Confession: the underappreciated sacrament we need to build a listening church
While the global synodal process initiated by Pope Francis arguably has been the most extensive exercise in ecclesial consultation attempted by the church in 2,000 years, reports from around the world have noted that participation among the laity is far below what was expected. Parishes throughout the world provided spaces for Catholics—and indeed all women and men of good will—to listen to others and to be heard by others, but remarkably few have jumped at the opportunity.
One can only hypothesize as to why that has been the case. But low participation in the synodal process mirrors another underutilized opportunity for listening, discernment and accompaniment that is a part of the life of the church: the sacrament of reconciliation. In fact, the sacrament of reconciliation is the “listening place” of the church par excellence.
It is within the sacred space of the sacrament of reconciliation that someone can come to be heard.
It is within the sacred space of the sacrament of reconciliation that someone can come to be heard. It is the place where someone can speak with total honesty about the personal reality of sin, which wounds, weakens and binds the soul. The priest who makes himself available for this sacrament takes on concretely the role of the listening church.
Through the sacred encounter that characterizes the sacrament of reconciliation, the priest must listen with patience, attentiveness, love and mercy to the humble outpouring of a person’s soul. The priest who listens, not only for words, but also for signs of fear, worry, anxiety, rejection, unworthiness and more is then better prepared to help the penitent discern the activity of both good and evil spirits and to accompany the penitent on the challenging road to sanctity. A further benefit from the priest’s taking the stance of the listening church in the sacrament is that he gains a more profound understanding of where his people are and what their struggles are, thus preparing him to be a more effective preacher of the word of God.
The penitent, like the priest, takes on the role of the listening church in the sacrament. The priest, in response to the penitent’s woundedness, applies a preliminary medicinal ointment in the form of words of comfort, consolation, encouragement and counsel. This preliminary anointing prepares the penitent for the words every broken soul longs to hear. The penitent’s posture of listening is crowned with the transformative words of absolution. With those words, the hearer is healed.
The penitent, like the priest, takes on the role of the listening church in the sacrament.
At a time when many are calling for a deeper understanding of the Eucharist as a remedy for the weak, we as a church have almost forgotten about the church’s most powerful medicine of mercy for the weak—the words that well up from the depths of the heart of Jesus Christ: I absolve you. These restorative words pave the way for a fuller and more fruitful participation in the other sacraments of the church. Thus, a truly pastoral conversation about participation in the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood must begin with a conversation about the healing power of Christ in the “listening place” of the church, the sacrament of reconciliation.
Inasmuch as there is this mutual listening in the sacrament, both the penitent and the priest model for the entire church the beauty of listening and the fruit of humble, active listening: true reconciliation—reconciliation with the blessed Trinity and reconciliation with the body of Christ, the church. The sacrament of reconciliation, therefore, is a venerable area of grace in the life of the church, presided over by the Holy Spirit, where both priest and penitent equally participate in the role of the listening church.
As the church seeks spaces where we can minimize and heal the wounds of ecclesial polarization, we would benefit greatly from that listening space where reconciliation rather than polarization always reigns supreme.
Of course, in our weakness, priests and penitents may not always listen to each other perfectly, but we cannot ever expect to come close to approximating perfection in the art of listening without frequent practice. That said, priests should generously offer many more opportunities for reconciliation, as so many of the great priest-saints in the history of the church did, and all the Christian faithful (including the clergy) should avail themselves of the grace of the sacrament. At a time when many are saying that the church does not listen to those who are hurting, to those who feel excluded, and to those on the peripheries, the sacrament of reconciliation is the perfect place for this listening to happen each and every day.
In the sacrament, listening is not done for its own sake. Both the priest and the penitent listen in order to bring about concrete change. The confessional is quite possibly the key place where profound ecclesial transformation can take place. It is the place where anyone who enters with a humble and contrite heart is welcomed. It is the place where the sons and daughters of the creator are lovingly embraced by God, who, like the father in the Gospel story of the prodigal son, runs out to meet his son. It is the place where the Holy Spirit is poured out upon us, filling us with the sanctifying grace necessary to live the Christian life boldly. It is the field hospital of which Pope Francis speaks so often, where wounds of the soul, often severe, are treated and healed. Yet it is not only a trauma center; the grace poured out by the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of reconciliation protects one from the traps of sin that wound, fortifying the person for the journey ahead with all its challenges and obstacles.
If we want to learn how to be a church that listens, maybe we should start to listen to each other a bit more in the context of reconciliation, where words spoken are not just words heard; rather, they are words that transform, heal and reconcile.