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Getting confession right in Rome

Priests restore communion by absolving sin. Absolution repairs our broken friendship with God. I wonder if the young priest who heard my confession had been taught to despise the power.

(Image of Rome: Carlos Ibáñez/Unsplash.com)

July 4 is a working day in Rome. I’ve spent all but two of the last twenty here — or in Europe at any rate — and this year planned to cook meat with fire on the on the porch, but was pretty far behind when it came to executing the plan. So, when I left the house at about a quarter to eight in the morning on Thursday, the 4th of July, I was looking to get into the store and out of it quick as quick can, to lug the 8 to 10 pounds of assorted meats back home before the really punishing heat got to the victuals, or to me.

Long story short: the run in took less time than I’d expected. When I passed an open church where I knew there were usually confessors available, I went in. I hadn’t been to confession in several weeks, and figured there’s no time like the present.

I found one priest, who looked barely old enough to be a second-year seminarian (he sported the rudiments of a beard) and was vested for Mass. “Are there confessors?” I asked. “I’m here,” he replied. “Give me 40 minutes, and I’ll hear your confession.” Now, the fellow’s evident youth and his estimation of 40 minutes for an 8:00 am daily Mass should have set off alarm bells, but I looked at my watch and calculated that I could get into and out of the store and back to the church comfortably in a half an hour, so I said I’d meet him.

I did, and the short, slightly built young priest with the rudiments of a beard and a good body evidently unexercised expressed what seemed for all the world to be genuine amazement that I had carried four whole bags of groceries the hundred-fifty yards or so from the supermarket to the church. He asked me where we ought to go, and I suggested the sacristy. It was right there, and — not to put too fine a point on it — he’d already seen my face. I prefer to have a grille, mostly because I am jealous of my rights and solicitous of confessors’ — priests and penitents both have a right to anonymity in confession — but I’m not a stickler, so, into the sacristy we went.

He asked me how he should know me. I told him it didn’t matter. He said he’d asked so he could pray over me by name, and proceeded to offer an unfamiliar invocation. Then, he read a few lines from the Readings of the Day — from the Gospel, if memory serves, which told of Jesus’ healing of the paralytic — and proceeded finally to ask me my sins. I told him how long it had been since my last confession, and listed my sins in number and kind. My part took about half a minute.

My confessor asked me whether I belong to any parish groups or one of the “ecclesial movements”. I told him I don’t. He encouraged me to join one — he didn’t seem to care which — because everyone needs to be more involved in the life of the Church and it was advice he’d give to everyone in any case. He said a few other things, too, but I’d stopped listening.

Now, I’ve been doing this for a good long time. I’ve met all kinds on the other side of the grille, as it were, but this was new to me. I have, in twenty years of more or less weekly frequentation of the Sacrament, responded to counsel or exhortation with something other than, “Yes, Father,” exactly three times. This time would be the third.

“How long have you been in Orders?” I asked him, going on to specify that I meant priestly ordination. “I was ordained June 7,” he said, evidently very pleased, and rightly so, I’m sure. “OK,” I replied, “so, you’ve confessed maybe a dozen people.”

“Two things,” I continued. “First, don’t ever lose your enthusiasm: tend that fire. It’s a beautiful thing. Second: learn the difference between a penitent who is in the middle of a major life crisis and needs spiritual counsel, and one who just needs some absolution so he can get on with his life.”

I went on to tell him enough about myself to make it clear that the advice he had given was out of place, and then suggested that, as a matter of prudence, he reconsider his plan to deploy such a “one size fits all” recommendation generally. He listened patiently, then replied, “I’ll give you absolution now, but the reason I offered those considerations was because I don’t want just to give absolution, but to restore communion.”

That baffled me.

The whole point of absolution is to restore communion. This used to be made clear in the old formula, which included explicit mention of the removal of any excommunications or suspensions under which the penitent may have been laboring, which were in the power of the confessor to lift. It is still true of the new rite, if it is less clear.

Priests restore communion by absolving sin. Absolution repairs our broken friendship with God.

People go into the box hell-bound, and come out heaven-bent. Next to confecting the Eucharist, there is no more awesome power on Earth or in Heaven. I wonder whether that young priest had been taught to despise the power, and to prefer pseudo-spiritual fluff. I’m probably oversensitive to this sort of thing — it’s an occupational hazard after nearly a quarter century in and around the corner penthouse of Clericalism Central — but I can’t shake the feeling that I may have met an exemplar of a hyper-clericalist type: that love the state and despise the powers the state exists to govern.

The 4th of July barbecue was brilliant, by the way, though not an unqualified success: I grilled a 4-pound pork loin, chicken legs bathed in a soy-ginger-mustard concoction, and sausages from Nursia (St. Benedict’s town). I had to douse the fire, which I’d built too high, and scalded my right hand when I carelessly poured too long. That, too, was a rookie mistake, but I have no excuse. I’ve been cooking over open flame for thirty-five years.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 106 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, writer, and editor based in Rome, Italy. He spent more than a dozen years on the news desk at Vatican Radio. He holds the PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and is the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.

9 Comments

  1. Mr. Altieri: Having read many of your columns over the years, this one on confession in Rome deeply bothers me. Your hubris based on age, superior knowledge and experience, while many will laugh off as quasi-sarcasm, I find painful. The young priest is correct in encouraging any sort of small group Christian fellowship as a means of deeper growth and reflection in the Lord. A mere rattling off of a list of sins and the number of times is just that: a list–not a pondering for amendment and turning more to our blessed Lord. While confession does wash off the laundry list of sin, is that the true goal of the sacrament? Be a Mary and sit at our Lord’s feet, hear Him, listen carefully and follow. May the next dash then to a confessor be one of humility with sins thought through and a willingness to listen to even a young priest.
    –from a 74 year old.

  2. I am about a year away from hearing my first Confession. I pray that I am not met with the same level of pride on the part of a penitent. The utter lack of humility in the reception of this sacrament in this case is almost unbelieveable! After crushing this young priest and receiving absolution, do you really think communion was restored? How about your communion with this priest? Burning your hand was not the only mistake you made that day!

  3. I am deeply disappointed by this article of Chris Altieri, whom I consider a friend and a fine Catholic. This comes across as bordering on looking for trouble where none exists, as well as unnecessarily anti-clerical. The priest in question accommodated Chris (outside the regularly scheduled times for confession) and ended up getting psychoanalyzed by his penitent. “No good deed goes unpunished.”
    And we wonder why priestly morale is so low!

  4. I have no additional comments, besides the ones posted above, with which I wholeheartedly agree. I just hope that the author will take advantage of them, meditate and pray, and then soon go back to confession again, hopefully to the same place and to the same priest.
    God bless.

  5. Okay I’ll jump in [now that the culprit is hopefully subdued, unable to recover from the avalanche of outrage I can unleash my own self-righteous outrage]. No mention of anyone at your rather sumptuous barbecue. If so the young priest made his point. If not and you invited the forlorn, dispossessed, castaways [aside from well healed friends] you’ve won the day with Our Lord. Then there’s always next time.

    • I apologize to Christopher Altieri from my insensitive remarks, not taking into account that he has a wife and children. Whatever the young priest may have said as appropriate to the occasion it’s not always easy to be patient. That I well know.

  6. With respect, I usually enjoy reading Mr. Altieri’s articles. I respect also his desire to be “in and out” of the Confessional within a reasonable timeframe. No one enjoys being harangued. However, I believe this demonstrated a true lack of charity toward the young Priest, who may have been overzealous in his counsel, but I don’t doubt the goodness of his intentions. It seems he really wanted to be of help. Cut him a break. Was this article really even necessary?

    • “However, I believe this demonstrated a true lack of charity toward the young Priest, who may have been overzealous in his counsel,”
      .
      I went to Confession about a year ago; maybe it was two. After listing my offenses, the priest said I didn’t sound contrite. I was quite taken aback, but he was essentially correct. I realized I really wasn’t that sorry.
      .
      What could have been a fruitful encounter though, turned a bit over ripe when the priest cheerfully anounced that God was very generous, and I was duly absolved on my sins.
      .
      That young priest’s spiritual BBQ looks pretty good to me.

  7. I am working on a Doctorate in Ministry. I was looking for information about confession contributing to a lower suicide rate. I was delighted to read about the importance and effect of confession. I was also saddened that those who commented about the author’s wrong attitudes seemed to be displaying the same attitudes that they were accusing him of… I love the Lord and reading in 1 John 1 this morning, I was convicted about assuming I am without sin. Thank you for this site – JC Goodair

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