By Jack Smith
When I fist arrived at the University of San Francisco, more than 12 years ago, I had not been to confession since my first confession. A few days before classes began, a retreat for new students at the Saint Ignatius Institute was offered at the YMCA in La Honda. I had no desire to go to this retreat. I thought I would be a black sheep amongst a crowd of unctuous nuts. However, my mother insisted that I start things off right at my new college, so I went, reluctantly and skeptically.
The retreat went fine; it was mostly a broad overview of the type of education we were going to receive over the next four years. I realized in the first few conversations I had with people who were to become my lifelong friends that they were not very different from me. Three of us, myself included, were serious drug users in high school or the college we transferred from. Some whittled away their time with meaningless sex or drunkenness or the depressive self-absorption so common among young people at that time. None of us were practicing Catholics.
At some point it was announced that confession would be available for those who desired it. No pressure was made to go. It was simply an invitation, an opportunity.
To my own surprise, I went. It was face to face, which I didn’t relish in the least. I was nervous, but once I got in the door, I couldn’t leave. Father sat on a chair and I kneeled.
“How long has it been since your last confession,” he asked.
“A long time,” I said.
“More like ten years.”
With such a novice, Father figured he’d better go through the ten commandments to help me recognize my sins. I stopped him and told him, defiantly, that I knew what my sins were. They had been in my conscience, bothering me all my waking hours.
After a few minutes, as I was rattling them off, Father began to cry silently.
He gave my absolution and I left feeling no particular emotion.
A while later I went on a hike by myself and thought over the whole experience. I began to cry, which I don’t remember ever doing. It was a cry of elation. I knew from all my Catholic upbringing that God had forgiven me. I was able to start having a relationship with Him.
Over the next few years, several of my friends, including my future wife, came back to the Church because of the simple invitation of a little red light. That light used to shine regularly at confessionals in a number of parishes across the City.
No one knows when grace will enter a person’s life, but I am certain that it is not timed to fifteen minutes on a Saturday afternoon.
Hearing confessions can be a tedious practice for priests. One priest friend of mine once told me that “hearing the confessions of old ladies is like being stoned to death with popcorn.”
Some priest friends have complained that before Vatican II, and in some cultures today, there is a certain over-scrupulosity about confession. People would not receive communion without going to confession first, regardless of whether they had committed serious sin.
Some complain that those who grumble about the availability of confession want to return to the “old days,” when for some Catholics confession became a rote exercise.
There is a whole generation now who do not remember the “old days.” But we still need confession. We are alienated from the Church and God. In this culture, my generation does commit serious sins which wound our souls and cry out for healing.
I am not advocating a return to the “old days.” It is simply obvious that youth wounded by the “culture of death” in which we live, need a bigger invitation than that little red light for fifteen minutes on Saturday afternoon.
By increasing the availability of confession, priests may have to sit through a lot more popcorn stonings. I admire them. But I hope, and I have seen, that occasionally, when a priest sits in that box and flips on the light, he may be calling a desperate soul back to God and peace.
I don’t remember my first confession, but my second confession changed my life.
Note - In Kansas City, there are many churches which offer confession before most scheduled Masses. Redemptorist, Our Lady of Good Counsel and Our Lady of Sorrows are three that come to mind. Feel free to post any others in the comment box.