2nd Sunday of Advent – Year A
A priest went to hear confessions of boys in a boarding school. As the priest went to this place every Saturday to hear confessions, he would find about 10 to 15 boys lining up for confession. On this particular day, he found seven of them already forming the queue for confession. The first boy came and said, “Father, we threw peanut into the pond.” The priest gave his absolution, and off went the boy. The second boy came and said, “Father, during the last week, we threw peanut into the pond near our playground.” The priest gave his absolution. The third boy came and said more or less the same sin. And so did the six boys. Finally, the seventh boy came. By this time the priest was really bored, and before the boy could even begin to say anything the priest asked him, “Did you also throw peanut into the water?” The puny looking boy with tears in his eyes replied, “Father, those boys call me ‘Peanut’!
Today, the 2nd Sunday in Advent, the gospel presents us with the figure of John the Baptist: the voice crying out in the wilderness preparing the way for the Lord. The message of John the Baptist is strong and clear: “Repent, for thekingdom ofGod is close at hand” (Mt 3:2). John’s baptism was a sign of repentance and forgiveness for sins. Interestingly, the gospel passage tells us, “and as they were baptised by him in the riverJordan they confessed their sins” (Mt 3:6).
Prompted by these words, and since in this season of Advent many Catholics would be considering going for confession as a way of preparing themselves for Christmas, I would like to offer a reflection on the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Within the scope of a homily, with the limited time that we have, I do not claim that this reflection is going to be really exhaustive. I would just focus on some salient points.
Has the sacrament of reconciliation gone into disuse? I don’t think so. As a priest, I avail myself to hear confessions whenever needed. While still in London I used to go every Friday afternoon to Westminster Cathedral to hear confessions, and now here in Nairobi I do the same at our weekend programmes. And during these occasions I am kept engaged fully. People do come for confession. So it may be more sensible to ask, why are so few people going for confession these days? This might be true. Several reasons could be attributed to this. I would begin by acknowledging that many of us – priests – do not give priority to it. We do not offer adequate catechesis, or sufficient opportunity for people to make confession. On the other hand, the way most of us make confession, even as adults, is in the manner we were taught when we were children preparing for the First Holy Communion. We grow but our catechesis – that is, the way we understand our faith and practice it – does not seem to grow proportionately. We tend to use the sacraments, including the sacrament of confession, as objects of magic or as repetitive rituals, and in due course we ourselves fail to appreciate their effectiveness. Let me offer just three examples of what I think are improper or insufficient use of the sacrament of reconciliation. I call them: the confession with a mask on, the computer confession, and the tissue confession.
Confession with a mask on: In Europe I have gone to some churches where the priest and the penitent cannot even see each other. There is a thick curtain or a plank between them with not even some tiny holes. What is this supposed to mean? Personally I wouldn’t like to make my own confession in such an ambient, nor do I find it easy to hear confessions. It is as if, I go to ‘confess’ (which means ‘to proclaim openly’) and yet I want to hide myself. On the contrary, the true celebration of the sacrament is, first and foremost, a human encounter. If it is not, then it is not a sacrament. Yes, a sacrament is a visible sign of invisible grace. It is a tangible sign – a human experience! We will return to this shortly.
Computer Confession: There is still another type of misleading confession, and I call it, ‘computer confession’. It goes like this: “I broke the 4th commandment twice; I broke the 6th commandment four times; I broke the 9th commandment five times. That’s all father!” With due respect for the intention of the penitent, I would think this confession could very well be made to a computer. We could even have computers with touch screen fixed on the walls of churches. And the computer could very efficiently calculate the pluses and minuses and offer the penitent the right number of Our Fathers and Hail Marys as penance! Again here the human element is missing. I would recommend that in a meaningful confession there are three aspects: a mention of the act, a possible examination of the intention behind the act, and the description of the context of the act. These three elements actually determine the moral implication of the act. And the exploration of these three elements (the act, the intention and the circumstances) not only provides the priest with sufficient information for a meaningful dialogue, it also helps the penitent in their healing process and ongoing growth. Therefore, there is no need to hide behind numbers!
Tissue confession: I would like to give a hypothetical example of the third type of ineffective confession. It is a Friday in Lent. People are making the Way of the Cross. A priest is hearing confessions. A lady walks in. She says, “Bless me father; it is 14 days since my last confession. In these two weeks I committed adultery seven times. That’s all father.” The young priest, not wanting to embarrass the penitent with many questions, tries to say a few words in the abstract. And he gives her a routine penance, and the absolution. As the lady stands up to leave, she mutters casually: “Sorry father, but that is my profession!” We cannot make any judgement on her intention. Her act of going for the confession itself is praiseworthy. We know God forgives everyone. But was it a meaningful confession? Did she experience healing? I call this type of confession a ‘tissue confession’ because the cycle of sin and confession is like dirtying myself knowing well that I can use the tissue to wipe myself clean. But the truth is, the sacrament of reconciliation is not just telling of sins, it is also an act of repentance – an expression of good will.
We can go on with more such examples. In short, the point here is, if we abuse the sacrament, it runs the risk of falling out of use. We get tired of something that is insipid. If we truly appreciate the sacrament we will also know how we can make it more meaningful.
Now I turn to the most frequently asked question about confession: Why confess to a priest? Why confess to another human person – who is a sinner himself? Why can’t I confess directly to God?
St Johntells us, “God is love” (1Jn 4:8, actually throughout the epistle!). And St Paultells us, “Love keeps no record of wrongs” (1Cor 13:5, New International Version). If we put these two premises together then the conclusion follows: God keeps no record of wrongs. So there is no need to confess at all! However, St Paul continues in the same passage about love, from his letter to the Corinthians, “Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but finds its joy in the truth” (1Cor 15:6). That is, God does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but He finds his joy in the truth. This is just confirming what King David prays in the famous Psalm 51: “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart” (verse 6, NSV). So when we confess, it is truth in the depths of our hearts that we express!
Still the question is not resolved, why confess to a human being? I would answer this question in a very simple manner to myself. Why do I make confession to a fellow priest, to a fellow human being? Yes, I know God forgives me unconditionally. Well, but how would God tell me that he has forgiven me in a voice that I can hear, in a gesture that I can see, except through another human person? That is why, I was insisting, in the beginning of this reflection, on the importance of the human experience of forgiveness and healing in the celebration of the sacrament. The sacrament is a celebration of an act of God (an act of Grace), and in a manner that I can humanly experience.
Secondly, the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation facilitated by another human person brings out the social dimension of sin and reconciliation. My sin – even if committed in the privacy of my being – has a social dimension. I am a social being. My actions and intentions have a social implication. Therefore, I begin to experience healing for my sins only in a social context. To illustrate this I would borrow an example from the African culture. In the African traditional societies, when someone has done something wrong – broken a taboo, the transgressor should acknowledge it before the elder(s), otherwise the whole clan or the tribe could be affected by the effect of that action. And then the elder gives the penitent a “punishment”, perhaps to slay a goat and share it in the community, and thus to repair the damage that his/her wrong act has caused. This shows the social dimension of every transgression. By a sinful act you have broken away from the society. So the elder in the name of the group, facilitates the repairing of this through an act of penance. Sometimes the role of the elder was also performed by the traditional medicine man. Can we say then that somehow the priest takes the place of the elder in the context of the Church? The Church is a community of believers. And an individual’s sin is like a cancerous cell in the Body of Christ. Now, the priest sitting in the confessional does the therapeutic act of reconciliation.
Thirdly, as a human experience, confession also has a psychological dimension. It can be explored under the general theme of ‘disclosure’ (see the works of psychologist Pennebaker). Disclosure, understood as writing or talking about emotional experiences, has been found to promote physical and mental health: improving immune system, reduced visits to the doctor, subjective well-being resulting from the reduction of stress, and some behavioural change particularly among adolescents. Interestingly, however, these effects are prevalent only when the following two conditions are present: (1) when the disclosure is at a deep emotional level and not about superficial topics; (2) when the listener is able to support you in such a way as to process your experience towards an integration of the emotional and cognitive aspects of your story. So what this means is that to benefit even psychologically from the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation, what I previously referred to as the mask confession, computer confession and tissue confession do not help. (In connection to this, another interesting observation that I recently came across is from an anthropologist, Eugenia Georges. She says if the protestant reformation had not thrown away the tradition of confession, Freud would not have invented psychotherapy!)
Finally, there is the theological dimension to confession. And I would conclude with this. As a sacrament, confession is a channel of GRACE. Grace is the gratuitous gift from God – a free gift that helps us choose the good, and move towards God Himself. Though from the perspective of faith this might seem more important than whatever we have said before, we should not forget that grace builds upon nature. In fact, the grace of God is always available to us. But it is when we are able to make a choice toward experiencing it the Grace of God becomes active in us. Whatever we have said earlier, I think, would help us open ourselves to that Grace.
The best way then to prepare ourselves to celebrate a ‘Merry Christmas’ is to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation – and to celebrate it meaningfully!