Your article last month on the Eucharist was beautiful. Maybe you can shed some light on another sacrament?
My elderly mother basically told me to ask you about this dilemma of hers…. In our church, Confession is heard by a priest who speaks very little English. She basically goes to Confession, says her sins, and then he tells her to say "1 Our Father, 5 Haily Marys." He then says, "I absolve you from your sins, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." My mother worries that he doesn't understand a word she said. So my mother wants to know… are her sins forgiven nonetheless? (I will print out your answer for her since she does not use a computer!)
And I guess I will also add my little twist to this. On the rare occasions I do go with my mother, I kind of prefer going to Confession to the priest who speaks little English and will forgive me without questions. I don’t really like the probing priest during Confession. I know I [messed] up, I admit to it, and yes I will try to do better. No need to rehash that [mess]. Ron
I enjoyed your letter, even if I reduced the colour saturation a little!
Yes, Confession is a sore point for many people, and for different reasons. It’s seldom we hear a complaint about deaf or linguistically challenged confessors. These are normally the most prized of all: I remember a deaf one many years ago who always had a long queue waiting at his box, while his sharp-eared colleague had only the elderly sacristan and two First Communicants. I also remember a confessor who was deaf in one ear, and this imbalance was mirrored with precision by the queues outside his box. So, you yourself have no complaints, Ron. Good!
But your mother feels dissatisfied, wondering if her confessor has understood anything she said. I can understand this too. We want our sins taken seriously. In my first year of priesthood, many years ago, someone kept on insisting in Confession that he was a great sinner. When I sought to mitigate this judgment a little he became very angry with me. I thought afterwards: I had challenged what was possibly (in his mind) his one title to greatness. It was a good lesson to me. I am not the accuser, he is. I am not some sort of lawyer, and I am not his judge and jury. I am sitting in the Seat of Mercy, not on a seat of judgment. I am privileged to be at the live point where God’s mercy is meeting human sinfulness. I shouldn’t try to take any of the electricity out of that meeting.
“Confess your sins to one another,” wrote St James (5:16). Or… should we not confess our sins to God? – we say, “I confess to Almighty God.” This might seem an inconsistency. But look at it like this. We always come to God “in Christ,” not under our own steam. We are Christ’s body: “Christ is the head of the body, the Church” (Col 1:18). And so, “we are members of one another” (Eph 4:25; see also Rom 12:4-5; 1 Cor 12:13; 1 Cor 6:15 – I put in these references in case you want to follow up this theme). Our sins are not just our own business: they injure the whole Body of Christ, directly or indirectly. And therefore neither can forgiveness be a purely private arrangement – even though the practice as we knew it in the past (the dark confession box, the secrecy, the anonymity) gave the impression that our sins and God's forgiveness were nobody else’s business. Ideally we should confess out loud and publicly to the whole community! This is how it was done in the early days. But out of consideration for people’s feelings, the thing was made easier. Instead of confessing to the whole community, you now confessed to a representative of the whole community. This was still in principle confession to the whole community, but it had an unfortunate look of privacy about it.
So when your mother goes to Confession (or the ‘Sacrament of Reconciliation’, as people prefer to call it now), she is confessing to the whole Christian community, not just to one priest who happens to be short of English. The meeting is just as meaningful, spiritually, as if he were as fluent as a parrot. In the Body of Christ, God's mercy is flooding towards her. It still floods towards her even if the confessor understands little or nothing. It is a larger mystery than appears, involving the whole Church. The essence of it is the absolution. When there is an ‘impediment’, as we used to say – when someone is unable to speak, or very weak, or…deficient in English – there is no absolute need for the ‘confession’ part; the absolution is the essence. I often had to hear Confessions in Italian while the organist, an ear-shattering tenor, warmed up before Mass. It was almost impossible to hear anything, and I probably gave absolution for arthritis, for husbands, wayward sons, the price of food, etc., but I knew that it was a bigger mystery than appeared. When mercy is in flood we don’t have to worry too much about the measure of it. There is no condition that can stop the flow of mercy. The formula of absolution says it all: “God, the Father of Mercies….”
I know that sometimes a person wants to have a conversation as well as absolution, and then the ‘impediments’ are a problem. In that case it might be a good idea to call at a presbytery, or to drop in on a religious community where you might even have multiple choice. As for yourself, Ron, never fear; I think there will always be deaf confessors around. And as we get older we get deafer.