Absolution is what they come for. “Bless me Father for I have sinned.” It is one of the things that give me great satisfaction. I believe in evolution and I don’t believe in execution. Retribution can have its place—I’m only human after all—but in the end it’s my shepherding function that keeps me at it.
There’s always a rush at the new year. People having made it through Christmas—perhaps coming to Mass for the first time in years with their parents or children or spouse—are suddenly looking to the future. And The Future. We have extended hours for Confession, now called “Reconciliation,” on the Saturday before New Year’s. A long-delayed derivative of the revolution that was the Second Vatican Council.
It’s supposed to be anonymous, with me sitting in a booth with kneelers on either side. There’s a tight-mesh screen to my right and one to my left and a solid panel covering each. When a confessor appears, I move the panel over and the confessor begins. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” Most of the year, I recognize the “anonymous” kneeler. And most of the year their sins are, frankly, made up. Which may or may not be a sin, but it fills a need for many parishioners to confess—reconcile—each week. But, really, what kind of mischief is a 72 year old widow likely to get up to?
So I get a lot of “impure thoughts” as sins. I just leave it at that. Thoughts about chocolate cake. A widower. A widow.
Yes, that’s the norm. But it’s good. They finish, I give “Five Our Fathers and Five Hail Marys” as their penance and bless them and they feel cleansed. I enjoy the moment when I shut the panel for a regular and turn to open it for another one.
Things are, though, different at New Year’s. Maybe it’s like gym resolutions. But there’s a flow of genuine remorse, genuine regret, genuine sins. And, yes, some of them are pretty bad. Never a murder, but more than a few frauds and more than a few adulteries. Thankfully, the confessors are unfamiliar and unknown to me. Not that I can tell anyone about it. What they say is privileged. But it’s good not to be able to put a face to the crime. For all I know they’ve traveled twenty miles to go to a church where no one will recognize them. Maybe fifty.
All I can do is absolve them in the eyes of God. Perhaps it’ll be their God tomorrow. Perhaps not. Perhaps they will look ahead with a clean slate. Think twice before doing something they know they shouldn’t do. I recognize that I can only nudge people along. Good people will do what good people will do. I have to have faith, though, that those who come into the confessional and kneel and ask for my—as God’s representative—blessing are good people who generally do the right thing without regard to whether not doing the right thing is a sin. Who may stray. Who may “covet” more than they should. They are human after all.
So, no, I don’t expect a revolution of the soul. A St. Paul moment of being struck blind by the force of my powers. In the end, I am in the comfort business. Comfort of the soul. But also comfort of the spirit. The sick and dying. Yes, we all talk of that. But the smaller acts of comfort. The sinner being assured that ours is a forgiving God. That ours is a God who will wipe the slate clean. But that it is for us to decide what we do with it.
I know that as with going to the gym the resolution of many will fade by February. Perhaps by the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. But if one, maybe ten, of those who say “and it has been three years since my last confession.” Or “five.” “Ten.” If I can nudge a bunch of them in the right direction, I have done my job. I have done my job.