Fear not the confessional

| March 2, 2016 | 6 Comments
Pope Francis goes to confession during a 2015 Lenten penance service in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. CNS/Stefano Spaziani

Pope Francis goes to confession during a 2015 Lenten penance service in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. CNS/Stefano Spaziani

Priests explain sacrament’s purpose ahead of 24 Hours for the Lord March 4-5

It’s not unusual for Father Joseph Hurtuk to have to interrupt the confession line ahead of the 12:10 p.m. weekday Mass at St. Louis, King of France in downtown St. Paul.

It’s often the only way he can start Mass on time.

When he isn’t teaching theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, he serves as an associate priest of St. Louis, where he and other priests hear confessions 14 times a week — now 15 during Lent and ahead of 24 Hours for the Lord March 4-5.

“There’s a long tradition here of people coming [for confession],” said Father Hurtuk, who’s been a Marist priest for 41 years and has served for nine years at
St. Louis, a parish of about 800 households.

Parishioners seek out the church for confession, but it also draws downtown workers and many priests, he said.

“Some days, it feels like we already have 24 hours” of the sacrament, he joked.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is hosting a full 24 hours of confessions at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul and the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis from noon March 4 until noon March 5 as part of 24 Hours for the Lord, a worldwide Lenten initiative promoted by Pope Francis for the Year of Mercy. The event begins locally with priests’ confessions until 1:30 p.m.

On Wednesdays during Lent, St. Louis added a 4:45 to 5:15 p.m. slot for people leaving work.

Father Patrick Kennedy, pastor of St. Olaf in Minneapolis, sees similar traffic for the nine confession times at the downtown church throughout the week. When it comes to the sacraments at St. Olaf, he said it’s about accommodating people’s time.

“Like anything, it’s done well if there’s a rhythm in a person’s life,” Father Kennedy said.

Catholics don’t need to confess weekly, he said, but should seek reconciliation when they are burdened and feel they need grace.

“When people have a profound experience and have been touched in some way by the love of God and the mercy of God, they naturally want to come back and experience more of that,” he said. “And that’s what I think it’s about.”

Been away from confession? The archbishop has advice

Archbishop Bernard Hebda reflects on 24 Hours for the Lord, St. John Vianney and the Year of Mercy, and offers advice for Catholics who have been away from the sacrament of reconciliation, in a Q&A.

24 Hours for the Lord

Open to all Catholics 1:30 p.m. March 4 – 12 noon March 5

  • Cathedral of St. Paul, 239 Selby Ave., St. Paul
  • Basilica of St. Mary, 1600 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

For more information, visit archspm.org.

Spiritual, psychological benefit

While Father Hurtuk sees the sacrament frequently used at his parish, he acknowledged its general decline among Catholics, citing the “modern mindset that shies away from objective truths.”

“Generally, people tend to see things subjectively: ‘What’s right for me is right for me, [and] what’s right for you is right for you,’” he said. “In that context, I’m going to be able to find that not too many things are wrong for me because I can work out a rational approach to anything. That’s normal human nature.”

With that cultural perception, he said people tend to think they don’t need confession. But he explained that even venial sins can take their toll.

Father Hurtuk said the Church has traditionally taught that the sacrament of reconciliation is beneficial, even therapeutic, from the human point of view.

“You have a problem, you tell a friend about your problem, [and] usually, your anxiety level goes down . . . because you got it out,” he said. “It was always the same idea that [confession] was not only psychologically therapeutic, but [also] religiously therapeutic . . . that you felt this religious healing in your soul when Christ came to you in that moment of absolution.”

In Scripture, Jesus’ encounters with individual people were always one-to-one when there was any type of fault, evil, frustration or sin involved, he said.

“It’s all this personal encounter of an individual with Jesus, where Jesus hears the person out, encourages them, heals them — which is our Catholic understanding of absolution — and sends them on their way healed, renewed [and] restored,” he said, “but [Jesus] tells them, basically, ‘Let’s get on the right path.’”

Focus on mercy

The Church teaches that the sacrament of reconciliation is necessary to restore a person’s relationship with God severed by mortal sin, or a grave offense against God that jeopardizes one’s soul. However, Father Hurtuk cautioned Catholics from dismissing venial — or less serious sins — as trivial.

While “100 million venial sins are never going to equal one mortal sin . . . 100 million venial sins can lead a person into more sinful behavior,” he said.

Father Hurtuk remembers the nuns who taught him as a child saying that a bank robber didn’t start stealing $1 million from a bank; he started taking nickels and dimes from kids in the cafeteria.

“Our actions — good and bad — have ramifications for the whole community, the whole Church,” he said. “The more positive and uplifting and healed a person is — and more sinless a person is — the stronger the Church becomes, the stronger the community becomes.”

Father Kennedy, who’s been ordained for 38 years, said when people frequent the sacrament of reconciliation, they not only come to appreciate it more, but they also experience its effects.

“God is not only love, but God is mercy. Period,” he said. “The power of the spirit working in our lives works sometimes whether we like it or not, but there’s always that invitation to deepen our life in God, especially through the Eucharist and the sacrament of reconciliation.”

As a priest of the Society of Mary, Father Hurtuk was trained to have a broad notion as a confessor. The order’s founder, French priest Jean-Claude Colin, emphasized mercy in the confessional no matter a person’s sins in order to help the penitent know the purpose and to feel healed and whole again, as Christ did.

“[Father Colin] said, above all, you have to be merciful, you have to be understanding,” Father Hurtuk explained. “Not that you approve . . . the sin, but that you do approve the sinner, and love the sinner as a person.”

While part of a priest’s role as confessor is more “legalistic” as they help penitents discern their lives based on their confessions, ultimately, their role is about mercy, as Pope Francis talks about, Father Hurtuk said.

“Jesus in his encounters, especially with sinners, did not stop there. Jesus then healed them,” he said. “So, you have to then . . . show the mercy of the Lord, the love of the Lord, the compassion of the Lord. Yes, you may have done some things wrong, but the Lord wants to forgive you because the Lord wants you to get back up and move again.”

Father Kennedy said the majority of priests who hear confessions are trying to exemplify the love and the mercy of Jesus Christ in that encounter. What stops people from coming to the sacrament, especially after a long time away, he said, is fear and shame.

“But that’s one of those things that I think Pope Francis is saying loud and clear: that you don’t have to be afraid . . . not only in the encounter, but [also] afraid that God, in some way, shape or form, is not going to love you and to be merciful to you,” he said.

People often let their sins define them, he added.

“The depth of a person’s soul is where people have to get to [in order] to understand what really defines them,” he said. “We’ve been created in the image and likeness of God.”

Father Kennedy has heard confession described as “an apostolate of the ear.” He said the confessor should listen and then welcome and encourage people “into a deeper life with Jesus Christ through the forgiveness of their sins.”

For Catholics who return to the sacrament after a period of time, Father Hurtuk recommends “giving your status at the beginning — have you been away for six months or 60 years? From there, the priest will be your guide.”

Father Kennedy said he believes that after confession, the majority of people feel the love and mercy of Jesus, as well as the hospitality of the Church to welcome them — not only to confess their sins, “but [also] to believe that they’ve been forgiven and reunited with themselves, with others and with God,” he said.

“I think that’s redeeming in itself for people,” he said.

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Category: Faith and Culture