Amen: Reconciling with reconciliation

By Erik Zygmont

ezygmont@CatholicReview.org

Twitter: @ReviewErik

Catholic children across the U.S. will soon sit down with a man they know about as well as their art teacher and inform him of their public and private misdeeds.

On its face, the sacrament of reconciliation seems a bizarre custom, and it’s a practice that some Catholics have trouble embracing. I speak from experience – after my own first confession as a child, it was almost a decade before I went back, thanks to an oddly-manifesting instance of peer pressure.

Following a Mass in the auditorium of my Catholic high school, we were informed that the sacrament was available to those who desired it. Of course, 99 percent of us high school sophomores were in a state of grace, so 99 percent of us shouldered our book bags and slouched toward the exits.

An acquaintance of mine, a guy who asked thoughtful questions on some days and spent others in the dean of students’ office, decided for some reason to try and cajole those around him, including myself, to stay behind with him to receive the sacrament.

What to confess?

Somebody hit the play button, treating my brain to a highlight reel of my trespasses. I did my best to ignore the prompt, clamping my lips tight before the bitter medicine.

With a primitive understanding that what I was doing was not right, but not fully knowing that I was effectively invalidating the sacrament, I selected – manufactured, really – something innocuous and “confessed” that.

It would be another two decades before I went back. Peer pressure again. Thanks to my job, I found myself crammed with a couple hundred other guys in a hallway, which led around the corner and into a gymnasium, where a few dozen priests were waiting.

Because we were close together and couldn’t see anything but a river of heads going around the bend, it was quite serene, like a slaughterhouse designed by Temple Grandin.

This time I told the priest everything I had done, to the best of my recollection and ability to condense it all into a brief conversation. I figured he would grant me absolution and send me on my way, but he shared some insights and advice before doing so.

Probably in his mid-to-late 80s, he wasn’t exactly the person you would stop in the street to say, “My, how pastoral you look,” and his insights were fairly standard, but they were delivered with good humor and un-cloying compassion.

Occasionally, people report a feeling of lightness – the unmistakeable lifting of a burden – upon receiving absolution. I felt this in an intellectual sense, though I heard no faint choirs, and spied no mysterious rays of light following me home.

Since that day, I’ve been back often, because I screw up often. Even as I deliver a cruel punchline at the expense of a dead politician, my inner Homer Simpson says, “D’oh!” and I’m soon back in the booth.

The sacrament gives me access to God’s mercy while the sometimes less-than-optimal logistics of procuring it is motivation to stay on the straight and narrow.

So to the youngsters receiving their first sacrament of reconciliation, I would say: Treasure it. You never know when you will realize that you need it, but it will be there when you do.

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The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.