Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Confession and Confession

"Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter,"
Pietro Perugino,  1481.
Those of you who read my blog with any regularity have probably noticed that I rely heavily on the Church's calendar for my reflections, while many of my blogger colleagues focus primarily on current events, social issues, politics, the media, or family life.  This is not because I think these issues are trivial compared to observing St. So-and-So's feast, or because I lack imagination, am insufficiently activist, or am overly entangled in the institution of the Church.  I would like to suggest rather that it is because the cyclical nature of the Church year brings me into regular contact with a vast witness of people with struggles, failures, and integrity that keeps me grounded as a Christian.  In reading the stories of these flawed and yet faithful people, I often stumble upon some statement, image, or theological notion that is so compelling that it invites me to engage it in a very personal way.  Today is no different.  Today we observe the Confession of St. Peter the Apostle, which is also known as the Commemoration of the Chair of St. Peter at Rome.  As I read the Divine Office this morning, I encountered that critical verse in the Gospel of Matthew that Catholic Christians regard as the basis for the Church's authority and divine sanction.  Jesus declares, "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16:18-19).

If one reads the two preceding verses, one discovers that this powerful statement is a response to a pivotal event:  Simon Peter's profession of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God.  This declaration, in fact, serves as Peter's answer to Our Lord's essential question, "But who do you say that I am?" (Matt. 16:15-16).  The back-and-forth dialogue of this passage illustrates the fundamental mutuality embedded in the relationships fostered within the Church.  It is a covenant in which the Church proclaims for all time that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, a proclamation that requires something from us.  As a matter of fact, it is my belief that this confession of faith is closely linked to another confession, the confession of sins.  Many Anglicans--as well as many Roman Catholics--have little experience of the sacrament of confession, or reconciliation as it is sometimes called, perhaps conjuring up some old-fashioned black-and-white image from the 1950s that would seem to have little relevance to life in the twenty-first century. "After all," I have heard some friends argue, "we have a general confession and absolution in the mass.  Doesn't that do the same thing?" 

The confessional where I go to monthly
confession, whether I need it or not.
Well, my answer is "yes" and "no."  I would not argue that the priest's absolution in the mass is less effectual than in auricular (private) confession.  But I would say that my experience of each is different.  A couple of years ago, I had several conversations about my spiritual formation with an elderly priest, who told me that I should get a confessor, which I did.  It was literally a life-changing move for me.  The sacrament stirred something deep within me when I named for this priest the specific sins I had committed, engaged in conversation about them, received moral guidance, received absolution, and then performed the penance he assigned me.  The penance was usually to recite a particular psalm, and I was struck by how relevant the content of that psalm was to the issues weighing on my conscience--so much so, that I often returned to that psalm in the weeks that followed.  My very seasoned confessor apparently knew exactly what I needed to reflect upon.  I was equally struck by his advice, not only because it was so helpful and insightful, but mainly because it was usually not what I would have expected.  I know that there are many people who are nervous about revealing the most closely guarded secrets of their hearts to a priest, for fear of being judged harshly, but as I have been repeatedly reminded, we come to confession for forgiveness, not condemnation.  And if that doesn't make you feel better, it is also likely true, as I have been told, that there are few sins a person can reveal that an experienced priest has not heard before or been guilty of himself or herself.  Indeed, Peter was subject to many lapses of faith, fidelity, and courage, so who better to absolve us than one who has been where we are many times?  It is absolution from the position of the priest's own humility, not moral superiority.  That is what it means for Peter, or the priest, to loose on earth and in heaven.  Those keys are a way back to the covenantal relationships that we violate and from which we stray from time to time.  To be anonymous and forgiven in the mass is one experience, and to be known in all one's complexity in the confessional and be forgiven, is yet another.  I would invite those who have not done so to venture into the confessional to risk the encounter with a confessor and oneself and learn how far the Messiah's forgiveness goes.

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