“Receive the Holy Spirit,” said the risen Lord to his apostles. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The sacrament of Penance, instituted by Christ himself, is one of the greatest gifts of Divine Mercy, but it is widely neglected. To help rekindle a new appreciation for such a profound gift of Divine Mercy, the Register presents this special section.
My Lenten confession was especially poignant this year. It was the last thing I did before joining my family in our vigil of self-quarantine. Like everyone else in the world, we’re camped out at home, praying that the coronavirus passes us by.
Given the uncertainty of the times, I felt like I’d won the lottery just by managing to get a Lenten confession. Never before had I felt so grateful for the words, “Go in peace; your sins are forgiven.”
Stepping out of the church, I reflected in awe on those self-sacrificing medieval priests who continued hearing confessions even throughout the terrifying outbreaks of Bubonic plague. Deadlier by far than COVID-19, the Black Death swept across Europe in just a few short years, halving the population wherever it struck. Medieval epidemiology was primitive compared to ours, but 14th-century Europeans had no difficulty recognizing that the plague was an infectious disease. People found their own methods of “social distancing,” with the wealthy fleeing to country homes, while many of the poor simply fled.
Priests, like medical doctors, faced a dilemma. The dying needed sacraments, but in order to supply them, priests necessarily had to put themselves at grave risk. Some refused. Others did continue ministering to the dying, often giving their own lives in an effort to usher sinners into God’s presence.
In the shadow of our own global epidemic, I felt I had been blessed with a small glimpse of the heroism that those priests must have exhibited. How grateful their dying penitents must have been for the incredible comfort they brought, reaching out to the most wretched as they stood on the doorstep of eternity.
In times of global crisis, the sacraments do seem especially precious. Having said that, I myself have always appreciated the sacrament of penance, from the time of my baptism. As a convert, I didn’t grow up with it; and as a mother, I often have to work quite hard to make opportunities to go.
I’m well familiar with the demoralizing experience of tearing myself away from the children just long enough to go to confession and realizing the moment I step in the door that the line is much too long. Even when the world isn’t bracing for a wave of dangerous illness, I still tend to feel that the sacrament of penance is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. I know nothing so liberating as stepping out of a confessional. The feeling is just a bit reminiscent of the one you remember from childhood, when your parents gave the nod to a satisfactory report card.
As adults, we may feel this way when we get a clean bill of health at a physical or dental exam. These earthly triumphs are trivial, though, compared to the sweetness of knowing that divine mercy has been extended to us and that God is still with us in our weakness.
I sometimes think that converts are especially fortunate when it comes to the sacrament of penance. Too many cradle Catholics are exposed to this great sacrament through the eyes of lukewarm family members, or through confused clergy or schoolteachers who portray the confessional as a kind of therapeutic drive-thru. As a convert, I first learned about confession from a much more sympathetic source: Hollywood.
This may sound like a joke, given how often modern media has proved hostile to Catholicism. Odd as it may seem, though, filmmakers love the confessional. I don’t mean personally, of course.
I doubt many actors or directors are fretting about finding an open confessional in the age of coronavirus. But the confession scene remains a powerful and readily recognizable cinematic trope, which very rarely presents the Church in a negative light.
On reflection, it’s easy to understand. For film purposes, confessionals are romantic. Who can resist a ritual that combines secret sins, sacred oaths and black-clad men of the cloth? The confessional also affords a plausible pretext for allowing the guilty to disclose critical information.
The viewing audience clearly understands that words spoken in the confessional are overwhelmingly likely to be true. Criminals may lie to associates or the police, but what would be the point of lying to the Almighty?
As a new Catholic, I couldn’t understand why so many of my cradle-Catholic acquaintances viewed confession with such disinterest. Surely, this was one of the greatest privileges of being Catholic. God’s certified representatives are waiting to dispense mercy, for free! Like Moses lifting the bronze serpent, Christ has given us an almost embarrassingly simple cure for the disease that truly ails us. Like the ailing Israelites, a depressing number of the faithful simply refuse to look.
Across my 15 years as a Catholic, I’ve come to understand this a bit more. The experienced reality of confession is far less glamorous than the Hollywood version might lead us to expect.
The truth is, sin is boring.
As my new-convert confessions piled up, I was discomfited to find that I was confessing the same familiar sins again and again, usually without the faintest sense of tragic nobility.
On television, penitents always seem so compelling, and confession is so transformative. Most of my misdeeds were petty, tawdry, embarrassing, or all of the above. It wasn’t obvious that the sacrament was effecting much moral improvement, and confessors, for their part, didn’t necessarily have a magical piece of insight to offer. A few times, just for a fleeting second, I halfway wanted to do something heinous, just so I’d have some more interesting sins to confess.
Downsizing romanticized expectations is a common enough experience in life. For a time, I did feel that way about the sacrament of penance. Oddly though, I ended up coming back around eventually to something like my childhood view. Filmmakers, with their eye for romantic mystery, may actually have glimpsed something about confession that Catholics frequently fail to see. They implicitly understand the transformative power of owning up to our failings and being forgiven. A licensed therapist can help us achieve the first thing, but only God can supply the second — which he does, quite regularly, especially on Saturday afternoons between 2 and 4pm. Just as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man waits for us in the confessional, offering the medicine that can prepare us for eternal life. Nowhere else are truth and mercy blended in such a potent mixture.
From biblical times to the present day, plagues have periodically afflicted the human race, reminding us of our weakness and susceptibility to harm. We rightly pray for a medical breakthrough that will relieve the suffering we see across the world. At the same time, we must not forget that the deadliest illnesses are those that endanger our souls. Whatever the state of epidemiology, God’s mercy is always offered to anyone who earnestly seeks it. In a troubled age, Catholics can cherish a special peace, knowing that our sins can be forgiven.
Rachel Lu, a moral philosopher, wife, and mother of five, writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.