At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, overly scrupulous, or falsely modest, I feel compelled confess:
I am a sinner.
I don’t say this as a humblebrag, and I am not seeking for someone to refute me in order to build up my ego. “Don’t say that, Kevin. You’re not that bad. There are so many people worse than you. Let me sing a paean of your virtues and victories.”
As much as that might sooth my feelings or puff my pride, it will not enable me to escape the reality of who I am and what I do. I sin. I think ideas, say words, and perform actions that create offense and reinforce separation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) defines sin in paragraph 1849.
“Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as ‘an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.’”
Those closest to me can see me in every line of this definition — although they’re too generous to say so. Sadly, they recognize and experience my sin firsthand, for they are the ones I most frequently sin against.
Even more, I sin against people who I will never meet. My privileges, biases, and even eating habits are tarnished with sin. I assume that people who interact with me on social media could point out my sins in ways that I might even consider as my virtues.
Some of the most frequent and harmful sins involve selfishness, pride, and fear. Lately, I’ve been thinking of it as my SPF factor. The more entitled, arrogant, and afraid I feel, the likelier I am to do, say, or think something sinful.
My sense of my sinfulness was a significant reason why I became Catholic a few years ago. No, it was not because I knew the Church was filled with sinners. Rather than joining a group of sinners, I believed that the Catholic Church offered a way to not only be forgiven, but to continually work on repenting of my sinful deeds.
This may sound odd, but I craved the sacrament of reconciliation. From what I have gathered in conversations with people during my conversion process, people in my RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) talked about how most Catholics avoided the confessional.
I wondered why because I longed to be able to own up to my misdeeds, especially the ones that were more ethereal — my hatreds, prejudices, self-centeredness. I needed to tell someone in confidence (not an entire congregation) about what I had done and what I had failed to do.
I had tried to apologize to people I had sinned against and make amends on my own. That, of course, was not perfect. I needed someone with expertise and relational distance to direct me. I needed someone to help me dig deeper into my thoughts and words to help me discover how I had chosen to harm others, wound myself, and distance myself from God.
How do you personally apologize when you have cursed your neighbor in your heart for letting his dog bark all through the night? How do you make up with someone who you despise for lying to you and making your life unnecessarily difficult for a number of years? Who do you go to when you’re struggling with self-loathing, over-consumption, bitterness, social injustice, or hatred?
I grew up and served as a minister in a church that preached about the importance of confessing our sins to God and repenting. In fact, we had an informal process that we called “the steps of salvation.” The five initiatory steps were:
1. Hear the Gospel.
2. Believe it.
3. Repent of your sins.
4. Confess Jesus as the Son of God.
There was neither an official membership classes nor a catechism process like RCIA. Anyone could show up and any time and request baptism. If the minister felt reasonably confident that the candidate had sufficiently fulfilled the first four steps, he (and it was always a he) would baptize the person.
After baptism, the expectation was that you would sin often. It was your responsibility to ask God for forgiveness on your own. If you did that, you were probably forgiven.
There was one exception. If you committed a sin that “brought reproach upon the church,” the unwritten rule required you to confess your sin to the entire congregation.
This was nerve-racking. At the end of one of the services, the penitent approached the front of the church and whispered their sin to the church’s minister their sin. Then the minister would relay that information to the congregation. The minister would say a prayer asking for God’s forgiveness and the help of the congregation. Once you did that, your sins were forgiven.
It resembled a camp meeting and also the very early church before processes of confession became formalized.
Of course, this was a control mechanism. It utilized fear as a way of keeping people in line. No one knew exactly what constituted bringing reproach upon the church, and some overly-scrupulous people confessed often.
Rather than feeling forgiven, people frequently walked away feeling embarrassed. Everyone in the community knew what you had done, and often you would be judged accordingly.
As you might imagine, this process hindered authentic remorse, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
On my journey toward become Catholic, I knew the importance of owning my choices and dealing with the consequences. Like most people, I went to therapy to deal with significant issues in my life. My therapist helped me address my depression and anxiety, but she could not offer absolution for the wrongs I had committed. (Since I became Catholic, I continue to have a therapist. For me, the two complement each other)
The sacrament of confession is a way for an ordained presbyter or the Christian community to pray the prayer of absolution on my account.
“God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Father Mike prayed the words of absolution at my first confession. I told him that I did not love God with all of my heart, and I did not love my neighbors as myself. Without skipping a beat, he told me kindly that I wrestle with perfectionism. In one short sentence, I felt that my heart had been seen for the first time with no judgment.
We talked for a while about how this affected the people in my life. Father Mike then offered some advice, gave me a penance, and suggested I read a book — which I promptly did. He then prayed, and on the way out of the former closet-turned-confessional I hugged Father Mike. I felt forgiven, hopeful, and enabled to work at making things right in my life.
Father Mike had been ordained a priest in Rome by Pope John Paul II, and he had a deep affinity for the charismatic renewal. He once said that he had spoken in tongues, but he kept that between him and God. Father Mike was rotund with a full white beard and bad knees. He reminded me of Santa Claus. He was officially retired but presided at Mass in my parish at least once each weekend. His trademark way of saying “and the Holy Spirit” in the final blessing made everyone believe that he knew the Holy Spirit personally. At Mass, I usually sat on the center aisle, and if I caught his eye during the recessional Father Mike would give me a reassuring nod.
Father Mike died suddenly two years ago. His final homily was on St. Patrick’s Day, and the parish posted the audio of that sermon on its website until a new parish pastor arrived and decided to remove it.
My feelings about that were something I needed to take to confession.
The institutional Church has loads of sin to carry to confession: its systemic lasciviousness, abuse, lust for power, gossip, intrigue, and corruption.
Specific priests and bishops have certainly entered the confessional and exited with their penances to perform. But how does an entire institution go to reconciliation?
How does the Church confess its collective sin? What penance can the Church as a body perform? How does the collective entity apologize, rebuild trust, and work to correct the disaster it inflicted on people’s lives?
It might be impossible.
I understand that not all clerics have violated the bodies of those in their care. Not all bishops have preyed on their flocks, covered up for rapists, conspired to overthrow Pope Francis, and used diocesan finances like their own piggy banks. But too many have, and this corruption covers the entire institution with a veil of suspicion.
All clerics are not guilty, but all have a responsibility to fix what is broken. It’s not enough to say that the Church is an institution made up of sinful people, so we should not expect too much. It’s not enough to suggest that because the Church of the Avignon and Renaissance periods survived that today’s Church will continue on. And it’s downright presumptuous to suggest that today’s Church deserves to make it past the current outrages.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the first element of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is contrition (CCC 1451–1454). Someone who doesn’t feel sorry for their sins cannot be forgiven of them, and they certainly cannot correct their errors.
The second element is confession (CCC 1455–1458). The penitent must say specifically what they did. The old confessional manuals insisted on the sinner confessing how many times they performed each specific sin.
The third element of the sacrament is satisfaction (CCC 1459–1460). “Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm.”
Who can achieve any of this on behalf of the Church itself, especially when it feels like far too many ecclesiastical leaders feel no compunction for their sins? How can the Church receive forgiveness and reconciliation if its leaders on every level believe that they have done nothing or very little wrong?
The Church is undergoing an existential crisis of its own making, but many (clergy and laity) have not begun to recognize the gravity, causes, or human cost of the situation.
Heading back to the pre-Vatican II days will not solve the problems. That’s avoidance, not penance.
I have no doubt that Jesus will always have followers; however, there is nothing written in stone that today’s version of the Church will survive.
Sometimes I get a sense that Catholic clergy and laity rely on Matthew 16:18, but Christ’s promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against his church is not a guarantee that the institutional Church will continue in its present form, leadership structure, membership numbers, or societal influence.
In CCC 1439, the Catechism reflects the process of conversion and repentance in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son.
“The fascination of illusory freedom, the abandonment of the father’s house; the extreme misery in which the son finds himself after squandering his fortune; his deep humiliation at finding himself obliged to feed swine, and still worse, at wanting to feed on the husks the pigs ate; his reflection on all he has lost; his repentance and decision to declare himself guilty before his father; the journey back; the father’s generous welcome; the father’s joy — all these are characteristic of the process of conversion.”
I am sadly unconvinced that the institutional Church (including clergy and laity) has come to a decision to declare itself guilty. Until that happens, its sin — by its own definition — remains.
Conversion is a process, and institutional conversion is difficult because it calls for a change of thinking, doing, and being on the part of millions of people accustomed to living in harmful — sinful — modes. It asks “What have we done? How can we change things? How can we make things right?”
If it is to happen, we must begin with confession. If the institution hopes to have any semblance of relevance or even existence, it begins in the same manner as each Mass does with penitential act.
I confess to almighty God
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,
through my fault, through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;
therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
all the Angels and Saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God
By praying the Confiteor together we invoke the angels and saints as we promise to do penance and sin no more. Only then can we hope to hear the Kyrie and the Gloria.
If the Church embodied in all of its members from the laity to the pope hopes to endure, it must begin with a candid, contrite, and complete confession to its victims, itself, and to God. Then we can move forward with acts of penance and reconciliation.
For the Church to survive, the system must change. For the system to change, people must change inside and out.