Commentary – Confession
There are some things from our past that we miss, and wish we could replicate, but there are others that we’re happy to forget. My co-host and commentator Katherine Sullivan reflects on both.
At my Catholic high school, we had to go to confession four times a year. We lined up outside the gymnasium. Pairs of metal chairs dotted the basketball court, spaced just far enough apart so that, if you spoke in a low, almost whisper, the classmate next to you wouldn’t hear as you divulged your most shameful moments to an old man in a long white robe.
Half a dozen priests came from nearby parishes to handle the sheer quantity of human sin at Seton Catholic Central High School.
Everybody went to confession. I guess the chance to have your earthly transgressions unconditionally absolved through holy sacrament was just too good for any 16-year-old to pass up.
Standing in line outside the gym, jittery with nerves, we examined our moral conscious and tallied up our sins in our heads. Much of our fate depended on the priest we were randomly assigned–everyone hoped to get someone they liked.
There was Fr. Kane, a kind but stern old man, who had known me since I was born—going to him was like being disciplined by your grandfather. There was Fr. O’Conner, the young attractive priest who looked like he still belonged in high school. The thought of sitting so close him that your knees nearly touched his, looking directly into his eyes and confessing your deepest secrets, was too much to handle.
Then, there was Fr. Ours, our theology teacher. He was a round, jovial man, who joked around with the boys in the class, playfully punching them in the hallway and giving them nicknames. He wasn’t intimidating or strict–everyone preferred to confess to him.
I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone besides a priest. I’m going to tell you my sins. I always listed the same three things throughout middle and high school:
- I fought with my sister
- I was rude to my parents, and
- I gossiped about friends.
I would sit there and wonder if I had scandalized the priest with my depravity. But instead, he would nod, and calmly assign a penance—usually some number of prayers to recite. Fr. Ours, the theology teacher, always gave an easy penance: ‘Two hail mary’s and keep up the good work!’. He’d then lift his hand over my head, and absolve me of all my sin. That was it! Clean slate.
I’d leave the gym feeling overwhelming relieved—walking on clouds.
I stopped going to confession when I left for college, around the same time I stopped going to Church. There were a lot of reasons to fall out of faith. Mostly, I grew out of it. But also, my high school years coincided with the exposure of rampant sex abuse in the Church. The scandals expedited my growing unease with organized religion.
There’s not much I miss about Catholicism. The strict and antiquated views on modern life I gladly leave behind me. But confession–the idea of being forgiven for all the wrong you’ve done, simply because you chose to admit it out loud—there’s nothing else that that comes close to that.
My therapist tries to make me examine wrongdoing. She picks it apart. She doesn’t dissolve it all with a lift of her hand and some divine intervention. Likewise, friends can only commiserate and relate with my feelings of moral failure, not release me from them.
Secular society is in a constant search for ways to cultivate self-forgiveness. We practice “mindfulness”, we meditate with the assistance of iphone apps, we go to brunch and down bottomless mimosas. We spend a lot of money trying to achieve the feelings I once got from the 4-minute sacrament of reconciliation.
On a visit home several years ago, I was catching up with a high school friend. “Have you heard about Fr. Ours?”, she asked. Our theology teacher and confessor of choice, Fr. Ours, had been arrested for possession of child pornography.
Every time this comes up with people from home, we acknowledge it, and then we get quiet. No one knows what to say. No one is ready to examine it. Instead, I think about all those sins I confessed to him as a teenager, and I wonder how many Hail Mary’s he’s saying now.
On Sunday mornings, you’ll find Katherine seeking eternal forgiveness at the her local yoga studio.