Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Deo gratias

I have something to confess. Something that until now I've always kept hidden to the side, tucked away so people won't either think less of me or scoff at my concern. It's pretty bad, so be sure you're ready for it. Okay, here goes. In the past eighteen months I've made it to Confession precisely ... zero times. Why you ask? That's a good question.

I have often told myself that it's because none of the churches anywhere near my home have confession times anything other than early Saturday afternoon and, well, that just doesn't work because I have family commitments at that time every week. Call and make an appointment? Yeah, but I just can't get in to face-to-face confession and unless you are very, very lucky and the priest starts behind the screen a scheduled confession will usually become face-to-face by chance if not design. If only those were the only reasons this wouldn't be much worth a blog post. See, there's more.

More? Sure. Good? Hah, not exactly. Am I a heretic, a Protestant who doesn't believe in individual confession? No, but at least that objection would hold some substantive weight. Are the priests in my area incapable of performing the Sacrament due to a defect in form? Nope, and some of them I'm told are wonderful confessors too. Are the albino Opus Dei monks spying on the confessionals in the Diocese? Okay, maybe that's not too realistic. Unless they are. But no, that's not why either.

Why then? It's simple really. To use one of my catch words, it's stupid, but simple. Remember, of course, that I'm a convert and not a cradle Catholic. So when I went through RCIA lo those many years ago our talk about Confession consisted of showing us the confessional and a brief talk about the Gospel examples of Jesus' forgiving of sins and his commissioning of the Apostles to do the same and Peter's receiving the keys, then a generally vague discussion of the form - effectively "you go in, make the sign of the cross, tell the priest your sins, you make an act of contrition and he gives you absolution". Perfectly simple, innocuous and enough to move on to the other Sacrament of healing. But since this was the time when rote memorization of prayers was verboten ....

I never learned a proper Act of Contrition. I saw it once in a while after that, but never really learned it. Until today. You see, dear old St. Patrick's in Nashua with good Fr. Kelly as pastor has sustained a brilliant idea from the Church's past that has by-and-large been shoved to the wayside in favor of task forces and board meetings. The idea is as obvious as it is simple which is perhaps why it is overlooked. Father simply makes sure he (or I imagine another priest if he is unavoidably detained) is in the confessional at least fifteen minutes before every Mass, including the noon-time weekday Masses. In the case of St. Patricks this is doubly good because they are just off of Main Street which means there is ample opportunity for foot traffic and for people to assist at Mass and/or go to confession during their lunch hour. It's simple - provide a needed service when people can get to it, and they will come.

So, knowing that I'd be in Nashua today I studied up and memorized the simple Act of Contrition and then stuffed a copy of it in my breviary to study again. Let's just say that I'm a case example of why rote memorization of prayers is sometimes a good thing - without that base, any Act of Contrition I'd contrived on my own would have stuttered and blathered to the point it would have been more embarrassing than many people find Confession itself. So I memorized and repeated it to myself. I muttered it all the way to the church to make sure I didn't forget. Then I walked in ... and almost didn't see the confessionals. They are done, as pazdziernik puts it, "in the box" at the back of the church. I finally find them after I'm sure spooking some of the elderly ladies while stumbling around like the village drunk only to see its occupied. A glance at my watch and a voice tells me I'll never get in before Mass starts. But lo! the person exits and I swiftly swoop in a little less like the village drunk than before.

Was it quick? Was it painless? No, and no. And thanks be to God for that. You see, Fr. Kelly was truly paying attention to my confession and asking me questions to make sure he understood what I was saying. Did I feel like he was prying? Absolutely not, what I felt like was he was actually trying to help me out and that's when I got the distinct understanding that I wasn't doing this alone. God was there, making sure I did it right, holding my hand as it were and guiding me forward. "Is that all you recall, to the best of your ability?" "Yes, Father, it is." Penance is assigned. Forgiveness - Absolution!

If I could have reached through the confessional to give him a big ol' man-hug I'd have done it. I was only microseconds away from bursting into "Gloria in excelsis deo!" when I remembered that not everyone there would have been edified by my singing. So I just knelt down, performed my penance, assisted at Mass and received our Lord in Communion with the lily-whitest soul I've had in a long, long time. It was, in a word, euphoric.

If I may be so bold, this tells me two things. Pastors: make confessions available before every Mass, no matter the scheduling conflicts it causes or whether anyone shows up right away. If they don't come, use St. John Vianney as your model and pray harder, but don't ever abandon the confessional. Laity: I can't say this strenuously enough - go to confession! Regularly! Tell your Pastor you need greater availability of the Sacrament of Confession and go. Confessionals have a certain gravity to them - the more they're around, the more they're used, and the more people seeing them used the more new people will use them.

Yeah, I'm giddy. And I'm going back too, soon. Wouldn't you? As I said in the title, Deo gratias!