Mary Sherry

It was a dark and stormy night. Really. I parked in the lower lot and came through the parish center entrance. Taking the stairs two at a time because I was on the edge of being late, I hurried toward the church, thinking about all the other things I needed to do before Christmas. The communal penance service would soon be one more thing I could check off my list.

I negotiated the corners and headed into the stretch. As I passed a room on my left, I noticed a piece of paper taped near the door that noted, Vesting room for priests for the penance service. The room was packed full of priests, vested in albs and stoles. When I saw the sheer number in there, I knew I was in trouble. Deep trouble. It was clear to me what kind of penance service this was going to be.... I recalled that the parish bulletin said individual confession, but assumed it would be an option. I must not have read the fine print.

At this point it would have been fairly simple to hang a left in the atrium and melt into the darkness through the north doors. But I decided to, well, stick it outat least for a while. I would just pray with the congregation and hope for a general absolution.

I slid into a pew toward the back.

The priests came in and sat in a large group in the pews to the left of the sanctuary. They were young, old, middle-aged. There were even a couple of red beanies. Bishops? Really! This was getting interesting. Father Peter, our associate pastor, approached the altar and explained this penance service would not feature general absolution, only individual confession. After a brief Liturgy of the Word, the priests would be stationed throughout the church and atrium. Then he introduced each confessor to the congregation.

I started to rethink my plans. Maybe I should return to individual confession. How long had it been? Even my last trip to a communal penance service with general absolution had been a couple of years ago. You know how these things get away from you.... But individual confession? Let me think. Five years? More like 10. Let’s see, when did our kids reach driving age so they could (presumably) go on their own? Good grief! Could it have been that long?

Why did I ever stop going to individual confession? The short answer is, I never really knew how to go to confession. And when I matured and made some admittedly feeble attempts to grow into this sacrament, I couldn’t seem to find a priest who knew how to hear my confessions to my satisfaction. Over many years, I did find one, but then we moved away, and frankly I didn’t search too hard to find another confessor. As soon as penance services with general absolution became a fairly common practice, that worked for me!

It was getting near crunch time. The Scripture had been read, the priests were dispatched to their stations, and the confessionals were open for business.

I sat.

Finally I decided I could...I should...do this. Now. The atmosphere was inspiring. The people around me were prayerful. The priests within my view were absorbed in what the penitents were saying. The next question was, did I want to go to a bishop? How about a really old priestone who truly had heard everything there was to hear? Or maybe a young priest, who could benefit from my adding to his portfolio. This was getting too complicated. Afraid my resolve would weaken, I just found the longest line and made sure I would be last.

As the line inched forward I started to think about what I was going to say. After all, it had been close to 20 years. The laundry list wouldn’t work here. I decided to focus on a few points that had been troubling me and see where that led.

Just as I had mentally rehearsed almost to the point of readiness, Father Will, our former associate, strode up to me and said, I’ll hear your confession if you’d like. Oh, no! He knows menot well, but I am no longer anonymous. And this confession will definitely be face to face. It was too late to be anything else. It was an offer I couldn’t gracefully refuse. Father Will led the way to the atrium where we sat across from each other. I told him about how long it had been since my last general absolution and individual confession, and he didn’t blink. Then I told him how I had picked out a few things I felt I needed to talk about. He listened. He gave me some truly useful, pertinent suggestions in each area of my concern. Then he gave me absolution.

Afterwards we talked about this penance service. He told me it had been a powerful experience for him because most people were like meit had been years since they had been inside a confessional. As we returned to the church, we chatted casually about his new job.

Recently, in a homily, our pastor, Father Jim, said people tell him they don’t seem to commit many sins anymore. I must confess (to you), I don’t remember what he said next because I began thinking how I too had felt that way. (I lead a humdrum life.) But since my return to regular one-on-one confession, I have been led to introspection and the discovery of what my systemic sin is. The sacrament has become an ongoing resource for insight, healing and forgiveness in this area.

While I have changed my outlook toward the sacrament of reconciliation, it seems to me the mechanics of the sacrament have changed even more. Priests these days strike me as better trained for hearing confessions. They strive to help penitents explore, discover and understand the why as well as the what of their sins. This is the path to true spiritual growth.

The practice of receiving this sacrament devotionallythat is, confessing regularly when one is not in the state of serious sinsomehow fell through the cracks following the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps that wasn’t all bad. The hiatus turned out to be an opportunity for confessors and penitents alike to rethink the sacrament and its purpose.

If we seem to be hearing a lot these days about the merits of individual confession, it is simply because reconciliation is a sacrament that can bring the light of grace and calming peace to our dark and stormy nights.

Mary Sherry, who has written for America, Newsweek and several newspapers, lives in Burnsville, Minn.

Recently in Faith in Focus