16 July 2009

Confession and the Year for Priests

When I was growing up in Ireland in the 1950s jokes about confession were part of the staple not only of professional comedians but of Redemptorists, Passionists, Jesuits and other groups who gave parish missions or retreat every year during Lent. There used to be a week for women and a week for men. Every weekday night there would be Rosary, sermon and Benediction. The churches were usually filled for morning Mass - there were no afternoon Masses then. The priests were available for long hours for those who wished to go to confession.

There were inevitably some who had been away from confession for years. When the priest told a joke about the sacrament it was both an expression of a shared faith and fear or nervousness and also a way of touching the hearts of those who were hesitant.

A friend of mine, whom I'll call 'B', sent me the joke below recently. I hadn't heard it before and it made me laugh out loud. 'B' is 100 percent Irish-American and his wife 'G' 100 percent Italian-American. The family has suffered in many ways over the years and 'G' has very bad Ms (multiple sclerosis). Please remember them both in your prayers.

A Catholic guy goes into the confessional box. He notices on one wall a fully equipped bar with Guinness on tap. On the other wall is a dazzling array of the finest Cuban cigars.Then the priest comes in. ‘Father, forgive me, for it's been a very long time since I've been to confession, but I must first admit that the confessional box is much more inviting these days.’

‘Get out’, the priest replies. ‘You're on my side.’

Here is a short article I wrote on the Year for Priests for a newsletter of Worldwide Marriage Encounter in the Philippines. I focused on the sacrament of confession, which Pope Benedict emphasised in his letter proclaiming the year, which was prompted by the 150th death anniversary of the death of St John Mary Vianney, who spent so many hours in the confessional.

Confession and the Year for Priests

On Saturday night, June 27, during the (Worldwide Marriage Encounter) weekend in Cebu, I spent about 50 minutes in the confessional. I think that two came for confession. When I went to join the team meeting it was over and so I went to bed. I had just switched off the light when one of the team knocked on the door and told me that someone wanted to go to confession.

I’m afraid that I went beyond thinking that feelings are neither right nor wrong and didn’t make the right choice in expressing myself. (In WWME we emphasise that feelings in themselves are neither right nor wrong). However, I dressed and headed for the chapel. On the way I met the person who had knocked on the door and apologized for my words. Very graciously he accepted them and told me that he had informed the participants that I was very tired. However, I arranged to be available for confession for a short while after lunch on Sunday, the only possible time, and nearly everyone came.

Pope Benedict in his proclamation of a Year for Priest on the occasion of the 150th death anniversary of St John Mary Vianney, drew attention, among other things, to the saint’s devotion to the sacrament of reconciliation, spending many hours in the confessional. Another saint with a similar devotion was St Pio of Pietrelcina, better known as ‘Padre Pio’. In both cases people came from distant places to confess their sins to these holy priests. I knew three Columban priests who, in their latter years, spent hours in the confessional almost every weekday in St Augustine’s Cathedral, Cagayan de Oro, Fr James Moynihan from New Zealand, Fr Frank Chapman from Australia and Fr John Meaney from Ireland, all now gone to their reward. They were always busy in the “box”, with penitents coming from as far away as Bohol. The word had gone out, as it had from Ars and from San Giovanni Rotondo, where Padre Pio spent most of his life as a priest.

Pope Benedict, acknowledged to be one of the greatest intellects of our time, quotes St John Mary Vianney, who barely managed to get through his studies: “And if this soul should happen to die [as a result of sin], who will raise it up, who will restore its calm and peace? Again, the priest . . . After God, the priest is everything.”

The Pope wrote, “The Curé of Ars was very humble, yet as a priest he was conscious of being an immense gift to his people: ‘A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy’”.

I still haven’t figured out what the best time for confession is on the weekend. I seldom now make myself available on Friday night, sometimes because we start too late but also because couples haven’t really got into the weekend yet. On Saturday night it is quite impossible to be present at the team meeting and in the confessional at the same time. But the meeting can go ahead without the priest.

I also emphasize that confession on the weekend is neither a substitute for dialogue nor a time for counseling, but a moment to acknowledge our own sins – not those of our spouse! – and to ask God’s forgiveness. I recall one occasion as a child when my Uncle Mick, a brother of my mother, said to my lola as she announced that she was going to confessions: “Don’t be telling the family history, mother!” There are times when it is appropriate to ask for advice when we confess but I think that on the weekend it is best to focus simply on confessing our sins as honestly as we can and receiving God’s forgiveness through the priest.

Though I didn’t feel like or behave as a good shepherd on the Saturday night in Cebu, I recognized God’s call in the knock on the door and I thank God that, despite my negative reaction at the time, more availed of the grace of the sacrament the following day than is usual on a weekend.

1 comment:

Catholic Mom of 10 said...

Loved the joke! Oh Fr ..please can't we use the confessional to tell other people's sins??

Will pray for you on my retreat..starting today. how I'm going to cope without the compuer??