Church Unity, Contemplative Life

Soren Johnson Reflects on Confession

The original blog was posted on the catholic herald.

“Long-confession-line graces”

I’m still trying to make sense of it all.

In the past few months, I’ve attended several Catholic mega-gatherings where penance was offered. In each, men, women and children waited in long lines to confess at makeshift confessionals — just kneelers set up next to a chair. The sheer size and number of lines took my breath away. Why endure such wait?

Having lived and studied in Russia, I know a little bit about lines.

The Soviet regime ground down its citizens with chronic shortages and poor distribution. Russians famously were literate because they could read tomes while standing in daily lines. I stood in a few of these — for bread, for train tickets — and glimpsed Russians’ steely capacity for long-suffering. Rarely complaining, they redeemed the time.

The confession line I stood in at one of the recent events rivaled a Moscow bread line circa 1978, under then-Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev. With 10 people standing ahead of me, we waited for one man to confess … for 20 minutes. When he finally got up from the kneeler, we all advanced two inches to celebrate the moment. At this rate, my turn would arrive in about three hours.

What’s more, the mood in this line was positively Russian. No peeved looks or shaking heads. No escapes into smartphones. No one bailed for any of the other six lines in other corners of the church. All seemed at peace, deeply immersed in thought.

To stand in a long line for confession is to open oneself to an experience of extravagant grace. To wait is to be handed gifts, one after the other. The longer the line, the better. Maybe there’s a theological term for it, but for now, let’s call it the “pre-sacramental graces” of penance. Here are five that I glimpsed:

Better examination. Jesus awaits us in the sacrament. Without the preparation time that a line affords, we rush, going from zero to 60 in a matter of minutes. Our souls aren’t engineered for that kind of acceleration. A long line becomes for the heart a kind of on-ramp to the autobahn of mercy, where the time and stillness create the space for us to find otherwise hidden areas of our lives that need amendment.

Better solidarity. Penance is a deeply personal sacrament, yet no sin is purely private. After all, we say every week, “I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters.” A short confession line gives little time to chip away at the autonomous self. But as I watched my brother confess for 20 minutes, I eventually went from an annoyed “really?” to real excitement for his new-found freedom. When he stood, he seemed visibly lighter. I gave thanks. After all, this guy’s freedom was related to my own.

Better sorrow for sin. As penitents got up from the kneelers or left the confessionals with tears streaming down their faces, the effect was viral. Sorrow and joy rippled quietly outward. The gift of tears was offered to those still waiting. The doleful reality of sin gave way, on these faces, to the mercy of God. Even the postures of the penitents and priests became aids for reflection. The priest’s leaning toward his penitent offered an icon of the heavenly Father’s love for us: If the father of the prodigal son broke into a run to meet his returning son on the road, these priests were doing no less.

Better Catholic imagination. As I stood in line, a series of near-cinematic moments unfolded. A storm rolled in, and the 100-year-old church’s interior flickered, like when my 2-year-old plays with the dimmer switches at home. Images of the stained-glass saints flashed and vanished as clouds obscured the sun. The gothic arches tapered upward into darkness. Wind gusted through several open doors. The nave, filled with sprawling lines in every direction, became our makeshift Noah’s Arc as rain pelted the slate far above. Someone shut the doors.

Better evangelization. Jesus started His ministry with a call to repent. As retired Pope Benedict XVI said, “The new evangelization will pass through the confessional.” While I stood in line, I couldn’t help but notice as several tourists and passers-by happened into the sanctuary. Once their eyes adjusted to the dimness, they did a visible double-take as they took in the sight of all the lines. Some lingered and sat in a pew. One joined a line.

Who knows?

Maybe the best thing we can do — for our own hearts, and for others — is to join a long confession line, à la russe.

Johnson, a husband and father of five, is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde’s special assistant for evangelization and media.

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