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Saturday, February 21, 2009

NY Times Hears Confessions

For many US Christians, today is the Vigil of the Transfiguration, since we have agreed to transfer that feast from its traditional summer date.  But for traditionalists, this time of year is "pre-Lent," the warmup for the season of penitence and self-mortification.  By their calendar, tomorrow isn't Transfiguration, it's Quinquagesima.

Oddly, the Times seems to be gearing up for Lent as well.  Or so it would seem, from the curious juxtaposition of two articles today:

1.  An Army sergeant, accused and brought to trial for the murder of two officers, was acquitted and discharged.  The Times has discovered that, before the trial, the sergeant had offered a plea bargain -- his confession and an account of the details, in exchange for life imprisonment.  Prosecutors agreed, but the judge threw the deal out and the case went to trial.  Reading between the lines, this appears to have been a miscalculation -- although almost nobody would speak to reporters, the judge doesn't seem like a softie, and it seems that he wanted a chance to impose the death penalty.  Instead, it is possible that a guilty man may have walked free, and that his confession will go unheard, his debt to society unpaid.

Nothing particularly pre-Lenten in all this, except insofar as a plea bargain can be interpreted either as a kind of preliminary confession or, more accurately, as an indication of the disposition to confess.

But read the story in the print edition.  It begins on the front page, and is continued back in Siberia, where they typically put religion news.  And on the same continuation page, we find:

2.  The story of St. John the Evangelist, Stamford CT, and its pastor, Msgr. Stephen DiGiovanni.  When he arrived twelve years ago,

[o]ne particular sight seized him. The confessional at the rear of the pews had been nailed shut. The confessional in the front, nearer the altar, was filled with air-conditioning equipment. And these conditions, Monsignor DiGiovanni realized, reflected theology as much as finance.

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, the Catholic Church began offering confession in “reconciliation rooms,” rather than the traditional booths. .

Since then, the Monsignor has done wonders to promote the sacrament of reconciliation, not only by preaching and teaching on its importance, but also by the simple -- albeit countercultural -- device of unlocking the confessional booth.  It seems that many people don't like to sit across the table from their confessor, looking into his eyes.  They like the impersonality, even the illusion of anonymity, that the booth provides.

The change has been remarkable. The Times points out that

[t]he norm for American Catholics [since even before Vatican II has been] to make confession once a year, generally in the penitential period of Lent leading up to Easter ...

and an obligatory leftie, Notre Dame's Fr. Richard O'Brien, is trotted out to remind us, accurately enough, that,

“Confession as we once knew it is pretty much a dead letter in Catholicism today," and that “the practice at the Stamford parish is an anomaly, not a sign of anything else” and at best “part of a small minority” of churches.

True enough.  That's what makes this news.  And yet, in that anomalous parish these days,

... upwards of 450 people engage in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as confession is formally known, during 15 time slots spread over all seven days of the week. Confessions are heard in English, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese.

Numerous members are quoted, along with their pastor, speaking eloquently about the spiritual value of frequent confession and absolution. 

The diocese is attempting to build upon Msgr. DiGiovanni's model, as well it should. One wonders whether other Christians, including those of us among whom the Tridentine confessional booth was never really adopted, ought to consider doing likewise.

While we doubt seriously that the placement of these articles is a case of the Times trying to promote confession, or even open a discussion of its role in our lives and society (where, after all, is A-Rod?), we do hope that readers will be inspired. Confession is good for the soul, and as Lent approaches, we ought all to making ours. And those with the cure of souls can encourage this good thing not only by preaching and teaching but by publicly and ceremonially unlocking the doors so that those whose hearts are heavy have a place to unburden.

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