Attribution: George Jansoone, wikimedia

Attribution: George Jansoone, wikimedia

A few weeks ago, I heard John Allen Jr. give a lecture on what he thought might be Pope Francis’ biggest legacies. At the top of his list was “mercy.” Just as Pope Benedict XVI became known for “faith and reason” and Pope John Paul II became known for “Be not afraid,” Pope Francis will perhaps be renowned for his focus on mercy.

One of Allen’s examples for how Pope Francis inhabits mercy was a curious one: he described a parish in Rome where Pope Francis was to give a blessing and say a mass. But the pope arrived a couple hours early and declared to the parish priest, “I’d like to hear some confessions.” The priest ran off to grab the first few people waiting to get into the papal mass to tell them, “You get to say your confession today!” To which they replied, “Uh, no… no, Father, I’m here to see the Pope.”  “No, that’s what I mean!” I imagine the surprise of those people, surprised at being asked to confess on the spot, and astonished that the pope would hear those confessions.

For Allen, confession was an example of mercy. It clearly is to the Pope, too. The CNS reported his February 19th Wednesday audience:

Everyone say to himself: ‘When was the last time I went to confession?’ And if it has been a long time, don’t lose another day! Go, the priest will be good. And Jesus, (will be) there, and Jesus is better than the priests – Jesus receives you. He will receive you with so much love! Be courageous, and go to confession…Forgiveness is not a result of our efforts, but is a gift. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit who showers us with mercy and grace that pours forth unceasingly from the open heart of Christ crucified and risen….But I say to you, every time we go to confession, God embraces us.

Mercy isn’t the first word I think of when I think about the sacrament of reconciliation and given what I’ve heard from others about the sacrament, I suspect I’m not alone. Maybe it’s a generational thing: I’ve heard some exclaim, “Oh I feel so relieved, so clean!” when they’ve left the confessional, but they’ve tended to be of a certain age that is fairly well past the Social Security payment minimum age.

“Frustration” might be my first word. Some times I’ve gone to confession and, having made an examination of conscience and sincerely wanting to confess things that I thought were obstructing my relationship with God, I have been told something like, “You’re confessing… That? That’s not a sin.”

Or there have been the inhospitable moments, the moments when priests have noticed I was going to use the face-to-face room rather than the screen, and asked if that was what I “really” wanted. Well, regulations about such things aside (because it’s, you know, churchly legal) – as a person with a hearing loss who can’t hear what the priest is saying when he’s behind a grille – I feel lost if I’m NOT doing confession face-to-face. Once I was forced to say confession behind a screen, had no idea when to say what to say because I couldn’t hear a darned thing. So I thought I’d just jump in with my description of sins when the priest interrupted me. Of course, I couldn’t hear him. So I asked him to say it again. And again. And again. And finally he shouted, “You’re speaking your sins too loudly.”

Oh. Okay. Yeah, that didn’t feel at all like mercy.  I can’t, in fact, think of one confession I’ve ever made where the first word I’d use to describe it would be “mercy.”

The point of this blog is not to make a case that we’ve got to “feel” mercy. I don’t think it is true that a person has to have “had the experience” or some particular “feeling of the Absolute” or some such in order to receive the grace of Reconciliation, or any other sacrament. My feelings are changeable but we believe that God is not – most especially in this case that God’s utter love and mercy for us is always there. I’m grateful for that. It’s faith in God’s love and mercy that keeps me going to Confession despite all the negative encounters I’ve had.

Yet I can’t help but wonder: what does it mean that this sacrament of mercy is very rarely experienced as such?So that leads me to ask: what would it take for the confessional to be a place where the first word I (we?) think of is mercy?

Let me say that in devising some thoughts, my first aim would not be directed at priests, nor at penitents, nor at any particular component in the confessional or the rite. Not at first, at least. My stories above of the sacrament notwithstanding, I think the practice of confession is difficult in a wide-ranging number of places and parishes precisely because it isn’t about any one priest or penitent.

There are a number of directions we could aim at in thinking about confession and mercy; one of these surely is to look historically at suspected reasons for the decline of confession in the first place.  Some have suggested that Humanae Vitae and its surrounding controversies are a chief cause in a decline in confession.

Yet other aspects of contemporary history and life come to mind and seem to me worth exploring, too. One of these is social mobility and a decrease in practices that foster loyalty and promise-keeping within communities and human relationships. Of course I want to be careful here: experiences in the 20th century with loyalty gone wrong, especially in relation to abuses by political and ecclesiastical authorities that lead to the proverbial blind followers who allow all sorts of heinous crimes to occur in the name of loyalty, have made loyalty as a virtue and practice quite suspect.

On the less-well discussed flip side, however, those who discuss the benefits of marriage longevity (for example) describe a particular kind of freedom that comes from being able to be one’s self when the couple’s working assumption is that this marriage is for a lifetime. There is space to argue and have disagreements precisely because you know that the relationship won’t be cut short on the basis of that argument. (Our own Julie Hanlon Rubio discusses some questions related to this point in her recent book.) In addition to marriage, those who discuss the importance of strong, stable communities know that something has been lost in relation to communal mobility and a lessening of communal ties.

This question about mobility in relation to loyalty is key in thinking about confession and mercy. The reason is because I think that being able to experience confession as merciful is linked to seeing Christian community as a whole as merciful. That is, what are the ways in which we, as a community of lay people and clergy together, might practice mercy?

I think mercy is in very short supply, in part because we have any number of ways out and ways to avoid difficult conversations, or to use a phrase from bygone eras, honest “fraternal correction.”  We’ve had these kinds of practices before. Many Christian groups have devised ways of trying to do this kind of work that have not tended to be long-lived: public penance practices, Quaker discernment circles, Methodist bands and societies, and most recently, various truth-and-reconciliation commissions in places like South Africa.

In the absence of such particular kinds of groups, how often do people lie to each other to keep the peace than to figure out ways of being truthful, especially because we know that the ensuing conversation would be hard, might offend, might even cause someone to bolt? To name a couple of examples: How often I’ve seen people shrug off racist or sexist comments directed at themselves or others, for example; how often people have whispered privately to themselves about the person in the the parish who is ruining a life through drug/porn/spousal abuse and “known” that raising the questions wouldn’t solve anything, and therefore not raised these questions to the people involved.

Well – and it probably wouldn’t, in many ways, solve anything. But I’m not sure that “solving” is ultimately the point of this kind of practice. (That is, while I think it might go hand in hand with forms of support that might “solve” problems, the aim with this practice is more to cultivate mercy.)

Part of naming sins – others’ and our own – is that it puts us constantly in a context where we also know that we always need to forgive each other. What would it mean to have practices of mercy, where we could know that warts, hurts and all, other people forgive me and I them? I suspect that if we were a community of truth-telling, we’d really be a community of sinners (no one would call the Christians perfect or holier-than-thou), and a community of mercy too, forgiving others’ trespasses and also seeking forgiveness from God.

And then it’d be far easier to see how confessing sins to a priest in a confessional is symbol, sign, and sacrament – because we both aim at, and fail, to be people of mercy, and because of that failure, we accept mercy.

Tomorrow, I’ll follow up with an account of what I think it might mean for Catholic moral theologians to think more deeply about confession and mercy.