The great (and tragic) comedy of going to confession
When I was younger, my family had to bribe me to go to confession once a year. I went literally dragging my feet and scowling like a demon.
I still do not like going to confession, but I sure do like having gone. Now when I exit the confessional, I have to hang on to the pews so as not to float away. Whatever kid I have dragged with me hears me say the same thing I always say: “You’ll never get a better deal.”
This week, I began collecting stories about confession from my Catholic social media friends, and I am not even sure why. I will start with one of my own: My husband and I both went to confession one afternoon. I got out first while he was still in line, and he asked me who was in there—the Nigerian nit-picker, the almost-deaf crank or maybe Father Distracto? I reared back in mock horror, rolled my eyes heavenward and whispered, “Um, it’s Jesus.”
I do not like going to confession, but I sure do like having gone.
If you cannot laugh at the ignominy of whispering your wretched little sins through a screen, then when will you laugh? When you don’t have any breath left?
Many parents told me that when the priest raised his hand to absolve their kid on his first confession, the child mistook the gesture and gave father a triumphant high five: Absolvo! Down low—he’s too slow! In peace you go.
Sometimes the joke is more subtle. One woman said that as an adult convert she had a terrible time working herself up to go to confession for the first time. When she finally got there, she was astonished to find there was no priest. No sign, no message, no nothing. She took it as a sign that she was on the right track. If getting absolution were easy, it probably would not be worth doing.
If you cannot laugh at the ignominy of whispering your wretched little sins through a screen, then when will you laugh?
Sometimes there is no joke at all, just the tenderness of Christ. Another woman, a revert, said: “The first confession I made after being away for six years, the priest kindly and patiently listened to me sob out my sins. When I could not go on because I was crying so hard, he gently began to counsel me. My penance was the search for Christ’s love within me. A few days later, I found out I was pregnant with my first child—out of wedlock with my boyfriend whom I then married, and we now have five kids.”
Many penitents have stories of slinking into the box sunk deep in gloom and remorse, only to encounter a jolly priest who thinks everything is fixable, chucks you under the chin, offers you a Tootsie Roll with your absolution and reminds you that you can maybe get over yourself.
More than one penitent somehow pocket-dialed an acquaintance and left a long, emotional, very personal voicemail from the box. And we have all run into priests and penitents alike who are just plain loud, leaving the reluctant audience outside to cough, shuffle their feet, jingle their car keys and conclude that they, too, are bound by the seal of confession, no matter how unwillingly they heard what they heard.
Catholics all over the world suffer the same tragicomedies as they take their chances in the confessional.
There are priests who are hard of hearing or just plain confused and give draconian penances based on sins the penitent never confessed or who holler out, “You did what!,” for all the congregation to hear.
It is strangely comforting to know how universal these stories are. Catholics all over the world suffer the same tragicomedies as they take their chances in the confessional.
There are priests who fold their aching bodies into the box, week after week; priests who put aside their own weariness and malaise to offer hope, encouragement and forgiveness, week after week. Priests who draw contrition out of the defiant, resolve out of the reluctant and peace out of the inconsolable. There are priests who walk in willingly, knowing they are expected to be therapist, referee, mind-reader and punching bag all in one.
Sometimes we must rely on our faith to remember that the sacrament’s power comes not from the man but through him, from God.
And then there are priests who withhold absolution because they do not like the penitent’s tone. There are priests who think the penitent cannot possibly be sorry because she keeps confessing the same thing every week. Priests who lash out, grumble, harangue or even mock.
There are priests who meet the wounded and, in the name of Christ, add to their wounds.
There are priests, in short, who let their human weakness, foolishness, prejudice and personal sin overcome their training and their duty and who run the risk of chasing a sinner away from Christ for good—the very opposite of what he is there to do.
Strange to say, I found this kind of story comforting, too, because most of the people who told these stories did come back. Years later, they were still angry or wounded. Some complained to the bishop. Some left the church for years. But eventually, they did come back, back to the church, back to the sacraments.
Why? Because, as I snarkily reminded my husband, it is Jesus in there.
Sometimes that is obvious. Sometimes we hear exactly what we needed to hear and find peace and healing where none seemed possible. But sometimes we must rely on our faith to remember that the sacrament’s power comes not from the man but through him, from God.
It is Jesus in there. If you cannot whisper out your sins through the grill to him while you still have breath, then when? If you will not meet him in the person of the priest, then to whom will you go? It does not matter whose name is posted outside the confessional. It is Jesus in there, and that is why it is always worth coming back.