Thursday, January 05, 2006

Why go to confession?

When I was home over the holidays (Christmas being the primary but not sole celebration in question), my parents told me about a homily some friends of the family, fellow parishoners, heard when they went to a church out of town. At some point, the priest admonished the congregation against giving bad confessions--I'll elaborate a bit below--and my parents and I spent a few meals discussing what his intention could have been.

Basically, the priest seemed to be discouraging people from coming to confession without having anything substantial to say. His words were something to the effect of "I'm tired of just old people coming and giving confessions like first graders." We figured there were three plausible interpretations:

The first is that he was encouraging people with more serious sins, people with a more dire need for grace, to take advantage of the sacrament. Older people may have an urgent need, in the sense that they are generally closer to their own mortal ends than young people, but many appear to be too tired or too well disciplined (especially if they do confess frequently) to succumb to temptation, so all they have to confess are relatively minor things. Not that I'm in a position to judge, but I hope it's permissible to speculate for the sake of the argument; I'm not terribly old, myself, but sometimes it's not willpower or some other overt act of divine protection that prevents my commission of some sin.

The second is that he was trying to reassure (or discourage, depending on your perspective) the scrupulous. While in the first case we may have people who are saving up their sins so they only have to go in once, and then unload a whole bunch of stuff once, and receive penance once, in this case we have people who are going in frequently who probably feel they should still be able to make a dramatic confession, since we're all terrible sinners who should be nothing less than appalled if we could only see the true state of our souls. Unfortunately, it can be easy to try too hard to think of something to confess. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect that if you're going to mass at least on Sundays, and more likely daily, and going to confession on Saturday, that you're periodically going to have a pretty good week. Not that we should ever presume that we've had an impeccable week. Look instead at the confession schedule of a church near the town I live in: the usual hour, maybe forty-five minutes before Saturday evening mass, and 6:45-6:55 every morning before the 7:00 AM mass. Most people may not absolutely need reconciliation every day, but if they really did, I wouldn't be surprised if matters were grave enough that they needed more than the ten minutes scheduled. If the priests at this parish didn't want to hear confession a lot, they could simply not offer it, or offer it only rarely, and only at obviously inconvenient times for the parishoners.

The possibility of a reluctant confessor is the the third interpretation. Whether out of frustration with people little needing confession receiving it a lot while people who really need it decline to partake, or out of more ignoble motivations like simply believing it's not an important sacrament (which would simply be wrong, being belied by the fact that it's one of the two we should expect to have frequently), the priest might just be telling people not to waste his time by coming. Hopefully, though, it would just be intended as a medicinal slap in the face (remember when they used to do them at confirmation?).

Whatever the priest's intent, he brings up some good points. We should all go to confession, and most of us should go more often. Don't wait until you think you need it; with frequent communion and frequent confession, you can receive graces to resist sin in the future. If you can't think of anything specific, enumerate your typical temptations, especially if you have not done so recently; your confessor might still be able to offer some wisdom in dealing with them, and you're still in all likelihood going to have some venial sins that should be taken care of. One way or the other, however, do not obsess over your sins. Make a careful examination of conscience, but don't second-guess yourself or doubt the validity or sincerity of your last confession (unless you really were deliberately insincere or not forthcoming). Your focus should be on Christ. A healthy perspective of your sin is not obsession or denial.

I'm going with the first interpretation of the homily. General rule of thumb: any motivation to well-orderedly (there's got to be a legitimate adverb for this term, but I can't think of a more elegant construction without my dinner) take advantage of a source of grace more often is good and should be obeyed; any motivation to neglect or put off reception of a sacrament (distinct from abstaining for legitimate reasons, which the Church tends to spell out pretty durn clearly) is only diabolical.

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