Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
The sacrament of Reconciliation, being a sacrament, is a work of God before it is a work of man. Jesus establishes the sacrament; we just get to be participants in it, and Jesus seems to be so eager to get the ball rolling that he doesn’t wait around until everybody swept up in his gigantic and crazy project of saving the whole wide world is perfectly prepared to play their part. He is an inveterate risk taker—as his choice of Judas Iscariot profoundly illustrates.
The good news is that so many people approach the sacrament of Reconciliation with good and honest hearts. That’s a thing to be thankful for. Indeed, as the sacrament of the Eucharist makes clear, all of life, for all its many problems, crises, disasters, tragedies and pains is, at bottom, something to be thankful for. Always and before all things, grace is prior, God is Creator, redemption is at work and even the gravest evil cannot overcome the light that shines in the darkness. So our first response to the fact that priest and penitent come together to celebrate Reconciliation has to be gratitude. The priest may be inept, the penitent only very imperfectly penitent. Yet still, a miracle is taking place any time any of our race fumbles toward grace, either to ask for it in his sin, or to offer it in obedience to Christ.
These days, the sins of priests such as Fr. Marcel Maciel, who so grossly abused the sacrament of Reconciliation and his many victims—and the sins of others who covered for him—have made it easy to forget the countless numbers of good and noble priests worldwide who have selflessly and sacrificially given their lives in the often thankless work of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Paul writes to the Church on their behalf and says words that are still true today:
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching; for the scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:17-18)
It can be a temptation for us Catholics to take our priests for granted. They are, after all, generally low maintenance people who spend their time giving and not asking for a whole lot in return. If you don’t believe it, contemplate making the choices they’ve made. Ditch your job, live (alone) on whatever dollar bills a few strangers feel like dropping in the collection plate. And be sure to spend at least an hour a week, stuck in a little dark box while total strangers come in and dump into your ears an endless litany of failure and disgrace. Then, when they are done offloading all this moral, spiritual, and psychological debris, you have to forgive it all, have some wise and kind words, and send them on their way, often in the knowledge that you will hear the same thing again next week from the same people and have to patiently bear it all again.
Not your idea of fun? Mine neither. But that is, insofar as a priest is tasked with the sacrament of Reconciliation, what the job requires. The very least we can offer such heroic love is profound thanksgiving Every time we are tempted to take our priests for granted it is well worth asking how much we should like to have to shoulder the burden of spending a large portion of one’s life listening to the confessions of other people. Not that this would necessarily be instantly shattering. Few among us are mass murderers or filled with guilt over some headline-making horror. But for many of us, listening to confession would be numbing—a slow sensation of being pressed to death, because so many people sin in more or less the same monotonous ways. It’s tough, of course, to confess any sin. But we parishioners are only in the confessional for a few minutes. Father is in there off and on for his whole life, listening to the same tedious recital of human failure and depravity. It takes a hero to do that and, if you haven’t lately, why not thank your priest the next time you see him? He is, as Paul says, worthy of double honor. Then thank God for him too and see if there is something you can do to support him more consistently.
That said, you should also thank God for the penitent who goes in there. After all, it’s what the angels do:
Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:7)
Malcolm Muggeridge once noted that to say there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than there is over the ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance is “an anti-statistical remark.” Being finite, we tend to think in generalities when the numbers get too big. Being infinite, God has all eternity to lavish His attention on the most obscure peasant who is wavering between a godly or sinful choice, somewhere on the edge of the Black Forest at 12:38 PM on March 4, 1382. That moment, like all other moments, is present to God in His Eternal Now. And because He can lavish that sort of attention on each and every human person He has ever made, He can make anti-statistical remarks and see each of us in our concrete personhood and not merely as ingredients in a statistical soup. So when you go to confession, remember, you have the complete and rapt attention of the God of the universe. When you repent, all Heaven is filled with joy and thanks God for you.
That goes, by the way, not just for the spectacular decisive moment in our lives when we make some dramatic decision to, say, become a Catholic, or quit drinking, or finally forgive that guy we have hated for so long, or any of those other moments we normally associate with repentance. It also goes for all the little repentance moments leading up to that: our long, slow struggles with besetting sins where, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, we trudge along, committing the same damn sin we committed last week, and bringing our old frustrating, besetting weaknesses to God (again!) for his forgiveness and mercy. Such pleas for mercy in the sacrament are, indeed, pleasing to God as well. Over the long haul, it is here, as much as in the flashy Damascus Road moments that God is at work. So do not despair in your long slow struggle with besetting sin. Like somebody who continues to work out at the gym, you are the last person to see the muscle you are building up as you keep at it with the sacrament. But God is quietly at work and the day will come when you will look back and say, “He was here all along!” Not everybody is Paul. Most of us are Peter: schlepping along and failing again and again. The way we get to be St. Peter is not to wish we were Paul but, like Peter, to never give up in coming back for mercy yet again—and to remember we will always find it.