I heard my first confession shortly after my ordination in the summer of 1959. It was a much different era from that of today’s church.
Older readers will recall the experience of what was then called simply “confession.” First, you stood in a long line. When you got to the head of it, you stayed far enough away from the “box” to avoid inadvertently hearing the sins of your fellow parishioner. There may have been a green or red light to let you know whether the box was occupied or free. That was an ecclesiastical traffic light created to avoid if not a bodily accident then at least a spiritual embarrassment. (Churches that could not afford the new-fangled technology of the day just took their chances.) You entered the box on getting a green and were met with the shadowy outline of the priest whose name, posted over the confessional, you had noted before you got in line. Unless you lived in a small rural community, you usually had a choice of confessors. It could have been the freshly scrubbed young curate (no bureaucratically styled “associate pastor”) with whom you might have played touch football on the school playground the day before. Or perhaps it was the older curate who seemed destined never to “get” a parish. You might have even risked the pastor if his line was shorter. And you won the lottery if the sign said “Visitor.”
I leave the details of the ensuing experience to the unreliable memory of those old enough to have shared the adventure. My target is the other half of the story, a part that the laity, even if they had the interest and a vivid imagination, would scarcely be able to conjure up: the experience of the confessor.
In the Box, Then
Although I was not assigned to a parish community and therefore did not have the same experience with the same penitents week in and week out, as a “supply” priest, helping out on weekends, I spent long Saturdays in the box. The confessional lines may have seemed long to the lay person if she or he had to wait 10 minutes, fidgeting all the while over the prospect of self-revelation. For the confessor, these periods usually lasted for two hours without a break in the afternoon, followed by a quick dinner, and then another couple of hours before you switched off the signal light, waited for the last penitent in the pews to finish saying his or her assigned penance prayers and closed the church, after 9:00 p.m.
That’s a lot of “fighting with my little brother” and “impatience with my children.” To get a fuller sense of the distance from then to now: shortly before that, the word “kids” for children was still considered slang to be avoided. As my holy-but-not-saintly grandmother put it in her effort to stem the tide of vulgarity, “We’re not raising goats!” (At one point she had a fight with her pastor and left the church for several years, which proves once again that we humans, for all our modernity, are not very creative at developing new plots. Some future pope needs to select as his motto “Been there, done that.”)
Out of the Box, Now
Fast forward, as our technological cliché has it. Vatican II and all that have now happened. We return to confession, now called the sacrament of reconciliation, to look not so much on the theological transformations implied by the change in terminology as on the experience of one confessor under the new dispensation.
The seal of confession remains absolute, of course, but that does not prevent me from inviting the reader into the spirit of this confessor by presenting, under the garb of anonymity, some patterns.
I am still not a pastor (the church and my Jesuit community may make mistakes, but they would never be guilty of that one). As an all-but-retired geezer, my confessional experience now consists in helping out, along with others in the same category, at several local parish celebrations of communal penance services during Lent and Advent. It will come as no surprise if I note that the lines are much shorter. But what is the experience like? How has it changed?
First, of course, I am now no longer in “the box” but usually seated in an open space somewhere in the body of the church. One chair faces me, for those who want to confess face-to-face, and another is turned to the side in a way that protects the anonymity of those who choose to remain faceless. I will focus on the face-to-face experience, although some of the patterns are the same in both forms.
I extend my hand in greeting as the penitent takes a seat, looks me in the eyes, and says, “Hi, Father.” “Hi. What’s your name?” “Martin.” Our hands may remain locked together throughout the rite if the penitent seems comfortable with that. And I often think, Two human beings of the baptized variety, engaged in a deeply personal exchange. Eyeball-to-eyeball. Tears are not uncommon.
It may happen several times in an evening that the penitent will begin hesitantly by saying, “It’s been so long, I don’t know how to do this.” “That’s okay,” I’ll say. “Just tell me what you’d like to tell the Lord.” And I think, No formula! How wonderful. Two sinners sharing intimately in the experience of vulnerability in the face of the Lord’s grace. We wouldn’t even think of having to have the correct formula when we meet a friend. How did we ever get into such an impersonal way of approaching our greatest Friend?
Sometimes the person will begin by saying “It’s been more than five (10, 20, 25) years since my last confession, Father.” What a joy and privilege it is to be the one who gets to say in the Father’s name, “Welcome home!” A certain amazing alchemy takes place as the penitent realizes what you have just said. Newness of life is already in evidence.
One might have thought that the way penitents share their sins could not change. Sin is sin, after all. But when I hear a person begin by saying something like, “I’ve been working on my tendency to take issues from work out on my wife,” I then know we are not in the pre-Vatican II church anymore. “I’m working on...”—a phrase I never heard in that earlier, supposedly Eden-like era. This is the language of a person who is no longer thinking and speaking in catalogue fashion (two from column one, one from column two) but clearly is engaged in an ongoing process of spiritual search. “I’ve been trying to vary my way of praying.” Or “I’m wrestling with my need to be more trusting of the Lord, who has been faithful to his word again and again in my life.” I think, I need to remove my sandals, this is sacred ground.
There are many in the church who lament that many fewer Catholics go “regularly” to confession. It is an understandable and even painful thing to recognize. But without going into the long and varied history of this sacrament, we need to remind ourselves that in the early church, an age rightly honored as the church of martyrs, there was no practice of auricular confession. You did public penance for the three big sins: apostasy, murder and adultery. It was centuries before the practice of one-to-one confession became common and eventually mandatory. I do not say this in order to celebrate the relative rarity of the sacrament now, in comparison with the church for which I was ordained. I am simply being honest.
Actually, I am not all that sure that focusing on numbers is a Christian approach to reality. Jesus seems to have seen things differently. “There is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over 99 righteous people who have no need to repent” (Luke 15: 7).
But back to personal experience. I tell a 14-year-old that for his penance I suggest he do some small act for someone who does not know why he is doing it. It is his way of saying thanks to God for always being there to receive him. He responds, “That’s cool.”
I’ll trade that for long lines and a dark box any time.