Wednesday, 12 April 2017

What Not To Say in Confession: An Open Letter to Priests

Dear Father,

Thank you! Thank you for saying yes to Jesus, and to His call. We live in a world hungry for grace, and we receive that in the sacraments, that YOU give us.

We know that there are many Catholics who don't make it to Confession very often. Confession is one of those things that people either think is super cool, or super weird. For many of us, we understand that Jesus is giving us the great gift of speaking our sins out loud, physically and spiritually dumping them into His hands, and then receiving the free gift of forgiveness- through YOU. How cool is it that as you say the words "I absolve you of your sins...", it is really Jesus speaking through you.

I have been blessed by the grace of Confession many, many times in my life. I have often been in a pit, feeling low, lost, negative and dispirited, but after going to Confession... SOMETHING changes. There is a lightness, a new hope. Grace touches my soul. And I begin again.

However, as someone who has been to many, many Confessions over the 31 years of my existence, I've noticed some trends that I thought I would point out. I've heard the Church call for dialogue, and priests and bishops who want to hear back from the laity. So this is me responding.

So, Father, can I ask you, please, not to say or do these things?

1. "Don't be so hard on yourself." Actually I'm not being hard on myself, I just have a pretty good awareness of how I'm messing up. I'm honest. Don't mistake that for scrupulosity. Or even humility. Believe me when I say I've sinned. That's why I'm at Confession. I actually said that to a priest once. "No Father I'm not being too hard on myself. I don't even try very hard to do things differently." "Oh," he said and thought for a moment. "Well then, try harder." "Thank you!" I said, relieved. Thank you for believing me, and saying what I needed to hear.

2. "That's not really a sin." Well, the Church says it is. Or if God has asked me to do something, and I've refused him (whether it's praying for an hour every day or going for daily Mass), then that's a sin. Don't minimize or dismiss my sins because they are not the same as other people's sins. I've started preparing a little speech about why my sins are really sins because this happens so often. "Yes I knew what God was asking of me, and I chose to do something else. I had an option, it was not impossible, but I ignored the grace that Jesus offered."

3. "If you really loved Jesus, you wouldn't sin." Well, Father, I guess I don't love Jesus enough, but I'm trying. And I want to. Please don't make me feel bad about the fact that my love is imperfect and weak. Or that my sin means I don't have a relationship with Jesus, or have never had a real encounter with Him. I once quoted Saint Paul to a priest who said this- "For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing." (Romans 7: 18-19)

4. "Don't focus on your sins. Focus on God's love." The REASON I'm at Confession right now is BECAUSE of my sins. Yes, it is unhealthy to be constantly focussing on my own sins. However, I NEED to acknowledge the weight and ugliness of my sins in order to fully receive the mercy of God. And Confession is exactly the place to do it. I need to say them out loud, and I need to say how many times. It is so much easier just to gloss over them, or be vague about them, or rush through them. But that may not be what I need. If I don't accept how bad the bad news is, I'll never believe how good the good news is.

5. "Didn't you come for Confession just two days ago?" Yes, Father, and I messed up after that, which is why I'm back here. Similarly, "You take us priests for granted by coming so often for Confession." Jesus said seventy times seven, so I'm taking Him at His word. You get to be Jesus. That's what "in persona Christi" means. Pope Francis said "God never tires of forgiving us, it is we who get tired of asking for forgiveness." Father, we need to know that it's okay for us to come back EVERY time we fall. If we were not trying to change, we wouldn't be coming back to Confession.

6. "You're coming to Confession after 30 years?? How dare you?" Father, the correct response when someone comes back to Confession after years of being away is "Praise God!" If the angels are rejoicing in heaven, perhaps we humans can allow ourselves to as well. Pope Francis said, "I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best."

7. "We don't hear Confessions at this time/place." You are holding in your priestly hands a valuable treasure- the gift of forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation. How can you refuse to give that to those who need it? Of course, there are some times when it's just not possible. But if it IS, thank God, and make yourself available. I once made my Confession in a car at an airport parking area just before an international flight. A friend in the States who was about to get on a flight, realized she needed to go to Confession, and just happened to see a priest at a pharmacy. She approached him, and he agreed to hear her Confession. Who knows what courage it took the penitent to finally approach you? How could you risk turning this soul away from God? There is NOTHING more important, except perhaps Mass. No administration work, meeting, or meal can be more important. (IMHO :-D)

Instead, could you do/say these things?

1. Welcome the penitent with eye contact and a smile. Sinners are returning to God! Rejoice! Make them feel welcome, and at home with you. How would Jesus receive a penitent sinner? Perhaps not impersonally or in a clinical manner.

2. Tell them "Thank you for that beautiful confession." Let them truly feel like they encountered mercy.

3. Tell your parishioners "I'm available whenever you need me for Confession. Just text or call me, and we can set it up." What a beautiful gift! I know priests who do that. What a gift and witness they are!

4. Have a regular weekly time when Confession is available at the parish, and make announcements again and again so people know. Come early to daily Mass, and tell parishioners you are available for Confession. Make it easily accessible.

4. Don't rush them. Let them say everything they need to say. Ask "Anything else?" and wait. One of my friends experienced a profound conversion because a priest asked her, "Is there ANYTHING else you need to confess or talk about?" and she shared a heavy load with him... which she would never have done if he hadn't asked.

5. Um, and also allow them to say the Act of Contrition aloud. Most priests I know don't, and I'm pretty sure we're supposed to.

Also, did I say thank you? Many, many souls have experienced their deepest moments of grace and conversion in this beautiful sacrament. "With great power comes great responsibility."

I'm praying for you!


Monday, 10 April 2017

Rad-Trads, Liberals, and Finding Balance in the Catholic Church

I once wrote a tongue-in-cheek blog post about Catholic Camps, people who identify themselves as liberals or traditionalists. My views haven't changed, but once again I've been thinking more about this topic. It seems like most Catholics fall into one or other extreme, and lose track of the holy balance God is calling us to. Why does it worry me? Because both sides can lead others astray, and both have loud voices and influence on the faith of simple uncatechized Catholics, and people joining the Church, who don't know what to think. And it seems like leaders of both extremes are leading their flocks astray.

Why I'm Concerned About RadTrads/Catholic Fundamentalists*:

Many traditionalists seem to live a life of fear and suspicion. They see the devil hiding behind everything that isn't explicitly Catholic. It seems like nothing is morally neutral to them. If it isn't explicitly for God, it is for the devil. If the Church has left something to the prudential judgment of the faithful, leaders in this movement will come up with a more black and white ruling.

Life seems to be one big death trap. They are very concerned about the truth, but often at the expense of love. Some live in the past, seeing danger in modernity. Many see the salvation of the world as inextricably tied up with beautiful liturgy, as if Jesus came to this world solely to give us a beautiful Mass. So often it seems like they are legalistic, concerned more with winning an argument than winning a soul. One of the worst trends I've seen is of Francis-bashers- so called faithful Catholics who literally consider themselves more Catholic than the Pope. There are entire websites and blogs devoted to bashing Pope Francis. Often people with this extreme worldview spend a lot of time writing and blogging and nitpicking about everything. They often see apologetics as their mission, their sole way of evangelizing. Also, they seem to be very contemptuous of liberal/progressive Christians. I've seen a LOT of name-calling, and uncharitable behaviour.

Radtrads are very suspicious of anything that sounds or looks Protestant, as if there is nothing good that can come from a non-Catholic Christian church. (We can't sing that hymn in church, a Protestant wrote it! Praise and worship? No thank you, Adoration seems more Catholic. Accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour? That sounds too Protestant to me.)

Strangely enough, overlapping with the radtrads are the Catholic fundamentalists, very influenced by their Protestant counterparts. Many of them are stridently pro-Trump. Like Christian fundamentalists, they are overly focussed on outward appearances, very specific rules about modesty are often found here. They send a lot of Whatsapp forwards quoting exorcists about the devil's latest way to get you (Halloween and Harry Potter), don't believe anything that the mainstream media reports, and believe everything that the conservative media or conservative commentators on FB do (even WHEN IT'S ALL IN CAPS). They also love conspiracy theories.

You often know radtrads more for what they disapprove of than what they love, and they can be hard to identify with or talk to.

Why I'm Concerned About Liberal or 'Progressive' Catholics*:

Liberals swing far far to the other extreme of radtrads. Practically everything goes (except authentic Christian doctrine). In India, we have many very liberal priests, religious, theologians, and seminaries. These are the guys teaching seminarians that the Church's perspective is just one of many perspectives to be considered. And when that foundation goes, so does everything else. Many liberal Catholics seem very angry with the Church. Down with the patriarchy, they cry! God is Father and Mother! Never mind what Jesus said. Women priests! It's only a matter of time. Yoga? Great idea! Let's build retreat houses and spiritual formation based on yoga. What are you worried about?

Liberals will rarely seriously consider that Satan is not just a concept, but a person. The only evil is ignorance, they say. And down that slippery slope they fall, some seminarians studying other religions, and joining them. The fact of new age practices leading to spiritual oppression or possession is ignored or disbelieved. The spiritual aspect of the Church's mission is all but dismissed. Our mission is to build a society of justice and peace, bring the Kingdom of God through eradication of poverty, and empowerment of women. Evangelization is a dirty word. The world needs a Kingdom of love, but we don't think they need a King. Anyway, Jesus is hidden in every religion, so really what's the point in evangelizing.

Liberals are very 'liturgically innovative' as I like to phrase it. The Mass as it is is just not good enough for them. "For the Sign of Peace, let us turn to our neighbour, take their hand, trace a cross on it and say 'Jesus loves you'." "I can't just make a sign of peace, Father?" "For the Communion Rite, we will pass the Communion bowl around, and everyone just pick up your own Communion." "Aargh, Father, liturgical abuse!!" "For the first reading, we will take a passage of St. Ignatius' writings as it is his feast." "That is NOT okay, Father!" Liberals see the half-asleep state of many Catholics, and their solution is to make the Mass 'creative', 'lively', and 'interactive'.

Liberals are a little bit obsessed with the environment. A friend of mine went on a Lenten retreat a few years ago during Holy Week. I asked her what the theme was, and she said it was all about the environment. Not sin and salvation? Not repentance? Not dying with Christ, so that we can live with Him? Nope. The environment. The culminating activity was going out and planting trees.

Liberals seem to be as contemptuous of traditionalists, as traditionalists are of them. Sometimes I think of liberals and traditionalists as opposing personality types- the type who love rules and structure and black and white, and the rebels who love pushing boundaries, and struggle with authority. Interestingly enough, I've met both liberals and traditionalists who are equally skeptical of the Charismatic renewal. Then again, I've found Charismatics who have fallen into errors of both extremes.

So how do we find balance between these two extremes?

There is just one answer: Faithfulness. Be faithful to what Jesus has already given us! Read the Catechism and the documents if you're not sure. Don't add, and don't take away. Pray, study, and be humble. Jesus loves you, and has promised to keep His Church free from error (in teaching, not in the individual morality of each of Her members). If you trust Him, trust His Church. This practically means:

1. Don't condemn practices that the Church has not condemned. However, study what the Church DOES say on the topic, and share that with others.

2. Don't support or advocate or excuse practices which the Church has specifically rejected or condemned. The Church is usually very careful about what it rejects, and has a ton of reasoning for why it does so.

3. Follow ALL of the Church's teachings and disciplines- including the ones on contraception, care for the environment, avoidance of New Age practices, care for the poor, Lenten fasts, etc. Why is THAT particular teaching important? Look it up. Don't just dismiss it because you don't think it's important.

4. Listen to what the Pope is saying, even if it's not about your pet topics, or the topics you think he SHOULD be speaking about. Ask God for the heart of one willing to be taught.

5. Be charitable with those you disagree with whether online or off. Assume the best motives, even while you patiently correct, rebuke and encourage. And stop reading blogs or watching videos that are overly negative, uncharitable or reactionary.

6. Love and treasure the truths and sacraments of the Church, but don't be scared to learn from non-Catholic Christians. Ecumenism is not a bad word.

7. Please, please don't mess with the Mass! 'The priest must remember that he is the servant of the sacred Liturgy and that he himself is not permitted, on his own initiative, to add, to remove, or to change anything in the celebration of Mass.' General Instruction on the Roman Missal. Fix these words in your heart! The Mass is already awesome, we need to enter into that, not change it to make it something else.

8. On matters that are not clearly defined by the Church, pray and make a prudential decision for you and your family. And don't judge or condemn Catholics who made a different decision.

9. Be known as much as for your love as for your willingness to stand up for the truth.

In other words, if God has called you to be Catholic, BE CATHOLIC!

*This is not specifically about YOU. I've met many people who fit into these categories. If the cap fits, wear it. If it doesn't, pray for those whom it does.

Further Reading

The Two Most Revolutionary Verses in the Bible - Peter Kreeft

Excerpt: The strong point of conservatives is that they conserve. They are faithful. They keep the faith. They are anchored in the faith. Their weak point is that they tend to be pugnacious and angry and graceless and merciless and loveless.

The strong point of liberals is their soft heart, their compassion. Their weak point is their soft head, their lack of principles, faith, fidelity, and anchors. They are strong on mercy, but weak on justice and on objective and unchanging moral principles—strong on love but weak on truth.

The Trouble with Yoga- Catholic Answers

Excerpt: Should you take up yoga? As a spiritual path, yoga is incompatible with Christian spirituality. But if you can separate the spiritual/meditational aspects of yoga from the body postures and breathing techniques common to yoga, then you might be able to use those postures and techniques beneficially for health. If you’re at all unsure of your ability to do so, you may well be advised to find another form of exercise.

I Used to Be Anti-Harry Potter

Excerpt: As Catholics, we DO believe in black and white, but also that there are also a great deal of matters which are not so clear, which the Church has NOT clearly condemned or approved, and which need prudence, and wisdom, and healthy discussions in order to choose how to approach.

The tendency is either to be overly fearful (everything that is not explicitly Christian is evil!) or to be overly lax (no censorship at any cost, children have to learn to deal with anything that is out there), or even naive (how much will it really influence them?)

Nitpicky Church Rules

Excerpt: There is grace in humility and obedience. That doesn't mean blind faith or blind obedience-just doing stuff because anyone says so. But it means taking seriously the faith I profess- I am no longer my own, I belong to Jesus. Trusting God has to mean something.

When I Get Tired of Being Catholic

Excerpt: I dream of a day when I can go to Mass and hear solid, challenging, truth-filled homilies, where our pastors are visibly 'other Christs', in their humility, wisdom and love, treating parishioners as coworkers in the Kingdom, not inferiors, where the hymns radiate beauty and lift our hearts to heaven, where parishioners are DISCIPLES first, whose love for one another is visible, who welcome the outsider with open arms, whose priority is service to the poor and mission.