Sunday, November 29, 2015

Not Just Quantity, But Quality

   First Sunday of Advent   C 

One of our deceased priests used to tell this story
as if it was about his own niece…so it just might be true…

A young girl was preparing for her First Holy Communion,
but was sick on the day when the rest of her classmates
made their first confessions. 
Several weeks later, on a Saturday afternoon,
she went in to see the priest. 
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” she said. 
“This is my first confession.” 
“Oh, young lady,” the priest smiled,
“you only say it that way the first time. 
That was three weeks ago!  Let’s try again….” 
A bit more hesitant than before, she said,
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.  This is my first confession.” 
“Now, now,” said the priest, getting a little frustrated,
“what you need to say today is,
‘My last confession was three weeks ago.’  One more time….” 
But the girl said again, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. 
This is my first confession.” 
Beginning to lose patience, the priest responded,
“OK.  How about you just repeat after me. 
‘Bless me, Father for I have sinned….’ 
‘My last confession was three weeks ago….’ 
Very good!  Now, tell me your sins.” 
“Well…I guess I just told a lie.”

Young or old, 
most of us Catholics
have a complicated relationship 
with the Sacrament of Penance. 
I am no exception. 
When I entered the seminary, 
I did so right out of Catholic school,
where confession was scheduled for you 
every Advent and Lent. 
You went when you were told.  
I never rebelled against that. 
In fact, I took it seriously, 
genuinely examined my conscience,
and appreciated the deep down “clean” feeling 
you got after receiving absolution. 
But that’s about as far as it went, 
and where things pretty much stayed. 

When I went off to major seminary,
the rector gave us a conference
on ten helpful hints for a seminarian’s spiritual life. 
Most of what he had to say came as no surprise:
daily prayer, daily Mass, devotion to the Blessed Mother…. 
It was no surprise, either, when regular confession was on his list. 
What did startle me, though, was how often he suggested we go:
about once a month. 
I seem to recall that he shared
his own habit was to go every couple of weeks. 
I had previously felt like I was doing pretty good—
maybe even better than a lot of Catholics—
with my two or three times a year! 
But over the 19 years since I heard that talk,
I’ve taken the rector’s advice to heart
and increased the frequency with which I approach
the Sacrament of Penance. 
For most of my priesthood, I’ve gone every two or three weeks. 
Case closed.  Or so I thought…

While on my annual retreat just a couple of weeks ago,
I made an appointment to confess to one of the monks. 
And as I prepared for the sacrament during the week,
I was struck by something like never before:
the quantity—the how often—of my confessions
might be in a pretty good place,
but what about their quality? 

The best way to explain is by giving of example. 
Have you ever been pulled over for speeding? 
You know the feeling:
that feeling of getting caught; that feeling of being in trouble. 
And hot on the heels of that anxious feeling is the thought,
“How can get myself out of this mess?” 
My reflection on retreat made me begin to realize
that that’s how I often approached confession:
as a way of getting out of trouble
with the Great State Trooper in the Sky. 
It wouldn’t be such a bad way to think of it
if I were still in the second grade preparing for First Communion…
but it’s not exactly the most mature approach
for me to take as an adult and a priest. 

What’s been becoming clearer to me
is that my approach to confession
needs to be less about obeying regulations—
or even working the system—
and more about healing and building a real and personal relationship.  
Think about the person who knows you best and loves you most:
your spouse, your mother, your son, your dearest friend. 
Think about what it’s like when you’ve hurt or disappointed them. 
Sure, it’s hard to stand before them and apologize—
hard, but absolutely essential if the relationship’s going to endure. 
Yet, once you’ve said, “I’m sorry,”
and once you hear, “Of course I forgive you, because I love you,”
isn’t the bond between you generally a bit stronger than before? 

Wouldn’t you say that’s a much better quality of confession?

As you can see in your bulletin, one week from Monday
just as we did during Lent. 
On that day, the children of our parish
preparing for their First Holy Communion
will receive the Sacrament of Penance for the first time. 
It’s a great way to kick off the coming Jubilee Year of Mercy
declared by Pope Francis. 
It’s also the perfect way to enter into Advent.

Advent, we all know well, is a season to prepare for Christmas,
which comes predictably each December
as we recall the Lord’s first coming in humility—
a babe lying in a manger.  
But Advent is also a season of preparation for Christ’s return—
his second coming, in glory and power on the clouds;
of that, we know not the day nor the hour. 
As an English poet once wisely asked,
“What do I profit if Jesus is born in thousands of cribs all over the world
but is not born in my heart?”  (Alexander Pope). 
At the start of her new year,
the Church focuses our attention on the “last things.” 
Even here at the beginning,
we must always be looking ahead to the end—to the very end:
the end of time, or at least the end of our time. 
We mustn’t fail to live fully in this present moment,
but we do so with a view to where our present is ultimately taking us.
Of course, that’s precisely what confession does for us, too.

Just days before his own death,
we hear Jesus tell us that a day is coming
when sun, moon, and stars will be shaken,
but we should not be. 
Nations will be in dismay, the seas will be churning,
and people will die of fright,
but we should stand up straight and raise our heads. 
The coming of the end—whether of my life or of the whole world—
is indeed a time to be feared
if my concern is simply whether I can get out of trouble. 
But that’s not the case at all if I’ve been working steadily
on a relationship with the Lord Jesus;
instead, I can anticipate that moment with great hope,
for it will mean my redemption is near at hand.

I read a book on prayer during my retreat
in which the author quotes St. Ignatius of Loyola
who once suggested that, before beginning to pray,
one should stand for the length of time it takes to say an Our Father,
considering how God is looking down on him right then. 
It’s actually quite a transformative thing to do—you should try it! 
It affects not only that moment of prayer,
but what you say and do throughout the day,
how you come to Mass or go to confession,
if you can stay conscious that the Lord is looking down on you—
not broadly watching the world to catch wrongdoers,
but personally gazing upon you with the most perfect love.

“Pray,” Jesus tells us, “that you have the strength…
to stand before the Son of Man.” 
At the end, everyone must stand
before the Judge of the living and the dead. 
But we stand before him even now. 
So stand before the Lord this Advent,
stand before him in confession,
and let the Lord look upon you with great love.

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