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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