Two weeks ago, Pope Francis inaugurated a “Festival of Forgiveness,” which he hopes becomes an annual Lenten fixture all over the world.
The initiative includes a 24 hour vigil, wherein churches remain open, and confession is continuously available, for a 24 hour period. The Pope celebrated a Second Rite of Penance and Reconciliation in St Peter’s Basilica, and heard confessions himself for an hour. There is nothing radical in this. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict both heard the confessions of lay faithful in Lent and at World Youth Days.
However, the following footage shows something unprecedented:
To my knowledge, no pope has ever gone to confession in public. But it’s no great surprise that Francis should be the first to do this. Not only because he is a master of startling but simple gestures, but because he is devoted to sacramental confession, and so eager to promote it. He has spoken more about this sacrament than any other. (Just last month, a journalist asked him for a self-assessment of his papacy. Francis declined: “I do that every fifteen days — but only with my confessor.”)
Last Sunday’s Gospel — the raising of Lazarus — is laden with symbols relating to this sacrament. The Church Fathers excelled at reading spiritual meaning into the Scriptures, without in any way rejecting the literal historical meaning. St Augustine suggests the death of Lazarus symbolises our own death. Not in the sense of illness and physical death, but in the sense of sin and spiritual death. This sort of death is very subtle, because it is disguised as life: having eyes but not seeing; having ears but not hearing; having a heart but not loving. Spiritual death is also very gradual: a slow enslavement to bad habits; a slow deadening of the conscience; a slow distancing from others.
Augustine sees in the stone sealing Lazarus’ tomb the addictions and desires which enslave us, denying us freedom. The tomb itself is the darkness which blinds us to God’s presence in our lives, in strangers and friends, and in ourselves. And perhaps most compellingly, he likens the bandages binding Lazarus to the shame and discouragement and fear which hampers our conversion. This is what us stops us from praying after we fall into sin. It stops us from “starting again” with simplicity and optimism. And it stops us from going to confession.
I think it’s very telling that the Sunday Gospel before this one had our Lord healing a blind man by spitting into the dust and creating an ointment. Jesus could have healed the man by a simple act of the will, but instead he made use of physical symbols, in a way very evocative of the sacraments he has bequeathed us.
In the case of Lazarus, our Lord again does something which isn’t necessary, except for the edification of onlookers. This time, he looks up to Heaven and prays aloud. Then he shouts at Lazarus to come out. He needn’t have done this. Again, he could have performed the miracle by an invisible and instantaneous act of the will. But instead he employs speech, and explains his actions:
I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.
Words matter. Confessing our sins — naming them aloud — matters. Similarly the words of absolution, spoken by the priest but really pronounced by our Lord himself, matter.
The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, St Augustine counsels, rolls away the stone, banishes the darkness, and unbinds us. “When we live with sin, we lie in the arms of death . . . But when we confess, we come forth.”
Sitting in the confessional or sacristy at the appointed confession times, waiting for penitents, is one of my least favourite activities.
Time slows. Seconds pass like minutes. Minutes feel like hours. If I bring a book – my Breviary maybe, or some spiritual reading – it’s invariably tedious, if not repugnant. Important tasks – urgent tasks – flood my consciousness. “I really should do that now. As in right now.”
It’s a real battle of the will to stay put for the appointed time, on the off chance that a penitent shows up. Often, there are no penitents. But sometimes penitents do show up, and I’ve discerned a pattern. If the temptation to abandon my post is especially strong, and if a penitent then shows up at the very last minute, they are almost always a “big fish.”
“Grois poisson,” or “big fish,” is a term St Jean-Marie Vianney applied to penitents who made a good confession after years or even decades of inveterate sin.
Inveterate sinners, Vianney said, are like deep water fish who swim around in the dark for a long time, impervious to the fishermen’s nets. It’s a resonant metaphor.
“Duc in altem,” Jesus said to the apostles in Luke’s Gospel:
“Stand out into the deep water, and let down your nets for a catch.”
Simon answered him, “Master, we have toiled all the night, and caught nothing; but at thy word I will let down the net.”
And when they had done this, they took a great quantity of fish, so that the net was near breaking.
Duc in altem. Launch out into the deep.
Chesterton may have had Vianney’s big fish metaphor in mind, when he imagined Father Brown catching a criminal, hearing his confession, and letting him go. Says Fr Brown:
“I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”
Evelyn Waugh composed an entire novel around that image. Brideshead Revisited (which is to my mind Waugh’s masterpiece and the best English novel of the twentieth century) relates the operation of divine grace – especially the grace of conversion – on a host of inveterate sinners of varying wickedness. Waugh’s characters wander freely and widely, until they become receptive to God’s grace and return like the prodigal son. A “twitch upon the thread.”
Australia is a nation of amateur fisherman, so I hardly need tell my readers that big fish put up a great struggle before they are landed. It’s especially apt, then, that confessors should experience a spiritual struggle before hearing “big fish confessions.” I can only imagine it’s nothing compared to the struggle ensuing within the penitents themselves.
I think important lessons can be gleaned from this. There is a spiritual battle raging all around us, and within us. It is invisible, but it’s real and it’s powerful. Sacramental confession plays an important part in this battle, which is why it is targeted.
I think we receive “windows in time” during which we are not only especially encouraged, but also especially empowered, to go to confession and sacramentalise our conversion from sin. The enemy place obstacles in front of these windows, so that we pass them by. The enemy’s attacks are double edged: the penitent is discouraged, and so is the minister of the sacrament. How easy it is for penitents to pluck up the courage to make a good confession, note the schedule, show up resolutely, but abandon the plan all together when they meet a dark and empty confessional! I know, because I’ve been there and done that.
So be warned. If you resolve to go to confession – be it frequently or after a long absence – the enemy will discourage you and try to prevent you. Don’t allow it.
St Michael the Archangel, defend us in the hour of battle.
What was that thorn in St Paul’s flesh which we heard about at Mass yesterday?
Just to jog your memory:
I was given a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to beat me and stop me from getting too proud! About this thing, I have pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me.
(2 Cor 12:7-8)
St Augustine suggests Paul was referring to a physical affliction — perhaps the same “bodily ailment” which Paul mentions in his Letter to the Galatians. (Gal 4:13) St John Chrysostom argues that Paul was referring to the religious persecutions he endured. St Gregory the Great speculates that the thorn may be a temptation which Paul struggled with — anything from lust to greed to an addiction. Or maybe St Paul was reflecting on his fiery temperament, which I’ve blogged about before.
No speculation on the thorn in Paul’s flesh is complete without mention of cartoonist Tim Davis’ theory. Its implausibility in no way diminishes it hilarity:
St Paul’s terms are general and ambiguous, but there are a few things we can ascertain about this thorn. Firstly, it’s not only painful to him, but humiliating. Secondly, it’s not from God. We could go as far as to say it’s evil — Paul attributes his thorn to Satan. Thirdly, and most importantly, this unwanted and humiliating evil becomes a conduit of God’s grace.
We have thorns of our own — weaknesses, vices, addictions — which we can beg God to take away. And the good Lord probably says to us what he said to Paul. “My grace is enough for you.”
But can we respond as Paul responds? “I am quite content with my weaknesses . . . For it is when I am weak that I am strong.”
When such thorns are hidden, they possess us and deprive us of peace. But when they are named, they lose their power and the Lord’s healing work flourishes.
It’s a very humble soul who can write “I shall be very happy to make my weaknesses my special boast, so that the power of Christ may stay over me.” This is the stuff of saints! The stuff of spiritual childhood! (Same thing.)
St Paul, pray for us!
Sacramental confession is a wonderful thing. I say that as a penitent, not as a confessor. As a matter of fact, since becoming a confessor, I’ve learned that ministering the sacrament takes a lot, and gives little.
Not that going to confession is much fun either. It might be likened to a trip to the dentist. Something to plan ahead of time and endure for its duration, only to bask in the good it brings in the end.
Sadly, becoming a confessor has restricted my freedom to blog about confession. It doesn’t have to be this way I suppose, but I’m so wary of the sacramental seal, that I believe it’s prudent to say little.
In my second week as a priest, I heard confessions one evening, and then offered a weekday mass the following morning. As I distributed communion I recognised a vaguely familiar face. After mass, a queue formed to receive the personal blessing of the newly ordained priest. I asked the familiar face if we had met.
“You heard my confession last night Father. Remember?”
I didn’t as it happens — until that moment. And then I realised with horror that the homily I had preached at mass was very similar to the “homiletto” I delivered in the confessional the night before. I hoped the penitent didn’t think I was referring to them as I preached my homily!
No harm was done on that occasion, but I learnt a valuable lesson. The seal of confession is such that I must be attentive even to perceptions of its violation. So the best course of action is not to blog about confessions.
But I can link to a confession-themed post by my favourite blogger! Lindenman has the fresh eyes of an adult convert, and his insights on confession are both mature and light-hearted.
I think it’s good to be light-hearted, especially about our personal failings. The devil takes himself too seriously. The saints avoid that error.
All of this is pertinent, in light of the scandal in Parramatta. The central issue in that case is, I think, unity of life. I can’t imagine Fr Lee “set out” to do what he did. I can well imagine he got to where he got by a series of small steps which slowly embroiled him deeper and deeper into a double life.
We’re all vulnerable to that. God calls us into the light, but the shadows are always beckoning. One of the greatest means to unity of life, I think, is regular confession. Please God we might all frequent this sacrament with a holy maturity and an appropriate lightness of heart.