A few days ago I was musing with a friend about not going to Confession and how different today is from our childhood. We chuckled that the Reconciliation Room in our church doubles as an emergency exit. That linking of the sacrament with a fire escape is just too perfect to have been planned! Such delightful humor aside, as long as Confession is constrained by the image of an “escape” it neither will – nor should – have much use or purpose in our lives.
My friend and I laughed while recalling in vivid detail our “First Confession” as children. We both readily remember the penance that was assigned as well as the priest-confessor. We reminisced about the presumed regularity and long lines of our weekly routine. Such was the world of growing up Catholic in the 1950s. The fact that we fondly recall and share these formative moments after more than fifty years suggests it wasn’t all bad or to be so easily dismissed as some might be inclined to do. As with so much in life, what is “the good” we would do well to bring forward into our sophisticated adulthood?
Terry grew up in Immaculate Conception Church in Milwaukee at the time famed civil rights priest, James Groppi served as an associate pastor. One day Terry went to confession and received from Fr. Groppi a memorable penance – he was to go home and wash the kitchen floor. Imagine the surprise of his mother! “What are you doing? Did you spill something?” Her incredulity was only heightened to learn that he had not spilled a thing. She never knew it was her son’s penance. Talk about “the seal” of Confession!
Terry’s story reminded me of my sister Karen’s ingenious strategy to pacify her brood of six typically frenetic, intensely competitive, sometimes cantankerous kids. As the dark days of November were taking their icy grip, constraining youthful energies in-doors, Karen repurposed the concept of “Secret Santa.” Instead of giving candy or small trinkets under “the seal” of anonymity, the kids were to secretly surprise their sibling by doing something good for them – making their bed, straightening up a mess the other had left, complimenting them for no special reason. Yes, the kids could randomly surprise their sibling with a favorite candy or some such thing. But notice what Karen was doing – shifting attetnion from “stuff” to “doing” for others. Or, so that was this mother’s idealistic aspiration for her six kids!
Confession has traditionally been associated with the season of Lent. As with a child-like pout, I can almost hear our collective groan. What if this year we dispensed with the “escape” idea and adopted a few of the strategies assigned by Fr. Groppi and my sister Karen? What if we shifted the focus away from “me and my faults” to cultivating good habits that respond to the interests of others and strengthens the bonds of community? What if Lent became an amorphous flash-mob of anonymous acts of care and generosity? Or, is this an overly optimistic aspiration of one hopelessly naive?
My friend, Ivy is an extraordinary seamstress and makes the most adorable smocked dresses for children. She is also the friend who helped me rebuild my 90 year old Seth Thomas mantel clock. So, you apprecaite her masterful attention to detail! She makes three children’s dresses a year and gives them to favorite charities for auction or to a program that serves kids. They are breathtakingly beautiful. She would be embarrassed to know that I am blowing her cover by holding her up for emulation. Isn’t that the sort of virtue “the seal” of Confession was meant to foster and enhance?
What do you do especially well? It may be something as mundane as washing a floor or painting a room for an over-extended neighbor. It need not be flashy. Maybe it would enhance the gesture if your full motivation is kept secret and your actions seen as routine. In our maturity, Lent might become a season of giving-back rather than giving-up… a time to embrace others, a season we wouldn’t want to escape.