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Today on Catholica Tom McMahon concludes his series of commentaries on the Sacrament of Penance. He'd penned this commentary before I posed the question last week "A question for the psychologist in Tom McMahon..." — it's now on page 3 of our forum and he's obviously missed it such is the pace of discussion at the moment — so I'll endeavour to get him to respond to that question in coming days in the forum. Does this sacrament still have value? If so how might it be reformed, or if it has been already reformed enough, how might it be better promoted or encouraged?
What's the present situation regarding the practice of confession?
Six years ago I question myself as to how well informed I am concerning the condition of the Roman Catholic Church and its people; I read and heard that people in general were displeased with homilies at Mass so I decided to try out one of the local churches, just sitting and listening. The weather was rainy, yet the Church was full; there was a sprinkling of gray-haired old timers, while the vast majority were Hispanic and Vietnamese. A newly ordained angelo ignored the readings and haltingly offered words on the bishop's drive for money, his gist being since the people loved the bishop surely they would support his cause. There must have been some secret writing on the ceiling as many heads were facing upwards. I left before the "homily" was finished. I did take along a Sunday bulletin; one notice concerning confession caught my eye.
A half hour was set aside for the availability of the priest on Saturday, followed by CONFESSIONS BY APPOINTEMENT. Something clicked in my mind telling me that the confessional box is not as popular as it used to be when I was active in the 1960's and '70's. I think of Father Andy Torrnier, fine priest, French import from Marseilles who loved life and people. Twnety years ago Andy said to the housekeeper "I'm going out to the confessional for a few minutes to see if anyone is there" and Andy never returned. A deranged man hiding in the priest's box leapt on Andy and stabbed him to death. Andy's words about being gone a few minutes have always haunted me. How widespread is the use of the confessional box today? What is the situation in Australia? Or worldwide? When I come 'down-under' in May I shall snoop around and pick up a few parish bulletins. By the way Rome gets weekly copy of every church bulletin … just checking to make sure that clerics mind what Rome wants.
"My people are heroic!" …Tom's Mom to a priest
In my last commentary I promised another story about my Mom. Mother loved the Eucharist and the priesthood yet each individual priest had to live up to a high standard of integrity, this coming from her parents' attitude and her own brother ordained in 1922. Grandmother Mary was accustomed to taking up the "purse" for the Irish clergy to return to the old sod to visit their folks; observant young Mary (my Mom) commented "but mother you already took up the purse for Fr. So and So. (Mom never named him to me)". "Hush child," came the reply "father has had an illness". Now if one is old Irish one appreciates this clerical illness … he blew the first purse on the bottle. On the good father's return from Ireland his first sermon was a ranting on the sinfulness of the people. I can see my mother to this day telling me about her being in church by herself, a teenager, (as blind adult telling the story Mom folded her arms across her body preventing 60 years later the word-energy of the cleric entering her). Mom's silent response, sitting in the pews of Old St. Joseph's Church, Tenth and Howard, San Francisco was: "No Father, not my people; you are the sinful one; my people are heroic". When I left ministry in 1980, after 26 active years my mother's dominant difficulty was the way the bishops handled the problems of the priests.
Yesterday I attended the funeral of a woman friend in a Catholic Church once pastored by her brother-in-law. Helen was born of Mexican parentage, always proud of her heritage, a 29-year survivor of cancer and 30 operations, truly a courageous bionic woman; I wish you could see her "holy card", this beauty with crown on head and broom in hand advertised as "student of life" and Helen Keller's prayer: "everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence and I learn whatever state I may be in, therein to be content". The church was standing room only; it was conducted in the style of an AA meeting with husband Jim as the coordinator. Helen counseled many victims of cancer and was active in Alanon and AA for a quarter of a century; the only prayer was the Our Father as used at the end of each AA meeting. Her brother-in-law Bill wore his clerical suit, as requested by the deceased "I have gone so far from the Catholic Church of my parents and youth; Bill, please show up in clerics so that I can have at least one tiny tie to my past". As so many today, Helen held onto a remnant of her childhood religion. Her final confession was her proclamation of the joy of living.
Bill, is coming to dinner at our home tonight, an up-beat old friend since 1944, my ski buddy of 50 years, a justice priest who was forced to retire by now retired Bishop Pierre DuMaine, one of those bishops who never was a parish priest and wanted more money from Bill's then super-active community. Yesterday's filling of the church was more than likely the first time the parking lot has been filled in 20 years, a once 20-member staff now down to a one secretary and the pastor who reminds the faithful on Sunday as to the numbers of days left until he retires. It took over an hour to get someone to answer the parish phone. I suspect the parish system has atherosclerosis of the spiritual arteries.
I go to funerals out of respect for the deceased and the family. I enjoy hearing the celebration of life and happy to hear no promises of eternal life or meeting God for the first time. I do spend time reflecting on myself and my present attitude toward life and others. I have been in a snit for a few weeks over my relationship to our eldest son and Keller's words (above) recall me "to be content" and marvel that the lad and our grandsons are priceless wonders. Page Smith says "old age is another country" and there are times I dislike being on this foreign soil. As my friends die and I know that I am not far behind I need to make more notes to remind me of the fine blessings I can enjoy.
My public confession…
So there, my readers, you have my public confession that I have long abandoned the Trentan style of confessing to an ordained male priest. One person in Catholica's Forum suggested that I might be into "sour grapes". I have no axe to grind and I hope that by my sharing I have not disillusioned the innocent. In the stage play of life what goes on behind the curtain is not always pretty; I am like a man who stands before his burned down home, reminiscing over old memories and the glory days of the past. I experienced this in 1997 when the "temple" of my involvement with God's little people was destroyed by fire in the High Sierra Mountains. Keller's darkness and silence along with a diagnosis of cancer pervaded my life. Today I confess to people a God who is the Creator and ReCreator of all life, A God "who" fashions human minds with a wisdom that has cured my cancer and architects and builders who have rebuilt the mountain chalet; it is my task now to continue to confess to the generous wonders of this Creator and to figure out ways of maintaining God's visible Presence in the newness of our mountain retreat. If my health holds out I shall soon announce Educational/Vacations in Soda Springs, Ca., not far from Lake Tahoe. Jesus is sure to show.
This is the end of the line for the Polar Express as far as PENANCE is concerned; it's a dead end that puzzles me for there is such a need for the mercy of Jesus to be shared on family and nationwide basis. I am a person who stands at the graveside of a old friend and wonders as to the future. I do believe in a Jesus' intervention and need patiently wait for another of his resurrections. I shall submit for next week's commentary a "redo" on a paper I wrote "on proper tools to get the job done". Keep in mind my first encouragement, papers ago, that sacraments are sacred signs of the relationship of God and people. I have before my mind's eye that marvelous quote from Michael Morwood as he invites us to reevaluate our theologies in light of modernity. Trent's seven sacraments come under Michael's encouragement. The Creator will use human genius to recreate meaningful bridges.
I gratefully close with a portion of Michael's quote: "We are living through the greatest shift ever in Christian thought. New images of our universe and our planet, along with knowledge about the long, slow development of life on this planet provide us with a new context in which to understand the divine presence we call God always present and active everywhere".
Tom, San Jose. 09/01/2009
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What are your thoughts on this commentary?