As only recent graduates from childhood, adolescents have an irritatingly short view. Even in solving made-up moral dilemmas, they ferret out the loopholes and go for the utilitarian solution rather than the alternative that would make them persons of integrity and character. Guilt trips are a bummer. The reason is that responsibility, gratitude and accountability are limits on a freedom they have been led (somehow) to believe is without limits. Thus, since hell is out of fashion, the first task is to engender a genuine sense of the reasonableness and value of guilt. Without guilt, what you get is Auschwitz, Central Park gang rapes, non-addicted pushers, saturation bombing, toxic waste dumps, mob hit-men, terrorists, and the list goes on.
"Its too embarrassing to tell my sins to a priest. Why cant I just go out and confess them directly to God?" Fine. When was the last time you did it? And the doctor who treats herself has a fool for a patient. Unless you tell someone else, you either let yourself off too easily or the bottled-up guilt builds till it explodes. Telling someone else gets it out there on the table, without mincing words, to be healed. And the priest reaches out and touches you: "Welcome. Im a sinner, too." The priest has been trained to help, to tell you when you might be kidding yourself or even too hard on yourself.
When I hear confessions, I always end, "Well, youre a good man, arent you? Youre a fine woman." Invariably, the penitent blushes and says, "I hope so" or "I try" or "You dont really know me." I have to tell them that bad people dont confess, only good people do. Also, I never give "prayer penances," always "do penances"; better to show a bit of love than rattle off a few Hail Marys: "When you go home, say, Mom, is there anything I could do for you? Shell faint, but youll both be happier."
This article is excerpted from "Understanding Sacraments," published March 7, 1992.