Behind the Door

April 6-12, 2006
VOL 125 NO. 13
Behind the Door
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) CNS
Reconciliation Brings Peace and Grace

Ask a Catholic the last time he or she went to confession and the response is likely to vary from a scoff to a quiet reply, “Well…I haven’t been in years” or “I confess my sins directly to God” or “Oh, I go at Christmas when we have that big, group confession after Mass.” And, sometimes the unfortunate answer, “I had a bad experience the last time I went” occurs.

There are, however, many Catholics who enjoy the sacrament of reconciliation at least every few months. They are not frightened by the idea of invoking the priest’s ire when they discuss their transgressions. In fact, they welcome the opportunity to talk to a priest one-on-one. And, they find it a helpful and encouraging part of their spiritual life. A priest/confessor who bases penance on the number of times one errs is not the norm anymore. According to those who participate in reconciliation regularly, confession-goers are more likely to encounter a warm presence, a thoughtful listener and a positive outcome.

The old notion of the narrow dark box with the grate window in the back of the church does not suggest an inviting space. But, the good news is that Catholics have a choice: they can still remain anonymous by kneeling at the grate, or they can speak with the priest face to face — a newer element added to the sacrament in the 1970s. Even though the atmosphere of the confessional has changed somewhat, it is safe to say that today fewer than one-third of all U.S. Catholics regularly participate in the sacrament of reconciliation. This is a far cry from the “old days” when youngsters would line up regularly to confess how many times they had used a curse word or taken an extra dessert. The priest would require a penance of five “Hail Mary’s” and the youngster felt better and was absolved until the next week. This antiquated version of events is not the norm today.

The current emphasis is on healing and conversion and making sure the sacrifice or atonement fits the transgression. And, many people contend that they really do feel much better after they have been absolved of sin through the sacrament of reconciliation. Peter Gallagher attends St. James Church in Johnson City. He is 79 years old and remembers learning about the importance of confession from the sisters who taught at his school. Gallagher went to confession every week when he was a youngster. Now he goes about every five or six weeks. He said he feels compassion is the most important quality of a good confessor. “Usually he has very good advice,” Gallagher said. “He’s very compassionate and encourages you and tells you when you’ve made a good confession.”

Gallagher said he goes to confession to have his sins forgiven and to keep from sinning in the future. “I think it makes you more aware of sin and temptation and it brings you closer to God.” There are Catholics who go to confession regularly and there are those who go sporadically, Gallagher said. He feels the benefits far outweigh the trepidation one might feel before approaching the confessional door. “If I was on good terms with someone who hasn’t been I’d ask, ‘What’s taking you so long?’” Gallagher laughed. “If they’re worried about their sins, I’d tell them about the Army chaplain who said, ‘If you come up with a sin I haven’t heard, I’ll give you a hundred dollars.’”

He said there should be no fear on the sinner’s part. “Just talk to the priest and see what he says,” Gallagher said. As part of his ministry at the Franciscan Place at Carousel Mall in Syracuse, Father Adam Keltos, OFM Conv., hears confessions several hours nearly every day. Perhaps the environment of the mall and bringing the sacrament into such a public place adds to the successful reconciliation experience. “We have a pretty good clientele,” Father Adam said. “We have regulars but then we have those who haven’t been in years.”

Sister Mary Daniel Golembiewski, OSF, also serves at Franciscan Place and she agrees that there is a steady flow of penitents waiting for a priest to absolve their sins. She loves to watch them walk out the door after the experience of reconciliation. “When they come out, it is very obvious that they have experienced the healing love of Jesus. They almost look like they’re walking on a cloud. Like a huge weight was lifted,” Sister Mary Daniel said. The walk-in philosophy at the Franciscan Place is inviting and many who enter do so because they aren’t sure where else to go, Sister Mary Daniel said. There are pamphlets with prayers and the act of contrition available and, she said, many people find their way back into the church after experiencing reconciliation. Father Adam’s explanation of the sacrament is simple, “Sin blocks the growth in the life of grace that we receive in baptism,” he said.

A penitent needs to come to the sacrament with true contrition, Father Adam said. In other words, one needs to be truly sorry for his or her faults and has to sincerely want to make amends. “It’s not a quantitative thing we’re talking about,” he said. “It’s a life we’re talking about. We’re called to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, to have the fullest kind of life. John 10:10 says, ‘I came that they may have more abundant life.’”

Annette Murphy also attends St. James Church and she said the experience of reconciliation is very “life giving.” Murphy’s grandmother’s faith was an influence on her commitment to the sacrament while she was growing up. “She was extremely faithful and going to confession was a part of who she was,” Murphy said. “Reconciliation is a renewing experience,” Murphy said. “It’s a fresh start but it also allows me to be more in communion with God and the community. It [sacrament of reconciliation] is one of the things that makes Catholicism unique. It is something we do as a community.”

Murphy said she needs the tangible quality of going to the priest for a one-on-one confession. “Our faith is so rich in symbols and tradition. In order for us to feel we are in line with God and to receive grace from God, we need this outward sign.” It could be argued that the idea of an individual reaching reconciliation with God through his or her private prayer and not through participation in the sacrament of reconciliation is one that in essence let’s one off the hook. Some argue that God “knows us better than we know ourselves” so why go to confession? According to Father John Kurgan, administrator at St. Joseph’s Church in Lafayette, there are a few problems with this way of thinking.

“One problem is that it is very easy to minimize what we do. We say, ‘I can’t help it’ or we rely on God’s mercy — which is there — but to try to do this on our own leaves no impetus to change, to go forward and sin no more,” Father Kurgan. There is no doubt that confiding sinfulness is difficult, but one person interviewed said that perhaps it is supposed to be. “Who wants to admit anything to anybody?” the 45-year-old wife and mother said. “Confession isn’t always particularly comfortable, but I guess that’s the point isn’t it?”

Father Adam suggested that Catholics take the time to go to confession to be renewed and to reacquaint themselves with the value of the sacrament. “There are those who haven’t gone in 15, 20 years. Why? Some are just ashamed of what they have done,” he said. “Many have not gone to confession but do go to communion. Almost everyone stands up to get in line for communion, not for confession.” People are human and they do make mistakes, but there is value in finding out why the mistakes were made in the first place and how one can work on not making the same mistakes over and over, Father Adam said.

“It’s not so important to know that you did this act three or four times,” he said. “It is the whole situation that needs attending to. How are you going to correct this pattern of behavior? It is about life and relationships with other people.” If an individual repeatedly says or thinks ill of another person, perhaps a good penance would be to pray for that person or to perform some other act of kindness for the person, Father Adam explained.

Far from the heavy-handed wrath that some might anticipate coming down on their heads, most priests today emphasize right relationships and the healing mercy of God during confession. Absolution of one’s sin and the ability to move forward has its benefits and Peter Gallagher would highly recommend experiencing the sacrament of reconciliation to every Catholic. “Not only will you not regret it,” Gallagher said, “but you’ll feel so much better when you know you are in union with God and with the church.”

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