by Fr. Joe Uecker, C.PP.S.
Last month, I shared some of my personal experiences with legalism, how it can affect a person, and what our idea of God is. In this article I’d like to share on a more positive level.
I hear from good Catholic people quite often that they seldom celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation. “I end up saying the same thing each time.” “What’s the use?” “Priests don’t understand the real world.” “I confess directly to God.” Despite these answers, I am convinced that there can be significant changes in people’s lives because of this sacrament. I don’t think the 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. on Saturday afternoon is the world’s best idea or the 8:57 a.m. request, “Father, can I do a quickie confession” before the 9:00 a.m. Mass is what Jesus had in mind.
It was October 26, 2014 and I was leaving St. Charles Church in Eden, Texas. I was there for Unbound and was heading out to a restaurant, having been invited by a family. As I was getting into my car, a lady stopped her pickup, got out and came over to me. “Are you the Fr. Joe who used to be at St. Mary’s in San Angelo about 25 years ago?” “Yes, I left St. Mary’s exactly 25 years ago.” “Well, I’m sure you don’t remember it, but I went to confession to you.” “Ok,” I said, wondering what was coming next. I thought: “If she still remembers that, it must have been really great or really traumatic.”
“That confession changed my life for the better.” She never went into any detail; she got back into her pickup and took off. I drove to the restaurant, relieved that hers was a positive experience, grateful for what God had done for her and feeling validated for being what I consider a bit unconventional in the confessional. I so often recall the negative experiences I recounted in my article last month that I often promise myself that I will do everything possible so that no one else has a bad experience with this sacrament.
The first thing I normally do is invite the penitent to “come over and sit down.” The response is usually positive; however the response is occasionally, “No, I prefer to stay over here.” In some places almost everyone comes over; in other places almost no one. I think the face-to-face gives the penitent a sense that “I don’t have to follow ritual rules here; I don’t even remember how I’m supposed to start; I can just talk.”
If it has been a good while since the person’s last confession, my first response is, “Welcome back.” The last thing a person needs to hear is, “Why so long?” or some put-down. I presume the penitent knows that they’ve done wrong; why else would they be here? I don’t need to rub their nose in it. After that it is just a matter of listening for a while as the penitent recounts what’s been going on in her/his life. Hardly ever is there a “grocery list” when it’s face-to-face. Rather it’s more of a general description.
I feel most unconventional in the penances I give. The only time I give the “Three Hail Marys” is when “I missed my morning prayers three times.” If a person has missed Mass on Sunday, I may ask them whether it is possible to get to Mass during the week. If it is, I ask them to go to Mass once during the week for each time they missed on Sunday. If that’s not possible, how about reading at least one of the readings each day next week? I try to check out the parish bulletin before confessions to find out if the daily readings are listed. If it’s an addiction, I ask them to seek a support resource group such as AA and pray for God’s help to admit their addiction. Ask any recovering addict; I’ve been told that 98% of people are addicted to something and that the other 2% are liars. Once people hear that, they aren’t as reluctant to talk about it. (I recommend Addiction and Grace by Gerald May.)
If a wife has made life difficult for her husband, I may ask her to make his favorite meal. If it’s the other way around, I may ask him to let his wife rest after supper and he can do the dishes and clean up the kitchen a bit.
If my suggested penance doesn’t sit well with them, I have occasionally asked them, “What do you think you should do as a penance, to help change your life around?” Some are harder on themselves than I would ever dream of being.
I stress that confession is not like a blackboard eraser. You come in with the board all marked up and when you leave it’s all erased. It’s a matter of changing something so that the board doesn’t get as messed up. What is it going to take for such a change? That’s what we try to get at.
I am convinced that there are lots of holy people, saints-in-progress in our parishes. Many times I feel like the penitent and that I ought to change places. Lots of people are deeply sorry for having harmed their relationship with God and the Church, although the latter (relationship with the Church) still leaves something to be desired.
Pope Francis has given me a lot of encouragement by his being unconventional and always teaching us to put people first. His emphasis on mercy is something sorely needed in our Church. Sometimes people leave with tears; my hope and my prayer is that they are tears of joy.