Hurry, Father, For I Have Sinned

Carl Olson of Ignatius Press's Insight Scoop blog has a post up on that Wall Street Journal article by Alexandra Alter that I blogged on the other day. In a comment there, blogger Ed Peters (of fame) makes the following point:
Are parish priests up to the resurgence in confession? Some signs say no, in particular, the apparent inability of some priests to distinguish between the dynamics of sacramental confession and those of personal counseling. On a monthly basis, the former should take about five minutes, while the latter can easily run 20 or 30 minutes. Parish priests who, on a regular basis, are only getting to four or five people in an hour on Saturday afternoons (leaving a line of another dozen would-be penitents) need this explained.
This is, I think, partly true, but only partly. On the one hand, my own experience verifies the worry that the line between confession and counseling is growing ever blurrier in the American confessional, and it's blurring on both sides of the line. It's blurring on the penitent's side because it can be tempting, I think, to give some "background information" when confessing, and indeed there are certain occasions where it is necessary to do so if your confession is to be valid. (To confess to a "sin against chastity", for example, will almost invariably elicit a clarificatory question from your confessor, since that is a rather broad and amorphous category.) It's blurring on the confessor's side because, the more detail one gets from one's penitent, the more one has to work with in giving "comfortable words" of "spiritual advice".

Ed Peters suggests that this blurring is not ideal, and he may be right about that, but on the other hand, the "five minute" confessions that he mentions seem to me to leave a lot to be desired. When I have lived in larger, urban areas, I have had to wait in lines at confession, and I have sometimes been amazed at how quickly they moved along. In one parish I attended in New Jersey the line often stretched all the way through the (very large) church and out the front door, but one found oneself at the confessional in about 20 minutes. Now, that church was rather cavernous, and sounds traveled easily, and as one got closer to the confessional one could actually hear the penitents whispering at the grate. One tries not to listen, of course, but the closer you get the harder that is. (It is a curious feature of human cognition that, whenever you hear words in your native language, it is impossible to not understand them. Try it sometime. You can try to shut out the sound, but once the sound enters your ear, you understand it.) All of which is just to say, look, it's not like I was eavesdropping or anything--mĂȘ genoito!--but I couldn't help but notice that some people just knelt at the screen, said the confiteor, got absolution, and were out the door before you could say "and to my paper-shredder."

This scenario, in addition to presenting a rather good case for closed-door confessionals, illustrates the limitations of seeing confession, as some people appear to see receiving Holy Communion, as a mere rote activity that should be blazed through quam celerrime. I remember having a similar feeling about a Mass I used to attend that was said in accordance with the rubrics of 1963. Being the fan of Latin that I am, I tried following along in my missal and I noticed two things: first, whenever the priest was saying words loudly enough for the congregation to hear them, he was saying them so badly that he could not possibly be understood by anyone in the congregation, even those who were fluent in Latin. Indeed, I thought it quite possible that God himself had no idea what the poor fellow was trying to say. Second, it was manifest that during those parts when the priest is to pray the canon silently, he was not actually "praying" it at all, even in his own mind, because he was done too quickly. Maybe he thought he could substitute the words "et cetera" for the things he was to pray silently, and it would count as a semantic equivalent.

I think that, in general, when one tries to hurry things in this way one is at the greatest danger of falling into a rote activity that is bordering on the meaningless. Now, rote prayer need not be meaningless: when one prays the rosary, for example, it is not necessary to dwell lovingly on every clause of every prayer, for these prayers are particularly intended to be said by rote, so that the mind may contemplate the mysteries. But that sort of meditative recitation of rote prayer is quite different from what one is about at the confessional. When one is confessing one's sins, one ought to be quite careful to express, in words, precisely how one has turned away from God, and it does not seem to me to be possible to do that by mere rote recitation of either the confiteor or, indeed, a laundry list of generic sins. One needs to call to mind precisely how one has gone astray, making it explicit to one's confessor and thereby to God. In a sense this should be obvious: since God is omniscient, he already knows exactly how you have gone astray before you even think about going to confession; making it explicit is a Sacramental act, it is an act whereby we make manifest, in outward form, what is taking place inwardly. It is a sign, in other words, and signs that are not intentional do not signify (for example, if an ant crawling in the sand were to trace out a line that resembled Winston Churchill, we would not say that the ant had "drawn a picture" of Winston Churchill precisely because the ant is not capable of intending such a thing). So the words in the confession must not be rote or they will be meaningless (in that sort of a context).

It seems to me that a middle road is available here. A quick confession that contains enough background information to (a) disambiguate our sins and (b) explain to our confessor the nature of our remorse so that he may assess its relevance and adequacy. This sort of confession, it seems to me, will take longer than five minutes, even if done once a week. But it will require far better catechesis than folks seem to get out of their ordinary religious education.


Darwin said…
I am now left with the difficult task of explaining to co-workers why I was hear laughing in my cube. The reason, of course, is that I had just read:

first, whenever the priest was saying words loudly enough for the congregation to hear them, he was saying them so badly that he could not possibly be understood by anyone in the congregation, even those who were fluent in Latin. Indeed, I thought it quite possible that God himself had no idea what the poor fellow was trying to say.

That was pretty much my experience.
Michelle said…
I remember a Mass in Oaxaca, Mexico of that ilk. I walked in at the appointed hour, and somehow the Gospel was being proclaimed. I stayed, certain I must have misread the time. Uh - no. High Mass...12 minutes, and don't expect to receive.

In my seminary days I wrote a paper on the various forms that historically had been used for sacramental reconciliation, and how some forms seemed to cue particularly poor responses from penitent and/or confessors. This post brought back memories!

The lines do blur between spiritual direction, pastoral counseling and sacramental confession. As a general rule, my own spiritual director will not hear confession, believing that blurs the lines too much. Likewise, though he is a clinical psychologist, if a directee needs pastoral counseling, he'll refer them out for that in tandem with the direction.

I prefer not to use the confessional, but go "face to face" and even with a confessor who (quite beautifully) follows the current rite to the letter, it still takes no more than 10 minutes. As you suggest, it's not the form, it's the formation (on both sides). And good formation is hard to one who has to shop for a confessor, I say this with firm conviction.

(To clarify, before some soul takes me to task for seeking a confessor with a particular viewpoint,I pray in monastic choir with the Augustinians who staff my parish. Their general rule is that you don't confess to someone within your own community - and the prior who originally invited me gently suggested that this was sensible advice for me as well.)
Roz said…
From the point of the view of my experience as a penitent, it's important to give (or be prompted to give) a clear and specific description of my sins,so I strip off the shreds of rationalization, minimizing and fear that go hand in hand with Sin's effect of separating me from the grace of God.

Absolution is the primary effect of the confessional, but sanctification can be much advanced if we fully relinquish the position of "counsel for the defense", as my blog-partner puts it.

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