The sacrament of confession has seen profound changes through the centuries. It began with sinners confessing grave sins in front of the bishop and the assembled congregation and then often receiving a life-time of penance. During the Middle Ages, confession metamorphosed into spiritual direction, face-to-face with the priest, who “stood in” for the Church. The sacrament appears to be changing again in our time, as fewer and fewer Catholics avail themselves of it.
I recently assisted at a number of Advent penance services, which are themselves attempts to repackage the sacrament. Designed to serve those who would probably go to confession anyway, they are an advance. The faithful remnant gather together in Church, helping excessive self-focus yield to a deeper communal sense of sin and responsibility. There’s also a clear and central proclamation of Sacred Scripture, accompanied by a homily, which is how the Second Vatican Council wanted all sacraments to be celebrated.
Confession is good for the soul. Intellectual elites may think Grandma foolish for continuing to toddle off to a priest. Perhaps she wonders why they pay a therapist so much for what she receives for free. And, as any minister, Catholic or Protestant, can attest, there will always be people who need confession, who seek it out in times of crisis, regardless of its form and or its scheduling. But someone who needs spiritual succor should probably avoid our new, communal services. They’re designed to move people through — as though crowds were the problem. Increasingly, they’re done with priests and penitents standing in various corners of the Church, music playing in the background. This is express lane service. Standing is meant to keep grandma from “going-on.”
But more times than I care to count, I heard a mother break away from her sins to blurt out something like this, standing in a church full of people, whispering into my ear, fighting back tears.
“Father, what can I do about my Son? He doesn’t go to church.”
“Father, tell me what to say to my daughter. She won’t baptize our grand baby. She says it doesn’t mean anything to her. Father, you know it means something. What am I to do? I’ve told her how I feel, but I don’t want to drive her away.”
“Father, I’ve prayed and prayed. I don’t understand why he becomes so angry when I ask if he goes to church.”
What a way to come to Christmas, hearing, again and again, the sound of breaking maternal hearts! How desperate for some consolation must these women be? And of course the holy days — which is what they are before we turn them into holidays — only exacerbate the pain. Perhaps that’s how the Church, in her wisdom, knew to put this Feast of Mary the Mother of God so close to Christmas.
At first glance, the solace only seems to abrade. What does a contemporary parent share with a woman who bore the perfect child?
They share the parting. To be a parent is to bestow life and then to allow that life — every day of life, in ways large and small — to distance itself, to leave, to go its own way. Parents share in the miracle of creation, and to create is to bring forth that which is not the self. It is new, unique, utterly distinct. It comes forth from the creator, from the one who gave it life, only to go its own way. Here’s a verse, from a favorite hymn that so beautifully says the same. “Sing of Jesus, Son of Mary, in the home at Nazareth. Toil and labor cannot weary, love enduring unto death. Constant was the love he gave her, though he went forth from her side. Forth to preach and heal and suffer till on Calvary he died.”
We need not believe that Mary’s sinlessness granted her an all-embracing comprehension of her Son’s mission. He himself sometimes confessed ignorance of the Father’s ways. However the Church has subsequently comprehended the deep intimacy the Mother and Child shared, St. Mark, our first gospel, records the family of Jesus wondering if he is in his right mind (Mk 3:21). There was much she couldn’t possibly comprehend, much that she had to ponder in her heart (Lk 2: 19). Yes, it’s true, as any wounded Christian Mother would want to protest, that if Jesus was misunderstood he was nonetheless profoundly right. He never sinned. What consolation is that when one sees a beloved child err?
Only this: children are not recreations of ourselves. They must find their own way. For the rest of humanity, that search will include mistakes, sins, partial and sometimes prolonged rejection of what should not be rejected. For religion to be real it must eventually become something we choose for ourselves.
Finally, there is the darkness of faith, which we share with Mary. Faith, as St. John of the Cross insisted, is a form of dark knowing. The greater the darkness, the more pronounced the faith. In the end Mary had to remember, what every parent must recollect and reckon: this child comes through me, but its origins lie far beyond me, in the God who created us both. I must trust that the ways of God cannot ultimately fail, though they may appear to be frustrated.
It’s God’s will that we should find him in Jesus Christ and in his Church, his living body, but, as the Eastern Churches often remind us, the Father has two hands at work in the world, the Son and the Spirit. We can track, somewhat, the advance of the Son, but the Spirit is secretive and subtle, yet none-the-less strong.
Part of what it means to be an adult is to realize, rather daily, how wrong you have been, and are, about so many things. Parents need to trust that, though it takes time, children do become adults; eventually they see the Church, and so many other aspects of their childhood lives, with new, more acute eyes.
In the meantime, a mother waits; a mother prays; a mother trusts in the goodness of God and in the goodness of the child God gave her. Mary did the same. Plenty good consolation in that.
Terrance W. Klein