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William J. O'MalleyMarch 07, 1992
No one looks forward to confronting the dentist, because we have short memories and "the short view." We forget how good it feels when its over, running our tongues around teeth that are "brand new again." We also forget the buoyancy when we walk away from an honest, cards-on-the-table confession, "brand new again," empowered to start fresh again.

As only recent graduates from childhood, adolescents have an irritatingly short view. Even in solving made-up moral dilemmas, they ferret out the loopholes and go for the utilitarian solution rather than the alternative that would make them persons of integrity and character. Guilt trips are a bummer. The reason is that responsibility, gratitude and accountability are limits on a freedom they have been led (somehow) to believe is without limits. Thus, since hell is out of fashion, the first task is to engender a genuine sense of the reasonableness and value of guilt. Without guilt, what you get is Auschwitz, Central Park gang rapes, non-addicted pushers, saturation bombing, toxic waste dumps, mob hit-men, terrorists, and the list goes on.

"Its too embarrassing to tell my sins to a priest. Why cant I just go out and confess them directly to God?" Fine. When was the last time you did it? And the doctor who treats herself has a fool for a patient. Unless you tell someone else, you either let yourself off too easily or the bottled-up guilt builds till it explodes. Telling someone else gets it out there on the table, without mincing words, to be healed. And the priest reaches out and touches you: "Welcome. Im a sinner, too." The priest has been trained to help, to tell you when you might be kidding yourself or even too hard on yourself.

When I hear confessions, I always end, "Well, youre a good man, arent you? Youre a fine woman." Invariably, the penitent blushes and says, "I hope so" or "I try" or "You dont really know me." I have to tell them that bad people dont confess, only good people do. Also, I never give "prayer penances," always "do penances"; better to show a bit of love than rattle off a few Hail Marys: "When you go home, say, Mom, is there anything I could do for you? Shell faint, but youll both be happier."

This article is excerpted from "Understanding Sacraments," published March 7, 1992.

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