unfortunately, during) Mass on Sunday. Our former pastor really encouraged us to get “in the box” especially, but not only during Lent.

Third, it occurred to me what an awesome and terrible thing the seal of confession is. Not only must the priest not divulge the contents of the confessions he hears, but he must not treat the penitent any different based on his knowledge of the he has done. I can just imagine that that is the greatest burdens of being a priest, especially since the (admittedly imperfect) anonymity of the old-fashioned confessional is less common.

I can still remember how terrifying it was to return to the sacrament at the age of twenty-one after a seven-year hiatus (steeped in sin). I still experience a great deal of emotional resistance to the sacrament, partly, I’m sure, because I don’t go often enough. I don’t let the exhilaration of freedom from sin become habitual because I allow myself to wait too long and to become burdened once again with sins that I can’t even always remember. Fortunately, the extent of forgiveness is not proportional to the emotional high we experience.

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