March 24, 2006

Faithful Lines / Shirley Vogler Meister

A conscientious look at the confessional

It was curious how some people had a highly developed sense of guilt, she thought, while others had none. Some people would agonize over minor slips or mistakes on their part, while others would feel quite unmoved by their own gross acts of betrayal or dishonesty. …

My column opens today with lines from The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. Coincidentally, I was reading the novel during the time I began contemplating this column. The quotation comes from the protagonist, Detective Mma Ramotswe; the author is a prominent law professor who has served on ethics and bioethnics committees. (See for more information.)

Mma Ramotswe’s words ring true because we all know sinners in both categories, including ourselves. A sister who taught me in high school once told my father how I would have difficulty in life because I was “too conscientious.” She was right. Time and experience have tempered that, although there were incidents in earlier years when rigid scrupulosity interfered with my ability to love or be understanding.

We all can change. So has the sacrament of penance, also known as the sacrament of reconciliation. I encourage readers to check the Catechism of the Catholic Church for in-depth information about the forms of penance that I mention briefly here:

• Private confession—Face-to-face informal setting, in a confessional or in home, hospital or spontaneous/emergency situations.

• Communal confession—In many parishes, people gather as a community to prepare through the Word of God, hymns and/or prayer and general assistance with the examination of conscience before penitents personally approach a priest for private confession and absolution.

• General absolution—This practice is used mostly in unusual circumstances or where people must wait a long time to receive the sacrament. The priest absolves everyone with the understanding that all mortal sins are to be confessed personally to a priest at the next opportunity. (General absolution is used in extraordinary circumstances so no one is deprived of God’s mercy.)

Recently, in a stack of stuff, I found a photocopy of a Catholic News Service/

W. Hamond cartoon about confession, which appeared in a 1993 issue of The Criterion.

Two priests are standing by a machine, and one says to the other, “We’re trying our best to keep up with the ’90s and to be open to new ideas, but I just don’t know about people faxing in their confessions.”

Of course, we don’t do that any more than we would practice another idea—having drive-through confessions for convenience. Recently, a former Catholic sent me a joke about a drive-through confessional having a sign nearby that said, “Toot and Tell or Go to Hell.”
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. ...

(Shirley Vogler Meister, a member of Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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