A Catholic Confesses
I met Matt during the first week of my junior year at Harvard. Although I was raised Catholic and had even been the president of the Christian Fellowship at my high school, by the time he and I met, God had fallen way off my radar. I had been quite involved in prayer the previous semester, but had turned my back on the church over the summer, deciding that white, male priests were nothing short of the inventors of the concept of sin and a culture of judgement, self-righteous ness, and shaming. The idea that sins are intrinsically damaging to oneself and others had never occurred to me, or if it had, I had forgotten.
Nonetheless, even in my godless haze of self-justifying anger, I remember praying (only half jokingly), “God, you know the fastest way to my heart is a cute boy, don’t you?”
Matt was different than the men who had caught my eye before him; he asked lots of questions, had lots of opinions, biked faster than I could, and shortly after we met he invited me to church. I declined the first invitation (it conflicted with yoga class, my latest spiritual solution), but the next week he invited me again and I said yes. I do not remember what the preacher said. I do remember that we sat on the right side of the congregation and that Matt’s knees stuck out from his chair several inches past mine. Around that time, I commented to one of my female friends, “I like him a lot but he’s so Christian.” The word had a sour taste in my mouth. In spite of this, I kept going back to that church, mostly hoping I would bump into him. I even started volunteering to help set up before the service and clean up afterward, a job that involved arriving at 7 AM on Sunday morning and staying until nearly 2 PM, just because that was his job, and I hoped we might happen to have a shift on the same Sunday. (We never did.) Soon, I found myself spending time with a crowd of college students who dropped Scripture passages into everyday conversation from memory.
As the months passed and Christmas approached, the preacher’s messages started to soak in. Little by little, I began to get interested in this Jesus fellow people kept mentioning. Being essentially lazy, I found an audio recording of the Bible online. Starting with the Gospel of Matthew, I put on the audio recording every night while I was brushing my teeth and putting on my pajamas. Over the next couple months, a living, breathing human being named Jesus emerged from my cloud of assumptions and stereotypes about Christianity. By the time I got through the last of the synoptic gospels in late January, I found myself thinking: “I don’t know if it’s really true that this man, Jesus, is the God of the universe, but I sure as hell hope it is.” Yes, God did know that a cute boy is the fastest way to my heart.
As a new semester began, I decided to take things a step further. Growing up, I had attended a Catholic church with my mother. With little comprehension of the significance, I had undergone all the rites of initiation into the church, including first Confession, first Holy Communion, and Confirmation. Now, enamored as I was of Jesus, I wanted to get closer to him. I began attending Mass at St. Paul’s Parish in Harvard Square. On February 15th, I made my general Confession to a Catholic Priest. We sat in his office in the Catholic Student Center for five hours and fifteen minutes as I brought each of the dark corners of my heart into the light and let God dust off the fear, resentment, self-loathing, and self-alienation. When I finished I felt like I had become a real and honest member of the human race for the first time in my life. Another human being had heard every last fault and error of my ways and had neither fainted nor gasped in horror. Instead, he listened patiently, and before reciting the rites of absolution, he reminded me, “God does not just forgive your sins; he absolves them. Even though of course we will remember them, to Him it is as though they never happened.” Then the priest said, “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” As the priest made the sign of the cross over me, I felt as though the Holy Spirit was lifting a weight off my chest. I had walked into the office dragging a ball and chain; now the shackles fell from my ankles. I walked back outside into the sunshine of the crisp winter day, a free woman at last. Just as the compulsion to smoke a pack of cigarettes can hardly be termed freedom, so too can it hardly be termed freedom to feel the compulsion to sin repeatedly, for both are forms of self-harm: Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn 8: 34-36, ESV). The Sacrament of Confession is the way Jesus gave us to approach him and ask him directly to set us free from the bondage of sin.
Unlike the illusion of freedom that comes from getting to do whatever I want — right, wrong, or otherwise — the spiritual freedom that comes from being absolved of my sins is a feeling I can seek time and again without fear of causing damage to myself or others. When I feel angry, discontented, depressive, or easily annoyed, my solution is to go to Confession. The experience of urgently needing to go to Confession is surprisingly similar to that of urgently needing to pee, and the relief afterward is equally palpable. Confession is the truest way I’ve ever encountered to immediately turn a bad week into a good week. It completely transforms my perspective on life and the world around me, shifting my interest from myself to others. Does this mean that I’m always in the mood to detail the specific ways in which I have harmed others, fallen short of Christian ideals, and stumbled in my faith? Of course not. But it’s always worth swallowing my pride. Confession works even when I don’t expect or believe it will.
By coincidence (in the way that nothing of this sort is actually a coincidence), Pope Francis happened to make a plea to his Wednesday audience just four days after my grand, return-to-the-church general Confession: “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.” All I can add to this appeal is a hearty “Amen!”
My experience is that the Sacrament of Confession is the most fertile stomping-ground I’ve encountered for coming to know intuitively what it looks and, moreover, feels like to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37) and to “love your neighbor as yourself ” (Mt 22:39). The Sacrament of Confession is also the most reliable, reproducible, and regularly accessible means of receiving the grace necessary to make a serious attempt at implementing this ideal of love.
Why can’t God forgive my sins without my going through a priest? Well, He can. He’s God. But I won’t know that He has, so I won’t be able to have the peace of mind that comes from knowing with certainty that my heart is clean and my God is close. Besides, Sacramental Confession with a Priest is about more than just starting clean with God because, while sin obviously damages my relationship with God, it also damages my relationships with other human beings. In the words of Pope Francis:
Yes, you can say to God, ‘forgive me,’ and say your sins. But our sins are also against our brothers, against the Church. This is why it is necessary to ask forgiveness of the Church and of our brothers, in the person of the priest…. Forgiveness is not something we can give ourselves. One asks forgiveness, one asks it of another person, and in confession, we ask forgiveness from Jesus… 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.
Alone in my room with the door closed, I am not capable of mustering up the healthy dose of honesty and humility that wholly loving and obeying God requires. I need the help of another person, who in that moment is given the grace to represent Christ to me. Humility is not the same as humiliation. Humility is about seeing myself honestly. With God’s help that means seeing myself as teeny-tiny compared to God. But that also means seeing myself as smart, kind, thoughtful, beautiful, lovable, strong, sexual, capable—capable of inspiring the people I encounter and also capable of crushing their spirits and leaving them broken and bruised.
When I made my five-hour-long general Confession, I had no idea what was about to happen. Did I plan to make some changes in my life? Sure. But I was not at all planning to have my life completely turned over, dumped out, and filled back up again with new and better stuff. It is not an overstatement to say that everything in my life has changed since then, including my motives, my dreams, my attitude, my source of hope, and my solution to discouragement. I cannot explain to you the mechanics of how God so radically transformed my heart. In fact, much of my change of heart happened quite to my horror. But I can tell you that I began going to Confession about once every week, and that Confession has been the primary vehicle by which I came to see that “Christian morality is not … a catalogue of sins and faults” but rather that “[a]ll the virtues are at the service of [a] response of love” to the God who loves us, no matter what.
I have always wanted to contribute to the advancement of a just society. Previously the only vision I had of how to accomplish this was through the advancement of secular, progressive, socially liberal worldviews. For me to want to obey God absolutely, I had to come to trust that God’s vision of a just society is better than mine. I was given the grace of this trust in God’s character and vision through the repeated experience of confessing sins that seemed harmless, then shortly thereafter repeating the sin, only this time experiencing its corrosive reality. Going to Confession gave me eyes to see that when my vision of the good life is different than God’s vision of the good life, either I don’t understand what God is saying or else I am the one who is wrong.
P.S. Yes, some sins seem to be sticky, such that every time I let God take them away from me, they wind up stuck on my hands — and soul — yet again. Being human, I keep repeating these ones — some obvious like gossip, others subtle and insidious, like unvoiced jealousy — but every time I realize I’ve repeated my mistake, I go to Confession and begin again. After all, the one thing all the “Saints” are better at than the rest of us is starting over.
Jane Thomas ’15 is a Human Evolutionary Biology concentrator with a secondary in Computer Science, Pforzheimer House affiliate, and a staff editor for the Ichthus.
1 This is a pseudonym.
2 Appallingly, I have since become one of those people.
3 Lenartowick, K. Pope Francis: Be courageous, go to confession. Vatican City: Catholic News Agency, Feb 19, 2014 at 04:57 am.
5 Pope Francis. The Joy of the Gospel. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013.
6 My confessor.Tags: Catholic, confession, forgiveness, grace, Harvard University, love, Pope Francis