I’m naturally curious when it comes to matters of faith. I often find inspiration in understanding why people believe the things they do.
My inquisitiveness in such matters got me to wondering about Confession, a sacrament unique to the Catholic Faith. I’ve learned that a lot of times other folks have the same questions as I do which can make for a good article.
I was a little nervous when I emailed Father Brendan of St Joseph Catholic Church here in Dexter and asked him if he would have time to sit down and explain the Catholic practice of Confession. I mean, its “confession” after all.
“I would love to sit down and talk with you,” he quickly responded. “We’ll start right now. We call it ‘Reconciliation.’”
Reconciliation. I wasn’t expecting that and somehow the thought alone made me feel good, relieved in some way.
A couple of days later I met Father Brendan at the church offices on Dover St. here in Dexter. I always enjoy visiting the office. Everyone makes you feel like you’re one of the biggest things happening that day. Maybe it’s just curiosity over what ever happened to the guy who owned the coffee shop, but I don’t think so. They’re really nice folks.
Father Brendan led me to a meeting room. I got out my recorder and we got started. He was prepared and gave me a handout.
Fr Brendan: “This is a handout I use when teaching about Reconciliation.”
He was saying something else but I wasn’t listening, hence the recorder. The first paragraph of the handout had caught my attention. Seeing it had my attention, Father Brendan read it aloud as I followed along.
“The emphasis of this new Rite is no longer on “confessing” long lists of failings (a very negative approach), nor is it on the “penance” we need to do to make up for our offenses (another negative approach), but rather the emphasis today [is] on “reconciliation,” improving our relationships (a very positive approach).”
Again, like with Fr Brendan’s email, I was caught off guard. It was a gutsy and impressive move of transparency for the church to admit right up front that “’confessing’ long lists of failings” is a “very negative” thing for people.
I wasn’t expecting that. I thought he would be more protective, more defensive. I quickly saw that I should probably start with the idea that I knew nothing. Which apparently I didn’t.
Me: “This is different than I expected. We should probably start with an explanation of Reconciliation.”
Fr Brendan: “Reconciliation is a sacrament…”
Me: (Interrupting) “What exactly is a sacrament?”
Fr Brendan: “We take that which is ordinary and make it holy. We take ordinary water from the earth and ask God to make it holy so then it makes us holy. Ordinary bread and wine, through the work of the Holy Spirit, becomes the substantially transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”
Me: “So it sounds like sacraments are tangible ways in which we experience God through our physical senses. Is that right?”
Fr Brendan: “Right, and reconciliation is one of those ways we, as priests, help people connect to God. The role of the priest in reconciliation is to be the bridge between the person and God, and the person and the community.”
“When you boil it down, the church has ritualized what parents have been teaching their children forever. When they’re not nice, when they’re not kind, when they hurt other people, we all have to know how to say ‘I’m sorry’.”
“It’s really kind of simple. Reconciliation is to say out loud ‘I’m sorry’ and then to hear in our ears we’re forgiven.”
Me: “So reconciliation is what we’re after. Confession is the means. Confession, the negative as you describe it, is not the end in itself. Confession is the way to a healing end, the positive.”
Fr Brendan: “When you talk to a Catholic when they celebrate reconciliation, they always feel better afterwards because they’ve thought about what they’ve been saying and doing. They’ve reflected on how they’ve been living their life. It’s called examining one’s conscience. It’s looking at one’s life and asking, ‘Am I loving?’, ‘Am I serving?’, and if not, ‘Where did I fail?’”
Me: “It sounds like the emphasis isn’t the failure, but on wanting to move forward in a better way. Is that fair?”
Fr Brendan: “Yes.”
I was wondering what the whole process looked like in practice. I had only visions of what I have seen on TV – a darkened church, an ornate booth, participants separated by an opaque screen, secrets divulged and strange incantations applied as the remedy. I was to find out that Hollywood had taught me wrong. Go figure.
Me: “What does Reconciliation look like in practice? Could you walk us through the experience?”
Fr Brendan: “Unique to the catholic church. No other denomination has a ritualized process to absolve a person of their sins. A person has to be sorry. Has to say out loud they’re sorry. Do their act of penance. Hear those words of forgiveness.”
“So first, the person has to be sorry. They have to think, ‘Where Have I been less than my best?’”
Me: “That’s a great phrase.”
Fr Brendan: “Next, you go to a priest. There are scheduled times for reconciliation or you can make an appointment. You sit down face to face, in an ordinary room like the one we’re in now. Gone is the experience of going into a booth being separated by a screen.”
“The priest guides you through some initial tradition, the sign of the cross, saying ‘Bless me father I have sinned.’ The priest reads a scripture passage.”
“The person then says the things they’re sorry for.”
Me: “And that’s the hard part. We want those things to go away, not come back again. We don’t want you to see us differently, negatively.”
Fr Brendan: “What has not changed – The seal of confession has not changed. What is said to the priest, stays with the priest, and goes to God. The priest cannot repeat it back to the person, to another person. The nature of our position is to hear those sins and absolve them and see they are never spoken of again.”
Me: “Are there any exceptions?
Fr Brendan: (Shakes head.)
Me: “Can I say that in the article? ‘There are no exceptions.’”
Fr Brendan: (Thinking) “Yeah, I think you need to say that. There are no exceptions. By virtue of their office, a priest cannot be called in to prosecute based on what’s has been confessed. It is fair to say that what is said to the priest falls under the seal of confession. It is like doctor or psychologist privilege with their client. There is a confidentiality agreement.”
And again, I wasn’t expecting that. If you were to listen to the audio recording of our conversation, this is the point where there is a lengthy pause as I the weight of the statement settled in. I was busy scribbling notes. Father Brendan waited for me to finish and then continued.
Fr Brendan: “After saying the person says what they are sorry for, we talk about it. We talk about putting their self in different situations to break patterns. The sins are put in context.”
“There are different kinds of sin: Venial sins are those times we slip up. It happens before we know it, like when we lose our patience. Serious sins are repetitive bad behavior, like drinking too much and driving, again and again. Mortal sins are where we want to harm the other person and we know we will harm them before we do it.
“Most people fall between venial and serious. Sins against other people are greater than selfish sins.”
“A prayer of sorrow is offered, what we call the ‘Act of Contrition.’”
“After putting the things that the person is sorry for in context, we talk about penance.”
Me: “Perhaps the hardest part.”
Fr Brendan: “The priest says, “Ok, let’s think about how we can do better and let’s do this act of penance to show we’re sorry. It’s an act of kindness. It’s an act of love. It goes back to the place, when possible, where we’ve caused harm to bring peace.”
Me: “So penance is not … punishment?”
Fr Brendan: “Correct.”
“Where possible, go back to the source where harm was done but penance is not meant to embarrass a person. If you stole, buy a bag of groceries and give it to charity. It’s thinking ‘I was bad here so I need to be good.’”
“Traditional penance used to be something maybe like say three Hail Mary’s, two Our Fathers, and go to church. Now, it’s action. If you lost your patience at home, buy flowers spend time with the kids. If you took pens from work, put them back or work through lunch. It’s doing acts to show we’re sorry.”
Me: “Is it fair to say ‘penance is not about creating a fear of punishment’?
Fr Brendan: “Penance is about conversion of mind and heart; about saying we’re sorry by doing works of good.”
“And finally, there are the words of absolution and the person is sent on their way.”
Me: “What are the words of absolution?”
Fr Brendan: “I could give you the words of Absolution – but some of me says we should leave that for people to hear in the sacrament. Words from God to them personally.”
Another question had started nagging me during our conversation.
Me: “How do you not lose your mind listening to all these confessions?”
Fr Brendan: “My job is to bring the mercy, peace and love of God to people. Sometimes you hear stories that make you really sad. It is a reminder that all of us carry all kinds of stuff; some of it’s good and some of it’s not. It’s not mine to speak of again, but bring it to God.”
“It’s an honor that people will share how they’ve been less than their best. I return the honor by never speaking of it again. It is my job to say, ‘I can’t remember this and thankfully I don’t have the memory to do it anyway.” (He smiles)
Me: If I understand it correctly, “forgive” in the original texts is translated from a word meaning ‘to release, to let go.’ It sounds like that is what you do with all this.
Fr Brendan: “Yes for my own sanity. They’re not talking to me, but to God through me. It’s my job to bring God to them. I’m the intermediary. It’s not Father Brendan they’re talking to, but God.”
“I don’t take it personal. I don’t take it to heart. I’m there so they don’t beat themselves up. Society does enough of that. I work really hard to let people know ‘God loves you. God forgives you. Go be at peace. Go sin no more.’”
Me: “What would you say to a person who is reluctant, or fearful of reconciliation?”
Fr Brendan: “To trust that it is a more positive experience than a negative. I’m not there to judge you. I don’t remember. The seal of confession dictates that I cannot bring it up to you again. I’m there to bring them gods loving mercy and compassion. To know they can let it go. They can be forgiven.”
Me: Is it fair to think then that confession is not divulging a secret. God already knows. It’s about coming and owning what was done and getting it out in the open so you can be released. Is that fair?”
Fr Brendan: “Certainly. It’s releasing that which binds us. We want healthy hearts.”
Father Brendan also mentioned that the publishing of this article since the church really encourages people to experience Reconciliation during Lent and Advent, the two major Christian celebrations of the year.
And so there it was. My fearful preconceptions of Confession were wrong, as fearful preconceived ideas often are, and the Sacrament is about reconciliation, redemption, release, liberation and embrace. The emphasis is not our failures, but about God’s yearning to draw us near in spite of ourselves. It is putting into practice, experiencing really, the utter relief of reconciliation.