Reconcilable differences: though it may be the same sacrament, confession is as unique as the people who celebrate it.
A number of Catholic writers have noted the renewed interest in devotions, spiritualities, and prayer forms--both old and new. Whether it is adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the rosary, or novenas, commentators wonder if people are trying to recapture something lost or are genuinely rethinking such forms. I like to think of what I see happening to the sacrament of reconciliation as a rethinking of this sacrament's viability and possibilities.
In a world, a nation, or a local community fragmented by all sorts of tensions, we all need reconciliation more than ever. And what is a more tangible--sacramental--sign of oneness than the sacrament of reconciliation?
In the last four or five years, I have noticed a difference in the kind and number of people availing themselves of confession. I have also noticed an improvement in the quality of its ministry.
Living on the edge of a large city, I have had the opportunity to sample the way the sacrament of penance is celebrated in a variety of parishes: two downtown parishes, a suburban parish, and a rural church. I felt a little like I was "shopping," the way people "shop" for parishes. But, in this case, my work schedule and the times that the sacrament was available made such shopping necessary.
Except for attending a communal penance rite some years back, I've never been to confession at our geographical parish. Being at least somewhat known to the parish pastoral staff, I did not feel comfortable going to confession there. Besides, I would have--like Goldilocks--characterized our pastor and assistant as either "too hot" or "too cold." Also, it was never convenient to go at 4:15 p.m. on a Saturday, when confession was scheduled. So I went shopping.
The time was what mattered. I rejected one suburban parish outright because Saturday penance was at 11:30 a.m. At the downtown parishes, 11:30 during the week was convenient from work. At the other suburban and the rural parish, 3 and 3:30 p.m. on Saturday worked out, too.
Though I didn't go shopping for a confessor, I found that by receiving the sacrament at four different parishes, I did learn a lot about current pastoral practice. The one suburban confessor was definitely "old school." Gruff and judgmental, he also gave what--in comparison to some of the others--would be called "heavy" and unimaginative penances: so many Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and Glory Bes.
The one downtown confessor gave the lightest penances, most often a single Our Father, no matter what you may have confessed. But he is also one of the more imaginative, having told me on more than one occasion to make up a particular kind of prayer as penance. Since I frequently compose my own prayers, I cherished such opportunities.
Almost all the confessors included a brief comment about the need for daily prayer and trust in God. One of the young downtown confessors was particularly gentle and encouraging--a latter-day St. John Vianney.
Among the most imaginative penances came from a young confessor at the urban parish who asked that I donate something to the poor or bring non-perishable food items to the parish pantry. This meant extra time and effort, but it was also a reminder of the theological principle that sin affects the whole church. My sins may be personal, but the penance was meant to put me back in contact with the church at large. There was emphasis on reconciliation and community. On another occasion, one of the young confessors asked me to pray for the person whom I had wronged. That, too, brought home the social nature of sin and penance.
As it was in the "old days," the physical space makes a powerful impression. But now the physical space has changed. No more dark confessionals, though all seem supplied with the familiar red and green bulbs that indicate that the priest is in or the reconciliation room is in use. The most forbidding is the "reconciliation room" in the lower level church of the one downtown parish. The room is small and dimly lit, and there is barely room for the priest's chair, a screen, and--since Vatican II--the obligatory chair, should any penitent choose to face the priest.
Still, the dark, almost sepukhral atmosphere of an urban basement church turns out to be really not that oppressive. Before the midday Mass, the only lights are the flicker of the sanctuary and votive candles. Yes, homeless people drift in and out, but they, too, are reminders that the church should be a home to all. There is also a regular group reciting the rosary after 11 a.m. Mass, responding to a different leader each day.
In contrast, at the other urban church, the so-called reconciliation room is situated in the well-lit parish library, a room along a busy hallway on the way to church. Of course, when confessions are being heard, the library is off-limits.
The quiet, almost monastic atmosphere of the rural-really village--church, is personally most appealing. Tastefully re-designed within a small semi-basilica shape, the church boasts clerestory windows that let the afternoon light shine in. An airy, well-lit reconciliation room off the sacristy has cushioned chairs outside for penitents in line. Inside, the penitent has a view out a single stained-glass window that illuminates both the penitent and the priest behind the tasteful oak-framed screen. The chair facing the priest is upholstered, in fabric matching that of the penitent's kneeler.
I also realized how varied is the appeal that the sacrament continues to have. Old and young penitents, penitents alone, and penitents coming as mother-daughter, father-son. On one occasion a whole family came to the 11:30 reconciliation time at an urban parish; one parent watched the youngest children while the other parent and the older children stood in line.
And there are lines, invariably, at the downtown parish where the confessor has been there for more than 20 years and whose penances are light. Before feasts and on Fridays, the lines can be particularly long. When noon Mass begins, many of the penitents participate from their places in line.
At the village parish on Saturday afternoon, a father and two children added to the numbers, nearly filling the halfdozen or so chairs lined up along the back wall next to the reconciliation room. Lines, too, occur at the other downtown parish, where some of the confessors are young, thoughtful, and imaginative, and where a retired priest gives a minihomily to every penitent.
These days for some Catholics the "fourth sacrament" remains relevant for a variety of reasons in a variety of settings. We are all sinners. It is spiritually reassuring to know that the church is beginning to make it more acceptable for us to acknowledge our sins and receive the benefits of one of the most consoling of the seven sacraments.
So, even as people are turning to "retreats in everyday life," eucharistic adoration, and other devotions that give a sense of community, continuity, and ritual to their lives, I have noticed that there has been a similar reimagining of the sacrament of reconciliation.
By ED BLOCK, who teaches English at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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|Date:||Jul 1, 2011|
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