Journalists are well advised to rarely use the adverb “never” when describing human life. In the long annals of history, somewhere, someone has done the thing that is thought to have never been done before. But, this video shows something that has truly never before been seen, a pope going to confession in a public setting.
Now, look at the video again but don’t look at the pope, but at his Master of Ceremonies, Msgr. Marini. He was walking alongside the pope, next to a giant pilaster in St. Peter’s, leading him to the confessional box where Pope Francis was to listen to confessions. Msgr. Marini holds out his arm, the way MC’s do, in the direction the pope is supposed to go. But, Francis says something quietly to him and goes his own way, crossing to a confessional and kneeling before the assuredly stunned priest, to make his confession. The MC is not sure what to do.
Msgr. Marini could stand in for so many in the Church. We are not sure what to do with the sacrament of confession. Many find it unnecessary and use the fact that our current practice is far different from that of the early Church to justify their abstention from the sacrament, a justification I would find more persuasive if invoked by people who lived in other ways like a 2nd century Christian. We tend to think it perverse to confess our sins to a priest, as if there were something magical, as opposed to sacramental, about the priest’s ability to absolve. And, besides, the whole concept of sin has suffered from the advent of modern psychology, has it not? Don’t want to harm our self-esteem, now, do we? Don’t want to wallow in our Catholic guilt which is so famous it is a source of mirth. Of course, one would think that after a century of trying to analyze and understand the sources of human behavior, modern psychology might have produced more happiness and less mental anguish, but strangely that seems not to be the case. And, anyone who thinks the concept of sin horribly outdated should learn a bit more about the history of the bloody 20th century.
For some of those who go to confession with great regularity, Msgr. Marini is also a perfect exemplar. He knew what was supposed to happen. These papal events are mapped out in excruciating detail in advance. There was a plan, a form, a structure to the event, and along comes Francis who blows it all apart. When I was raised and instructed in the sacrament of confession, it was presented to me essentially as an accounting exercise. You make a list: four of this, seven of that, special emphasis in puberty on any naughty, that is sexual, thoughts. Everything was very formulaic and organized. There was not a lot of room for an experience of grace, as I have come to understand grace’s power to knock me on my behind, blow apart my plans, and wrench me away from whatever sinful indulgence I was keeping from the sight of God.
Pope Francis has made mercy a central theme of almost every major speech he has given. He returns to the word, and its meaning, time and time again, in various sermons and various actions. His trip to the confessional as penitent, not as confessor, in front of the cameras, was only the latest example. He is clearly trying to tell us something.
The pope, too, has not been afraid to speak frequently about Satan. Some scoff at this language, despite the fact that it is obviously biblical. It does strike us as unmodern, although given our era’s familiarity with the way of the Prince of Darkness, one wonders why we should be surprised to hear his name. The great value and import of the pope’s mentioning Satan is to remind us that we are all of us, constantly, in a spiritual struggle. (I do not say "spiritual war” or “conflict” because too often such phrases lead to a worldview in which the enemy is seen in other people or other ideas, rather than within. This struggle is usually of our own making and entirely self-contained.) Satan’s work is not just in this bad act or that evil thought. The struggle within the Christian soul entails spiritual wakefulness to the countless ways we are invited to allow our hearts to grow cold, and taken together those countless ways add up to the “globalized indifference” against which Pope Francis has spoken so powerfully. Our sin is not just a set of discrete, mistaken acts, but that willingness, due to distraction or pride, to allow our hearts to grow cold.
There are several antidotes to the power of Satan. But, the clearest antidote is the sentence the priest speaks in the confessional: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son has reconciled the world to Himself.” There, in a single sentence, is the essence of the Christian faith, the kerygma. The failure to mention the Holy Spirit is no matter: The Spirit is always present in the relationship between the Son and the Father and, as well, in the ministry of the Church, present in the person of the priest who speaks these words. This kerygma is especially in our minds as we approach the great days of Holy Week when the events that disclosed this truth – God has reconciled the world through Jesus Christ – are remembered and reenacted and celebrated.
So, for those who think confession is optional, or those who approach the sacrament as a rote exercise, here is the challenge: Do we act as if we believe that God has reconciled the world to Himself in Jesus Christ? Do we trust in Him when our own plans go awry? Do we exhibit confidence amidst the darkness? Do we respond to the invitations to sloth, greed, envy, gluttony, lust, malice, and most of all pride as if we believe those words? Do we approach our neighbor, and our world, as if he and it were part of that reconciliation to God? Do we treat ourselves with the respect those words demand? If we did, if all of us Catholics really acted as if we believed the world was already and entirely reconciled to God in Christ, do you really think we would still be debating immigration reform? Do you really think there would be an abortion industry? Do you really think the world would be filled with the graves of war dead?
The kerygma is powerful, but we tend not to trust its power. Until, until, we are prostrate in penance. Then, the words are inescapably powerful because we have no other hope. Which is why these words, so powerful on their face, come to their greatest power, the power of grace, in the confessional. It is there, when we have just made ourselves mindful not of our triumphs and strengths but of our failures and weaknesses, it is there that we discover we do have the ears to hear these words as living words, and the words of absolution from the priest become as fresh and alive as the words of the Magdalene on Easter morn: I have seen Him. And our hearts of pride begin to melt and become fit vessels for grace.
Vessels for grace. In our sacramental system, it is always God who is the actor. If we consider grace as some fine wine, it is God who is pouring the wine. We are not God, we are not the wine. Our task is to be the glass and a good glass is transparent and clean. It is then that we can receive the wine, the grace, the full depth of meaning contained in the claim - God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son has reconciled the world to Himself. Follow Pope Francis’s lead and go hear those words in the confessional. There is no better way to prepare for Easter and for all the little Good Fridays in our lives that must precede Easter. It is a large claim. We live in a world that does not behave as if that claim was true. We must do our best, reliant solely upon the grace of God, to live as if we believe the claim to be true. Is this not what we find so appealing about Pope Francis, that he appears to live as one who believes that claim to be true?