I had sin on my mind weeks before heading to Cajun country. Months before, in fact.
I had returned to my childhood church the year before, recalibrating to the rhythms of the Mass after two decades away. The homecoming was not without bumps, but I set aside doubt and allowed myself to rediscover the beauty of the Catholic tradition, taking in the stained glass and the singing of psalms, until the church once again became a place of solace—except for confession, which seemed to me the black sheep in the family of sacraments. Even in my churchiest days, I had never fully appreciated the sacrament of penance. This admission makes me somewhat ashamed, but it is also fairly typical. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, only 2 percent of Catholics go to confession monthly or more, 12 percent go once a year—and 75 percent go less than once a year or never. Which is to say I was in good company. Despite educational programs at the diocesan level, citywide billboard campaigns and apps meant to serve as confession guides, like iConfess, the sacrament seems in danger of going the way of the dinosaurs.
What is it about confession, I wondered, that seems so woefully out of date? And what do we lose as we back away? Even as I did not go, I thought about the sacrament, tentatively at first—even defensively—but then with greater frequency and curiosity. I reread my favorite scene in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, describing the protagonist’s trip to a confessional. The young Stephen Dedalus had been knee-deep in sin, but once forgiven by the priest, he practically floats from the booth in a state of grace, overwhelmed by a sudden pulsing connection to the world around him. “How simple and beautiful was life after all!” Stephen thinks, experiencing one of those luminous moments we occasionally fall into when the circumstances rightly align—a heightened awareness, a certain angle of light, the heart flung momentarily open. It was my longing for such moments that had sent me back to church. But while I recognized confession as a technical precondition for Communion, I was not plagued, as Stephen Dedalus was, by excessive guilt, nor was I suffering agony over the flames of hell.
I grew up in the post-Vatican II era, in a progressive inner-city church in Rochester, N.Y. The folk Masses and opportunity to serve at the altar alongside boys are part of what snared me. I am sure I celebrated first penance, though I struggle to recall it, and celebrate is not the verb I would have used to describe my participation. During group services or youth retreats, I would stand in line, bow my head and repeat the few canned sins I expected a priest might like to hear (I lied, I swore, I fought with my sisters). These confessions were true, but, even as a child, they were not major stumbling blocks on my spiritual path. I certainly do not regret the preaching of love in place of fear, but I am not sure sin was ever a meaningful part of my vocabulary. I heard the word, of course, but like hallowed and apostolic, it seemed too old-fashioned and laden a concept to carry around outside of church, like trying to spin cartwheels with cast-iron skillets stuffed in your pockets.
Fast-forward 30 years. I was back in my childhood church, now clustered with other city parishes and renamed Our Lady of the Americas. I sat listening as, each season, our priests encouraged confession during Lent or Advent or one of the summer programs. Maybe, I would think. But when the time came I always had an excuse: I would be out of town, or the events were in Spanish and I worried there would be no English-speaking priest. I’ll go eventually, I told myself, but the time never came. It went that way for months, the liturgical calendar moving from Christmas to Easter and back again to Ordinary Time. I did not go to confession, but neither did it leave me be.
All of this is how I found myself in Southern Louisiana. I wanted to meet the priest who had converted an old ambulance into a mobile confessional—the Spiritual Care Unit, he calls it—complete with kneeler and curtain, holy water and rosaries, Bibles and prayer cards. Father Michael Champagne drives the confessional throughout Cajun Country, parking outside restaurants and health clubs, visiting nursing homes and community festivals. He started the project in November 2015, heeding Pope Francis’ call to be more active in bringing people back to church. Since that time, the unit has traveled 8,000 miles, made nearly 200 stops and heard 4,000 confessions.
I reached out to Father Champagne, who said he would happily meet. Aside from my interest in his commitment to the sacrament, I suppose I hoped my visit to the Spiritual Care Unit would be so out of the ordinary, I would have no choice but to fall without hesitation onto the kneeler.
Cajun Country Care
My compact rental car is dwarfed by pickups as I cross the Mississippi at Baton Rouge and enter the Atchafalaya Basin, a landscape of tupelo and cypress swamps. The water tower in Breaux Bridge proclaims the small city the “Crawfish Capital of the World.” South of Lafayette, magnolias flaunt flowers the size of dinner plates, and Dollar General stores and tackle shops punctuate roads also featuring take-out shacks advertising boudin and cracklins.
In St. Martinville, Father Champagne shows me around the Community of Jesus Christ Crucified, pointing out the retreat center, the housing for the women religious who are part of the community, the chapel and a newly acquired building used as a food pantry and tutoring center. Drawing on Father Champagne’s creative leadership, the small community of contemplative missionaries hosted an 88-hour marathon reading of the Bible in the town square last fall, and it organizes the annual Fête-Dieu du Teche, a 50-boat eucharistic procession down Bayou Teche on the feast of the Assumption every August. After Vespers, the black-cassocked Father Champagne invites me to stay for a planning meeting for Fête-Dieu du Teche, and as I follow through the courtyard, I am struck by the fragrance of flowers.
It is easier to bare your soul to unseen thousands than to one living, breathing human being sitting quietly before you.
“Confederate jasmine,” Father Champagne says, and I bend into the blooming vine, its perfume startling me as much as the sight of evening primrose clustered along swampy roadsides had the day before. I had stopped to take photos of the delicate pink bells at a pull-off where others stood looking for gators. A wonder, I thought, how such tenderness survives.
Father Champagne invites me to ride along in the Spiritual Care Unit the next day. The first stop is about 10 miles south, in New Iberia. We pass over railroad tracks and under live oaks, driving by fading cottages, grand old houses and a bevy of businesses named for the Acadian folk hero Evangeline (Evangeline Funeral Home, Evangeline Optical, Evangeline Coca-Cola Bottling). Cajuns are proud of their Acadian heritage, which is rooted in Catholicism and part of the reason for their ancestors’ expulsion from Canada by the British 250 years ago.
We pull into Lagniappe Village and park outside the Subway shop. The community has the routine down. The sisters from the community pull out portable steps, then unfold a table and load it with brochures—including an “Examination of Conscience” listing the works of mercy and the seven deadly sins. A portable loudspeaker plays French hymns, but the recordings vary, I am told, and they sometimes broadcast the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.
We park for two hours, as people drive in and out of the strip mall to buy pet food, get their nails done or pick up a footlong for lunch. A few shoppers ignore the confessional, which—with the music and life-sized image of Jesus fixed to its side—is tough to do. Most smile and wave. Many come over, hug the sisters and thank them for their work. They ask for prayers, offer to buy lunch or stand waiting their turn for confession. Most I spoke with were practicing Catholics who appreciated the opportunity to go to confession. A few knew the unit’s schedule, and wanted to meet with Father Champagne. Others looked so nervous I did not want to bother them with questions. All came out looking lighter than when they went in.
I had heard about Evangeline before she arrived, a devout Catholic and supporter of the community’s work. I’ll call her Evangeline in deference to the region, but also because of her unswerving tendency toward evangelization. “If Miss Evangeline was here, she’d get them to come to confession,” the sisters said when a trio of workers emerge from a car and fail to look our way.
They had not exaggerated. She’d arranged to allow the unit to park in front of the shop, but her commitment did not stop there. Upon arrival at the unit, Evangeline uses her boundless enthusiasm to coax people into the confessional, calling out Hellos and Hey y’alls. Her eyes flit around the parking lot, and during a slow spell, just as the sun breaks loose from the clouds, Evangeline’s gaze settles on me.
“You going in?”
“I’m not sure.” I try to make my voice sound nonchalant, as if Miss Evangeline were offering sweet tea.
“You’re Catholic, aren’t you?”
I wipe the sweat from my brow and nod, wondering if she can sense just how recently I have returned and how tenuous it all seems as I stand beside the ambulance with the light atop, green to show the confessional is available, red to show Father Champagne is sitting with someone. The light is green now and Evangeline sees that I see.
“Have you gone to confession?”
“Yes,” I say, adding the lie to my snowballing list of things to eventually confess. “But I’m just observing today.”
“What better way to observe than from inside,” Evangeline says, and I have to admit that she is right, even as my heart comes unglued and starts flailing around my chest.
Guilt, Sin and Self
Southern Louisiana is not for the faint of heart. Alligators make a home of the bayous. Catfish grow larger than dogs. Schools close on the first Friday in October to prepare for squirrel-hunting day. There is no vegetarian patty at the New Iberia Subway and to ask for one is like driving a Toyota Prius with a Hillary bumper sticker into a land of Ford F-150s with antler decals and hunting racks. When Miss Evangeline reports that she has 1,200 frog legs in her freezer, I do not for second doubt her and try my best to wipe my sympathy for all 600 frogs from my face.
Which is to say that I am faint of heart. I am afraid of house centipedes, of baiting a hook, of the suspect textures in ill-cooked okra and squid salad, of the proliferation of germs, of navigating bendy roadways and of staring down from great heights. And despite the fact that I have traveled 1,000 miles to learn about his project, in this moment, baking under the sun in rural Louisiana I am afraid to step inside the Spiritual Care Unit, sit across from Father Champagne and confess my sins.
Before heading to St. Martinville, I had met a friend in New Orleans for breakfast. I told him where I was going, explaining the mobile confessional, my interest in the sacrament and the fact that it seems in danger of falling away.
“Really?” He was surprised. “I always thought confession would be the best part of being Catholic.”
“How so?” I bit into the deep-fried potato salad I had ordered with my scrambled eggs. Seasoned with a touch of mustard, it was perfect and terrible, and quite possibly the definition of sin itself.
“You know, just sitting there and getting to talk,” he said. “Like therapy.”
“But it’s not therapy,” I said. “It’s not an airing of grievances or a listing of various hurts. It’s the admission of guilt. The owning of faults and bad choices. It’s saying to another human being: Here I am. Here’s what I did wrong, and exactly how many times.”
“Oh,” he said. “Never mind.” But even as we laughed, I tried to visualize coming clean before a priest and considered ordering up another serving of fried potato salad.
If it were simply a matter of revelation, I would have been in the Spiritual Care Unit before Miss Evangeline ever arrived on the scene. It is not confession I struggle with so much as contrition. I do not think I am alone in this. Perhaps as a reaction to once being so bound, the culture has largely thrown off shame and made personal disclosure a pastime. Round-the-clock access to the electronic signaling of others on social media facilitates our revelation. Our news feeds brim with details of celebrity private lives and over-the-top sharing. Perhaps we have not abandoned confession so much as traded in one screen for another.
Defying the Post-Contrition Era
“Guilt is a useless emotion,” an old boyfriend once said. It was about the craziest thing I had ever heard; but, like everyone else I knew in the 1990s, I was busy learning to love myself, and letting go of guilt and shame seemed a good way to get there. We were the Free-to-Be generation, ecumenical attenders of Buddhist weekends, readers of Hermann Hesse and Our Bodies, Ourselves. From Joseph Campbell we learned to follow our bliss. What earlier generations called sin, we reframed as personality quirks or—if especially chronic or troublesome—as challenges resulting from the particular constellations of our childhood. This was liberating in many ways and preferable to the binds we saw in the older generation, who seemed as committed to their chronic sense of obligation as we were to its eradication.
But like most extremes, we were, in fact, flipsides of the same coin—as driven by our commitment to bliss as our parents had been to denying theirs. By which I mean that my ex-boyfriend had it wrong. Guilt comes in several varieties. Sometimes it is misplaced and debilitating, yes, but at other times appropriate and useful for making change. Perhaps it is too overwhelming to try and untangle the varieties—much easier to throw the whole mess aside, so that, despite the rise of the public confessional, our sense of responsibility and wrongdoing have dramatically withered. We have, for better or worse, entered a post-contrition era.
This is compounded by shifting notions of sin. Repentance is difficult enough when the offense is obvious, but nearly impossible when it involves something you do not see as wrong. Many sins—especially those concerning matters of sexuality—are no longer accepted as immoral by many Catholics: birth control, divorce, same-sex relationships. The divide between institutionally sanctioned morality and how people actually live their lives has grown exponentially over the past few decades. And somewhere along the line, many of us became less inclined to allow for such a chasm and stayed home—if not from church, then certainly from the confessional.
Even as I rehearsed what to say when I finally persuaded myself into going to confession, most of my energy was spent on resisting, attempting to accommodate or otherwise reacting to the traditional list of sins versus a contemplation of the sacrament itself. The more I spun my wheels on the particular or expected content of my confession versus the process of reconciliation, the more I avoided mustering the exquisite courage it takes to come before another and say, I’ve done wrong. And if you believe that we all are, in fact, one body—despite the way we so often sequester ourselves in the whirr of our own activity—then this opening of the self to another is nothing less than sacred, offering to us as individuals and as a culture the much needed balm and chance to begin anew.
Which brings me back to Louisiana, where the only booth I slipped into was inside Subway as the community ate lunch after finishing confessions. I slumped and avoided Evangeline’s eye as I nibbled a spinach and cucumber sandwich.
They had been so generous. Why had I failed to partake?
When I had asked Father Champagne earlier in the day why he thought confession was falling away, he said Catholics have adopted a doggedly individualistic and American approach to everything, including God. “Our temptation is toward isolation,” he said. “We think we can do it all ourselves.”
“We don’t want to be vulnerable before another human being,” I said, and if I had used an “I” in place of “we,” it might have been the beginning of my own confession.
I update my Facebook status a few times a week and have written about myself in books and essays and even poems—but it turns out that it is easier to bare your soul to unseen thousands than to one living, breathing human being sitting quietly before you. As I once again make myself at home in the pew, I am discovering that the sacraments confer grace in direct proportion to our willingness to open ourselves to them.
Mary, a friend at church, claims that confession is like getting a car wash for your soul. “You feel so good after,” she says. “All clean and bright.” At 96 years of age, Mary would have hopped into the Spiritual Care Unit and outdone even Evangeline at getting others to follow suit. I love Mary like nobody’s business, but I am a gifted excuse-maker; and even if she had been whisked to New Iberia, I would have found a way to stay safely planted in the parking lot.
No, I did not confess in the Spiritual Care Unit that day. But I sat two feet from the kneeler on the drive back to St. Martinville and read an Act of Contrition on the back of a prayer card. And it was this, perhaps, and Father Champagne’s example, the startling scent of jasmine—and even the proselytizing Miss Evangeline, with all those frog legs in her freezer—that propelled me home to Our Lady of the Americas Church and into a seat across from my parish priest. And no matter how often I stumble or how makeshift my Act of Contrition, he sits listening, anointing with his attention, absolving on behalf of a power larger than either of us, blessing with hands and words and goodness itself before sending me back out into the broken, beautiful world to begin again.