Years ago I remember listening to an audio recording of Fr. Ranierio Cantalamessa, an Italian Franciscan priest who for years has been the official Preacher to the Papal Household.
I imagine a parish priest might get nervous sometimes, but it would be something else to give His Holiness a regular homily; a bit like being asked to give Roger Federer tennis lessons! Luckily, Cantalamessa is very good at what he does. It is another case of the Holy Spirit blessing the Church with the right people in the right place at the right time.
It was about 15 years ago when I was an undergraduate student doing labouring jobs to buy my fiancé the best engagement ring I could afford. I was pulling out weeds on both knees so that I could eventually get down on one knee! I was listening to the great preacher on Sony’s ubiquitous technology de jour, the Walkman, which tragically only exists now as a question at trivia nights. Suddenly, I received one of those insights that stays with you for years.
Cantalamessa argued that when the Church abandons any integral aspect of its identity or practice these central constituent elements do not actually disappear but instead, for want of a better word, are ‘reincarnated’ by the wider secular culture. His point was that when vast numbers of Catholics abandoned the sacrament of confession in the 1960’s and 1970’s, this did not mean that the human need for confession and absolution then vanished with it. He suggested that the rapid growth of the self-help movement and the therapeutic culture in which we live was a response to the pan-cultural abandonment of the sacrament itself. The success of Woody Allen films could also be explained in a similar way, the endless, essentially narcissistic levels of introspection and therapy in a quest for some sort of sudden release, some seismic insight and resolution of internal struggle. Cantalamessa’s point seems to be something akin to the, ‘nature abhors a vacuum’ argument. He is pointing to an ontological truth of personhood, the need for confession, absolution and the restoration of relationship. It is impervious to both time and culture. It is not without significance that even before Christ’s salvific mission the Old Testament communities loaded up the fated ‘azazel goat’ with the sins of the community and drove it away into the wilderness for communal expiation.
My sense in recent years is that the phenomenon continues in ever-new forms. I would argue that the success of people like Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and other similar demi-gods of culture is filling some need for corporate disclosure and sanctification ritual. Well-known figures appear on Oprah’s global stage or in the pages of major magazines. They share intimate secrets and receive Oprah’s personal blessing and absolution. We then identify aspects of our own struggle with the A-List penitent and vicariously share their absolution.
Indulge me a little further and turn your mind to the endless procession of politicians and sportsmen making their confessions on the global stage. From a U.S President who sincerely tells us, “I did not have sex with that woman!” to this weeks spectacle of the deliciously named Congressman Eliot Weiner telling us that he had, in fact, despite his earlier faulty memory, been sending unsolicited pictures of his nether regions to his phone sex partners. As an aside, I can’t help thinking that one’s decision to send pictures of one’s reproductive organs to others would tend to be the kind of detail that would not be so profoundly difficult to recall.
Either way, it seems public confession is the ‘new black.’ They confess, we shake our heads and say, “Oh well, no one’s perfect – there but for the grace of God go I.” Perhaps it’s nice that they feel comfortable enough to front the cameras but do any of us seriously believe that these public confessions are anything more than last minute grabs at a chance to hold onto whatever crumbling façade of power remains?
So where does this leave us? I would argue for a wholesale reconsideration of the crucial role of the sacrament of confession. I suggest that the obstacles to this lie in places we might not have anticipated. It seems to me that many priests have, for complex reasons, become reticent, if not cynical in some unfortunate cases, about the hunger, whether acknowledged or denied in the hearts of the lay faithful, for this extraordinary sacrament that confers not only supernatural absolution, restoration of relationship with He who dwells in unapproachable light, He who is the supreme creative force of the universe but confers deep psychological healing if pursued consistently and with genuine humility.
Many in Catholic education and the wider Church have imbibed paper-thin Freudian constructs around guilt. Guilt is bad, guilt is unhealthy. Wrong! The inability to feel guilt is a hallmark of sociopaths. Guilt is a crucial and valid human response to our propensity to wound others and ourselves by the sin that Augustine so stupendously referred to as, ”Looking for the right thing in the wrong place.” Examples would include searching for intimacy in pornography and looking for love in emotional manipulation of others. Guilt is important to a genuine and authentic human life. Shame is our enemy. Shame is the belief that I am bad, rather than what I have done is bad. This is a razor thin yet crucial distinction.
I will have some important thoughts in future editions about the role of confession in Catholic schools. I believe it is not only possible that we can engage our students in this sacrament but that it is desperately needed. I see in my unique position of speaking to 30,000 Catholic secondary students per year in live seminars about sexuality and relationships that there is often so much pain, so much sorrow, so much confusion. A good priest, working in tandem with a great REC and exec team, along with committed teachers could give an extraordinary contemporary meaning to the explosive words that commenced Christ’s public ministry, “I have come to declare liberty for the captives…”