Of Many Things

Some say it all started with Bill Clinton’s feel-your-pain politics, others with Oprah’s daily pseudo-psychology. Still others say it began with MTV’s “The Real World,” the first in that ingeniously banal and now omnipresent genre called reality television.

Whenever it started, there can be no doubt that the previously impregnable wall between our public and private selves is now little more than an archeological site for sociologists. The public confession, in all its indecorous glory, is now a permanent fixture in the popular culture.

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Don’t get me wrong; the news isn’t entirely bad. Behind the distasteful and dangerous there is also a deep desire for a true good, authenticity, even intimacy.

Public confessions aren’t anything new either. Before the invention of the “confessional box” in the Middle Ages, Christians admitted their sinfulness before their congregations. In this way, the public nature of sin was revealed and sinners were thereby reconciled, not only with their Lord but, as the catechism says, “with the church they had wounded by their sins.”

In other words, as much as we might admire Pope Francis for publicly declaring last week, “I am a sinner,” St. Augustine said it 1,600 years ago; and not a few said it before Augustine. The saints are renowned for their spiritual autobiographies, great works of passion and despair, beauty and devastation; they are among the most dramatic accounts of human living ever recorded.

The difference, of course, is that in the church a public confession is an act of repentance and reconciliation, a proclamation of one’s faith; in the world of reality television, a public confession is more often a narcissistic celebration of one’s sins. Nonetheless, the church continues to uphold and celebrate the nobler, truer form of the art. We were pleased to publish Pope’s Francis’ public confession last week. The pope spoke there in moving and intimate terms of his own spiritual journey: “The best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” And he repeats: “I ​​am one who is looked upon by the Lord.”

We are also very proud to have James Martin, S.J., here at America. Father Martin is widely and rightly acclaimed as a master of the confessional style; his spiritual autobiography has been a source of consolation for thousands of people.

It is particularly appropriate then that this issue of America takes another look at the art of public confession, what we now are more likely to call spiritual (auto)biography. Kaya Oakes tells us that the response to the bulletin announcement about her parish class on spiritual biography was overwhelming. That basic human desire for authenticity, for intimacy, is still very much at work: “When we write about the faith that keeps us going, it may not always be spectacular,” Ms. Oakes writes. “And yet every Mass, every confession, every Easter and even every moment of doubt and crisis has meaning. Each story we bring to the page has the potential to connect with a reader who has lived those same moments.” Elsewhere in this issue, Thomas P. Sweetser, S.J., talks about the practical ways in which our personal narratives form a vital part of the new evangelization, especially in our parishes, while Austin Rose talks about the emotional connection with others that can come through music.

We rightly recoil from the self-indulgence and solipsism we see nightly on cable TV. But we must not forget that public confession, in a spirit of humility and grace, is a noble and still-needed tradition. After all, God’s revelation is itself a story, indeed the greatest story ever told: the tale of the creator’s eternal and infinite love affair with his creation.

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Bruce Snowden
4 years 2 months ago
In a real sense isn’t every Sacramental Confession a public confession, no matter how private “between the priest and me” it may be, simply because by “publicizing” one’s sin to another human being, ipso facto it is no longer truly private? Within that frame I’m happy to say over the years, the probable thousands of Sacramental Confessions I’ve made have been mostly beneficial, even when grumpy priests growled, probably weary of sin, or perhaps suffering an acid reflux attack, or even an hemorrhoidal flare up, or some other human reality or whatever, that luckily doesn’t affect sacramental effectiveness! One of my greatest “public confessions” happened this way. One morning on my way to work feeling uncharacteristically dour and not knowing why, I decided to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament as I passed a church and go to confession although unaware of serious moral need. As I began my examination of conscience negative prayer surrounded me in that, I found myself asking the Lord why was I going through the painful ritual of confession. Answering myself I said, “Because you, Jesus, said so!” Unexpectedly the following though came to mind – “I want you to remember that Jesus Christ is your friend and your brother!” Impulsed by that thought I entered the confessional and after confessing, the first words the priest said to me were, “I want you to remember that Jesus Christ is your friend and your brother!” My confession contained nothing that would elicit those words. The confession over, I did my penance and then the power of those words twice heard struck me and my dour mood vanished. The good Jesus had reminded me twice of what I already knew, that he was my friend and brother, so what more did I need to know? A very beneficial confession that one and I regret that I didn’t have the presence of mind to say to the priest, “Father you hit the nail on the head!” Priests must wonder if their words are really helpful and can only hope they are. Allow one more brief sharing of when I “went public” for the first time seventy-five years ago at age seven, at my First Confession. I told the priest I “stole sugar” my first confessed “sin.” Back in 1938 in our home bown sugar was used and I liked it. So, I used to “steal” some off the table, then hide. Sister said in class that stealing meant taking something that was not yours and it was a sin. Confessing that “sin” the priest told me the following which I never forgot. The priest was Redemptorist John Hallisey. Father said, “Young man, I want you to remember for the rest of your life that you cannot steal what belongs to you. As a member of the family if you want some sugar, or bread, or milk, or whatever you have the right to use what belongs to you and it does as a member of the family. However, if Mom, or Dad, said not to take something and you did, you would be guilty of disobedience, not stealing.” Good advice for a “little thief” which he never forgot! I also learned much later than “sin is in the Will, not in any external act,” more useful confessional info from a priest. Yes, how true as America Editor and Jesuit priest Matt Malone has said, “God’s revelation story is … the tale of the Creator’s eternal and infinite love affair with his creation.” We are his greatest creation! Going public in Sacramental Confession has taught me this.
Charles Erlinger
4 years 2 months ago
This whole issue has been a very good, kind of back-to-basics issue from my perspective. Thanks.

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