Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Confession & the Evangelism of the Faithful: the Regretful Penitent

My last post spoke about the place of education in the evangelism of the faithful. I argued that in the pastoral life of the Church education is not merely intellectual, but at the service of helping people see the outlines of the Gospel in their own hearts. This in turn can lead to a moment of crisis that typically leads in turn to in one of three ways: regret (a global sorrow for one's life), anger (a spiritual blindness or some other negative emotion often directed at the spiritual father, and ultimately God), and indifference (in which the person ignores or minimizes what is heard). I also said that these three responses are, or at least can be, grist for the mill in Holy Confession. In this and the following two posts, I want to look briefly at how I handle each response as a confessor.

Again, just remind people, my response will not involve what people have told me in confession. And again as I said last time, I do not think that the information I will offer is only for priests. People are often better able to approach confession with a open heart, more trust and less anxiety if they have some sense of what is, and is not, expected of them. Especially when people first come to me for confession I will tell them what is going to happen and the "ground rules." Chief among these ground rules is that they are free not to answer any question I ask them and not act on any advice I might may offer. I respect the freedom of the penitent to reveal as much, or a little, of his or her struggle as they wish. But I address the character of the confessor in a later post.

Now, to regret…

The regretful penitent comes to confession lamenting his or her past. Note that what I said here was "past" and not simply "sins." Merely looking back on one's life with sorrow is not the same as repentance though it is certainly may be a part of repentance. But a global regret for one's past is (I think) fundamentally unhealthy.

In both the East and the West the final morning service is the Office of Lauds—of the praise of God. The Church's liturgical tradition embodies what is I think a rather wise point of spiritual psychology. Repentance, as distinct from simple regret, bears fruit in the praise of God. The ability and willingness to praise and thank God sincerely is one of the key signs that the penitent has repented from his or her sins.

The fruit of repentance is gratitude, joy, and a lively awareness of God grace and mercy even in the darkest moments of one's life.

Likewise, the absence of gratitude toward God and an unwillingness, or even hostility, to considering the hidden mercy of God in the midst of one's sinfulness is a sign that the penitent has come to confession not with repentance for healing but mere regret.

My understanding and subsequent response to the regretful individual—and make no mistake, regret is always part of living as an individual, living not in communion with God and neighbor but within a world of one's own making—is guided by something I read by St John of Kronstadt.

The saint reminds the priest, that when hearing confessions he is not a judge but a witness to God's mercy. This means that both in word and deed, the priest most first remind the person, as St John writes in his own preparation for confession, of "the abundance of the Mercy of God." The harshness, the lack of gratitude (and the fear that typically accompanies it) reflects a more fundamental lack of an awareness of God's mercy. It is this lack that the confessor is called to respond to by his own gentleness.

But why is this gentle witness necessary?

For better or worse, people draw their view of God from their experience of the priest. For person whose self-image is framed by regret, the priest, by his kindness and acknowledgement of the goodness of the person, offers to the penitent the possibility of a new way of understand not only God, but also self and others. The confessor is called to model in confession what it means to love God and neighbor with one's whole heart and mind.

Even when correction is necessary it is important that it be given gently and with a clear and sincere indication on the part of the confessor that what is offered is offered not to shame the person but to comfort and heal. It is important as well that the priest makes clear that the penitent is free to act or not on the advice. Advice, like an epitimia (penance), is best offered rather than imposed.

But the witness to mercy must be more.

Any witness in the Church is necessarily prophetic. It is here where I think that confession becomes most challenge for confessor and penitent. As a witness of mercy the confessor is called by God is called to discern the presence of divine mercy in the life of the penitent. Building on what I said a moment ago, this means going beyond merely reminding the person that God is merciful. Bearing witness to God's mercy builds on, but necessarily transcends, the confessor being kind and gentle.

With the regretful penitent, I listen carefully to the life story that is told in confession. What I am listening for are those moments in the person's life where they may have overlooked the mercy of God for them. (As an aside, and without prejudice to "divine grace, which always heals that which is infirm and completes that which is lacking," I think my own training in the theory and practice of psychoanalysis has been a great help. After all, what is the unconscious but all that which is in our experience and yet, paradoxically, unknown to us?)

Bearing witness to the hidden presence of God and His mercy in the life of the penitent not only helps the person move from regret to repentance, it is also I think (to return to our more general topic) essential for the evangelism of the faithful. While education, or rather the lack of education, is a problem in the pastoral life of the Church, as I argued yesterday this is much more than simply an absence of information about God. The regretful penitent makes it clear to me that I (and all of us) suffer from is the lack of awareness of the mercy of God for me (God pro me, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer has it) in the concrete circumstance of my life.

In and through confession the discerning confessor, leaning as he does on the grace of ordination and his own personal talents and gifts, is called to give voice to the presence of mercy. Failure to do so in any confession, but especially in the case of the merely regretful penitent, leaves the penitent just outside the gates to the Kingdom of God.

It also robs the confessor of what I have found to be one of the great joys of priestly ministry—the transformation of mere regret into repentance (metanoia or a Godly sorrow) in which regret becomes thanksgiving for the gift of life and this not only in the penitent's heart but also my own.

For now, and as always, your comments, questions and criticism are not only welcome, but actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Many Years!

"It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, at this defining moment, change has come to America," President-elect Barack Obama told 125,000 ecstatic supporters gathered in last night in Chicago's Grant Park to celebrate his victory as President of the United States.

May the Lord our God grant to His servant, President-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle and their children Malia Ann and Sasha many years!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory
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John Baden, “Republican Disenchantment and Decline”

Only a few years ago there was substantial talk of a permanent Republican majority. Through the workings of demographic, economic, cultural, and religious forces, the GOP was to become the powerful, controlling institution in Washington, DC and most states. While a few redistributive, "progressive", secular, archipelagoes would persist in the Northeast and West Coast, America would become ever more Republican. Among Republican strategists, hubris was the norm.

Now there is talk of the party's demise. What happened? Three related patterns explain much of their problem.

First, our economy slumped while the top one percent gained mighty returns.

Many flaunted their wealth, advertising disparities through private planes, massive houses in gated communities, and other bangles of financial success.

The GOP is portrayed as a handmaiden of this small but powerful class.

Further, power seduced and despoiled many high profile Republican leaders.

Considering only domestic policy (management of foreign affairs may be similarly flawed but is outside my purview), human follies and foibles trumped morality, propriety, and principle.

Consider these people; Sen. Ted Stevens, Rep. Duke Cunningham, lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Sen. Larry Craig, Rep. Mark Foley, prominent Republicans all. They and a host of fellow travelers and hangers on went down the road to ruin and along the way besmirched their party¹s label. All used their political positions and access to advance personal interests at public expense, always violating purported GOP standards.

Here¹s a true, empirical, universal, generalization that helps explain public reaction to this litany of failures and felonies: No one of substance and character respects hypocrites and liars. And those named above were exactly that, cowardly hypocrites who lied about and tried to hide transgressions.

All exploited their positions for personal, often petty, reasons. They violated supposed GOP ideals, modest and honest government at home, personal morality, and the market rather politics to coordinate and allocate resources. They ignored, neglected, or discounted these principles in exchange for financial gain or sexual favor. The entire Party was tainted by their hypocrisy.

Finally, the GOP jettisoned intellectual and ethical ballast. The Party lost opinion and community leaders when their candidates celebrated anti-intellectual predispositions. They ignored, dismissed, or discounted conservative and classical liberal (today's libertarians) critics of Republican policies and candidates. Party operatives failed to understand that honorable individuals are allies only when the Party honors and adheres to its announced principles.

Here¹s what they lost.

Beginning in the 1970s conservative and classical liberals of means engaged the public policy debate. They believed they had logic and data on their side and set out to fund the development of an intellectual movement. In addition to major investments at universities, they created think tanks such as American Enterprise, CATO, Heritage Foundation, Heartland, Hoover Institution, Manhattan Institute, NCPA, Reason Foundation, and many smaller, more specialized organizations.

Leaders in these organizations were emphatically not GOP groupies. Many are scholars from the best schools, including Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale. All held and espoused principled positions consistent with America¹s founding ideals. Their work provides excellent feedstock for America¹s opinion leaders including writers for the Economist, Wall Street Journal, and yes, even The New York Times.

For over thirty years this movement offered constructive alternatives to the policies of the politically correct but often ineffective, redistributive left.

The high water mark of this movement was 1984 when Reagan won all but one state. Since Reagan, the Republican Party has become more concerned with power and privilege than principle. They repelled educated people as GOP tacticians mobilized voters via cultural and class warfare. Losing opinion leaders such as David Brooks, Peggy Noonan and George Will is serious testimony to the failure of this approach.

For example Brooks observed: "...Republicans have alienated whole professions. Lawyers now donate to the Democratic Party over the Republican Party at 4-to-1 rates. With doctors, it¹s 2-to-1. With tech executives, it¹s 5-to-1. With investment bankers, it¹s 2-to-1. It took talent for Republicans to lose the banking community."

Explaining the downfall of the USSR, Dan Chirot wrote that when a party loses moral legitimacy and economic promises are broken, support collapses. That's what happened yesterday.

John Baden is Chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment (FREE), based in Bozeman, MT.

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