Is hypocrisy really worse than a moral vacuum? How valorizing the morally vacuous hurts people.

It took a week for the memorializing and eulogizing of infamous Playboy mag founder It's only creepy if he's poorHugh Heffner to be interrupted by another Entertainment mogul scandal.

On a personal note, I cannot write about Heffner unreferential to the gruesome monster lurking in my bedroom closet: The stack of decades old Playboy magazines perched out of the reach of my childish arms. As a 17 year old, trying to have some peace of mind, I demanded my dad remove his firehazard collection of Playboys from the closet in my bedroom. My childhood bedroom was the replacement to my dad’s mancave, one that was never properly transformed. When my dad agreed to let me dump every last one of them, my mom tearfully thanked me. Playboy caused me anguish, and likely caused my mom unimaginable pain as my dad listlessly kept them hidden away at home.

You could probably do a bit of your own research into the creepy dilapidated facade behind the glitz and glamour of the playboy mansion. Proceed to links with caution

Our culture likes to celebrate the openness that Heffner ushered, but is still shocked when another Entertainment Industry giant gets caught cashing in on Hefner’s revolution. According to Weinstein, the 60s & 70s helped him feel entitled toward this sort of behavior. It goes without saying that I am disgusted with Weinstein. I wouldn’t want to stop with him. Roman Polanski had his defenders, although I am happy to say Weinstein couldn’t get away so easy. Perhaps the entertainment industry need not moralize and wag fingers at Heffner’s moral legacy, but instead hang its head in disappointment.

Playboy, the sexual revolution, and the male entitlement are often referred to as separate things. Male Entitlement and Sexual Exploitation at the filthy hands of conservatives is often reveled, perhaps because of our self-righteous need to catch others in hypocrisy. But what about the Entitled Male that practices what they preach, is not a hypocrite, and damages many victims and sexually exploits the vulnerable? Putting aside the sort of loser that becomes desperate and puts aside their moral principals to take advantage of others, instead of seeking help in their dire need… What about the person that lacks any moral integrity or personal sympathy of others? We can simply classify them as a sociopath, without the freedom to make moral decisions.

This sort of rationalizing emboldened Weinstein, likely Polanski and Cosby as well. Apparently, Weinstein became in inside joke in the entertainment industry. Some of this could be attributed to the massive amount of influence that he had, much of it could also be attributed to sexual exploitation and predatory practices being a long standing problem. The problem may have been insurmountable or unsolvable if you are in the vulnerable position. Just watch this clip of 1988 Gwyneth Paltrow with David Letterman. If you know anything of what it is to be victimized or vulnerable, you can clearly see someone desperate to speak up, but unable to. Read her body language and awkward laughter. She isn’t afraid to talk about it now.

Now that Weinstein is crashing and burning, now that Bill Cosby (once endeared as America’s beloved sitcom dad Dr. Huxtable) has crashed and burned, who’s next? the 2014 Amy Berg documentary An Open Secret exposes a few stories of pedophilia in the entertainment industry. Backed by Elijah Wood, former child star Corey Feldman alleges that rampant Pedophilia. Here’s one clip of him arguing with Corey Haim about abuse they survived. Clips of Corey Feldman are not hard to find, and I spare you clips posted by conspiracy theory pages..

Respected High Profile celebrities have received honors, awards, and nominations for the past several decades, have now been found credible. Perhaps more accusations will be taken seriously. Perhaps more young entertainers will want to come forward. Perhaps more power movers in the Industry will disappear or go overseas.

But that is just my predictions. I think that the eulogizing of Hefner and fans of the male entitlement culture that he ushered in blind us to the moral cowardice of today’s moral vacuums.

I do want to avoid a few an overgeneralization here. I think a mistake to say that Hollywood is in on it. ‘Hollywood’ is finally comfortable renouncing a predator, and will much more likely renounce more predators. I don’t want to assign a moral value of evil to some abstract concept of ‘Hollywood,’ that would be too simplistic. There has been some degree of courage to speak up about this. Besides, it is the same mistake to assume that ‘The Vatican’ is a monolithic group think institution, and this scandal shows that Hollywood isn’t so monolithic.

However, I do find it a real problem when the ilk of playboy can be shrugged or even admired, while Weinstein can be subsequently be denounced. It is a shame, that in our society, hypocrisy is somehow the worst crime. Could be having a moral vacuum be worse?

Hefner is eulogized for having created an openness, where sexuality is not stigmatized nor shamed. Hefner, and others who helped tear down stigmas are valorized, principally for not being hypocrites. Somehow Hefner is better, because he was consistent. But can I really say that a pedophile who brags about pedophilia is better than the pedophile who condemns it? Let me be more specific, likewise, is the active sexual predator somehow morally superior because he brags about his escapades? What about the inactive pedophile who denounces such practices? The reformed have little space in our cultural narrative. Somehow, Hefner can be valorized for not being a hypocrite, while the person who distrusts or outright disagrees with their own evil behavior cannot even be partially correct for condemning themselves?

I think that the sexual exploitation of others is always wrong. I don’t think that sexual exploitation can become better or worse. Specifically, I don’t think that someone who actively exploits others can make a moral case for their behavior, is not dismissed because they dislike it, nor is an active sexual predator morally superior to the one who cannot practice what they preach. Our aversion to hypocrisy is so tantamount, some would rather take the route of moral cowardice, like Harvey Weinstein, blame their culture. Some would rather avoid the risk of hypocrisy, the risk of having any moral standard whatsoever, and go the Hefner route: blatant exceptionalism.

Having a moral standard, failing to live up to that standard, being a hypocrite is too risky a venture for some. Removing personal responsibility for any moral compass is an easy way out. It would be easier for a young man to reduce himself to a bunch of sexual urges, instead of understanding when a vulnerable young women isn’t interested. The modern young person smugly dismisses the need for a moral identity. They get to do what they want when they want. But then there are no stakes or genuine personal investment. But even the ambition to be morally consistent is somehow too much of a risk for some modern men.

Not taking any risks, by being morally exceptional, appears like invincibility to the inexperienced. Hugh Hefner didn’t have the courage to live within this tension of moral responsibility, so he abandoned it all and felt better. He buttressed himself inside a withering creepy estate where his many wives provided him no genuine emotional intimacy. Weinstein believed he was above accountability, and used his status to prey upon young women making a name for themselves in the industry. Having no sense of personal moral responsibility, he is only now being held accountable. Despite his freedom at the expense of other’s dignity, he is now, likely, for the rest of his life to be held in shame.

And sure, the ‘safe’ moral ground that people today stand on is avoiding offense and being agreeable. Weinstein was behaving in a way that was agreeable, and accepted, and now the times disagree with him and reject him. Perhaps a more significant moral ground is called for then agree-ability or inoffensiveness.

 

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Keeping the Sabbath & Lady Gaga

In 2011, I watched a 60 minutes interview, Lady Gaga & The Art of Fame. It gave me a lot to think about.

A few weeks ago, Lady Gaga posted a photo explaining her tour cancellation. Last year there was another photo from Church. Both posts have caused a lot of controversy, which I don’t intend to dissect today. I do not know Lady Gaga’s heart, and am not really a fan of her music. Although I do agree with Mark Shea’s recent response Jesus founded a Church, not a club. However, in this interview from several years ago, she did give me a lot to think about.

That is, Lady Gaga talks about “Mastering the Art of Fame.”

I am not famous. I am not trailed by paparazzi. When I walk outside of the monastery, I am gladly unknown and irrelevant to every pedestrian and passerby. When I was at a high school, surrounded by adolescents, from Monday through Friday, I had a certain amount of authority and influence. On Sundays, or at other Catholic Young Adult Events, I might even carry a degree of authority or influence. Sometimes I experience this alarming fascination with Fr Mark the young priest…

Between 2009-2011, Facebook’s peak empowered people to have access to every nook and cranny of their contact’s personal life. I often felt pressure to do things, merely to have Facebook posts.  Instead of attempting to capture moments, sometimes we create moments. This moment in Facebook’s conquest over my personal life accompanied a pastoral year at a Parish School. (It was expected that you add everyone on FB). Students didn’t need to see photos my friends tagged me, neither my personal friends need me to take pictures of parishioners and students. Things were tricky to say the least.

As a young priest, I experience an alarming amount of undeserved fascination. I have been monitored by students curious for my reactions to a billboard, or wanting to witness the manner I bit into an apple. In Church settings, I get stopped by women, who request access to something very personal: My vocation story. Although it is very nice for people to see that I am a human being, whether from FB, or RL, people imagine that my mundane trivia is somehow less mundane or less trivial.

Anderson Cooper reports: “They’re not just attention getting, they’re attention directing, To keep the public focused on her work, as opposed to her personal life.”

After Lady Gaga spoke on the craving of the public to see the public meltdown of the superstar, she was very conscientious and deliberate, at least according to this interview.

Even though I don’t have to bat off paparazzi, I don’t feel that I should have to answer for my day off, or answer for my vacation. Although some young people find me fascinating, it didn’t make sense for me to be constantly plugged in and accessible. (Remember when we used to say brb. We don’t anymore, we no longer leave, we live here). To some extent it is important to remind those in your pastoral care that you are a human being that does imperfect normal human things. Likewise, it is my responsibility to carve out time away from those under my pastoral care for my own well-being.

The simplest and easiest example I can name is this. I take a vow of poverty. Some older friars, or perhaps lay people have imagined that I can use the student weight room for free. I shouldn’t for liability reasons. However, I shouldn’t even want to. The community can cover a health club plan so that I have a space for my self care that doesn’t involve students or parishioners. I shouldn’t have to be limited to be with students in the weight room when I am with them the rest of the day. On a funny note, I once saw two of my students outside of my gym, interviewing pedestrians with a camera and mic. I went to the other side of the gym, simply because they would have loved to record footage of me exercising.

Although many young people might have an awkward sense of appropriate boundaries that would keep them from intruding on my private life, there are enough who won’t. I have changed my number, as it has been distributed without my permission. (Here’s Father Mark’s number in case you have a spiritual crisis in the middle of the night? He’s a priest he would never turn someone down right?) This kind of thinking can put me in risky situations. There is an office to screen calls.

People may love to see photos on social media of priests and nuns doing very silly human playful things. The thirst for a privileged behind-the-scenes view of a priest’s life, perhaps, is not too different from the public’s desire for photos of celebrities at the coffee shop. Our desire for an exclusive encounter with the divine is often replaced with a desire for a chance encounter with a celebrity at their favorite paparazzi spotted coffee shop.

So when Lady Gaga makes the difficult decision to cancel a tour, it is not too different from many priests that have seen, ready to take a vacation. Lady Gaga is being consistent and guarding her private life, and I have to hand it to her for sticking to her principals on this one. There is something very holy about sneaking away into the deserted place to speak to the Heavenly Father in secret. It became a noteworthy characteristic of Jesus, perhaps Lady Gaga this time, and I hope to God, me too when I need it.

Birthday Post & Update

One Mile Directly South of my current church there is the Hospital of my birth. I point that out specifically on my birthday today. This isn’t a new discovery for me, but is a nice piece of information to people in the area. It makes us all feel like things are full circle for me.

Over the past month, I have been working on settling in. After selling my dad’s house, we kept some of the nicest furniture in storage. In addition to all the practical things, like new furniture, or healthy food (because apparently the friars here only consume fruit, milk, and meat).

In trying to describe my ministry, I have found the best term. “Freelance.” In the Church, it is called Supply ministry, meaning a Priest in good standing, that supplies sacramental ministry at a parish upon request. Most parishes cannot afford multiple priests, and so, will only need an outside priest to help on a few Sundays a year. Supply, or “Freelance” ministry will bring me to dozens of parishes in the area. It is unlikely that you will actually find me at a weekend Mass at Our Mother of Good Counsel, where I live.

Having come from ministry in a Catholic High School, I realized that many of the Catholic High Schools in the area lack any priestly presence. I don’t think I want to work at a Catholic High School again. Somehow there is something refreshing about being with youth, and not having to be a coach. Having been at a Catholic High School that loves it’s sports, its a contrast to be around a school that doesn’t have a football team, or that can push performing arts.

The additional thing that I will be working on, is being on Call at a Hospital. For 2-3 days a week, even through the middle of the night, if a patient, or patient’s family requests a priest, I make arrangements to be there. The request can be for the Anointing of the Sick or Last Rites. Although I can spend a few moments talking with them, or hear a Confession, I am not a chaplain. The hospital has an interfaith chaplain who is supposed to be present to patients for spiritual counseling. This is primarily a Sacramental Ministry. It is very draining, and incredibly inspiring all at the same time.

The downside to this: You don’t develop lasting professional relationships with others. You are in, then you are out. The upside to this: You do not deal with unlocking countless doors and gates, spending an hour setting up and cleaning up. You are in, then you are out.

Because I am an additional priest assigned to a community, that means that the budget cannot sustain me. As I mentioned earlier, most parishes can only afford one priest. Being priest number 3, I am doing several Masses at other parishes and institutions to make some compensation for my community. I have had to reach out to others relying on their generosity to offset the expenses of me joining the community. If you have any interest in making a small donation, please be in touch. You will likely have a private Mass said for your requested intention.

As for the proper celebration of my birthday, My younger brother and I have wanted to revive our childhood tradition of going to the LA zoo (as my dad used to have a membership and take us regularly). On his part, he has wanted to bring his wife and daughter. To make it easier for them we will go the day after my birthday for an earlier adventure.

New Assignment

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy new assignment will be the Augustinian Community of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Los Angeles, CA.

OMGC was the parish of my Augustinian Vows (Aug 4, 2007), and my Priestly ordination (June 15, 2013). It is the closest parish to my pre-Augustinian, and is the closest Augustinian community of my dad. (It shouldn’t be neglected to say that I have family in San Diego as well).

I have enjoyed living in San Diego, and thought a ministry opportunity might be available outside of our High School. Perhaps there are a variety of opportunities inside and out of OMGC. No Augustinian Priest on the current staff will be reassigned. It might free me up to seek out a variety of opportunities throughout the Archdiocese and Beyond.

I love Los Angeles, and having been away from LA in the Midwest, my yearning for that strange place I call home. There is so much about LA that is unique, inventive, cutting edge, and exciting in ways incomprehensible to the rest of the country. Sometimes to the extent that they call us eccentric, then wait a year to mimic us. For all that makes it lovable, there is nothing that has replaced LA in my heart. As much as I will miss SD (and especially my friends there), the only advantage SD had was that getting around was more convenient.

During the course of my new assignment, I hope to pick up where I left off 3 years ago before my family crisis took over. For the past 3 years, many days off have cost me 6 hours on the road going to and from LA. I have to figure out what I am going to do with this free time. Before this happened I had two goals, more blogging (I still have posts written from 3 years ago that were never published), and learning music production. I had used an incredibly amateur music production software on an old computer, and was struggling to learn something more adequate.

I also have had some serious health concerns. I have had a few friends bold enough to say that they can see I no longer go to the gym. My waist only looks bigger when my muscle mass is deteriorating. All that San Diego craft beer isn’t helping… But of course, all the youth ministry food, carbs, junk food, pizza and burritos has been doing wonders on my mid-thirty something physique.

This new assignment won’t be in full tow, as I am need to move, and need to figure out how to fit in a vacation after a near burn out. I suspect a real personal update will not be in tow before Christmas, as I have learned you can’t jump to conclusions about a new job in the first four months. I am also hoping that I have more tedium, monotony, and boredom, as opposed to the sensory stimulation overload I was getting with kids. More than my body has deteriorated, it feels like my spiritual focus is very messy. If I write, it will actually be thoughtful and topical blog posts.

About my departure from St Augustine High School

Our new statue on campus, St Augustine The Teacher.When I was assigned to St Augustine in San Diego, a few months before my priestly ordination, my life was a whole lot different. Since that announcement over four years ago, much of my life has changed. This post will cover my reasons for leaving, but will not cover my reassignment.

I decided to write to give people a personal update. Mostly, I wrote this, because the average Catholic cannot conceive of why a “young” priest shouldn’t be in a high school.

Before talking about myself, it should be noted that 4 years as Retreat Director is a long time for an old man. My predecessor had the position for 5 years. Her predecessor had it for 4 years. Upon leaving the position both were younger than me when I started the position. Their predecessors had the position shorter than they did. It is rare for someone to be Retreat Director / Campus Minister for more than half a decade. Upon my 4th year, any reasonable person should have asked “Fr Mark, are you really going to stay another year?” Maybe I am also too old for a very high energy job.

Also, before talking about myself, I should comment on the position. I am not the Chaplain, I am the Retreat Director. There is a chaplain, who does a lot of priestly ministry. There is nothing specific in my position / job description that requires ordination. My Brother Friars and I imagined that I would have had more time for priestly ministry on the side, just as previous Priest Teachers had. I have found that it is challenging for an old thirty-something to execute a high energy twenty-something job, and have any extra time to do the kind of priestly sacramental ministry that truly refreshes me. Although I have had priestly ministry, there is nothing in my job description that involves sacramental dispensation (it wouldn’t make sense as to how many lay-people have been in this position before me, and how many lay people will be in the position after me).

Not only is my position a full 9-5 and overtime, but I am probably the only male faculty member who is not a coach. All of the faculty (principally lay), teach 5 classes, and spend a few hours after school each day to coach/lead a team. The fact that I am a male faculty member that doesn’t coach probably seems unfair to the other faculty members that actually have a wife and kids that they are sacrificing their time away from. All said and done, it might seem unfair that I don’t have to coach a sports team, even if the retreats count as overtime, and I have to turn down requests to say mass because I don’t have enough time to get my job done.

This is just about my job… What about my life? As I said, the landscape has changed dramatically since I was first assigned.

  1. My dad suddenly got very sick, to the point that he lost the capacity to be independent. My mom passed away ~15 yrs ago. We had to move him into a facility, sell his house of ~35+ yrs, and ask him to accept the fact that he will need a nurse to take him out of bed every morning to dress him, for perhaps the rest of his life.
  2. My brother got engaged, married, and has a baby girl. I am a godfather!
  3. After spending 12 years believing that I had a call to “hip hop ministry” I have recently determined that call has passed or completed. I have written about that over a year ago elsewhere. Suffice it to say, there have been a lot of closed doors, and I need to look for new doors.
  4. I have been appointed by the order to be part of an international youth ministry council. I have been appointed by the province for a provincial (west coast usa) council about vocations. I have been tasked by the house to be part of our own vocations/formation business. I am also expected to say Mass in our chapel with some frequency. Over the past 3 yrs, on numerous occasions, had to ask my superiors to be relieved of many of these responsibilities in order to accomplish my responsibilities as Retreat Director. I often say no to my superiors more than my school.

As a husband might find that his family suffers because of the high demands of his job, perhaps my family and community have been at a disadvantage because of my ministry assignment. I don’t have a wife that goes to bed  hurt at night thinking she is unloved or neglected. I do have a community that was excited to have my involvement, only to discover that my job/ministry became more demanding than they expected. The school expected to have an unmarried young man with no kids. Instead they got a thirty-something new priest, with a family and community in need.

So, when you look at a ministry, where the life expectancy is 4-5 yrs, that involves no sacramental dispensation, where a young priest who helplessly watched his family endure a crisis, there shouldn’t be any question about his stepping away.

Although, it would have much easier with a reassignment thrust upon me months ago. I had prayerfully discerned that education is not for me at this time in my life, and then decided to stay one more year for various reasons. That year has completed, and it is well time for me to move on.

When talking to my students, they find one explanation very sensible. Over the years, many grey-hairs were how exciting it is for the boys to have a “young” approachable, relatable priest. Instead of being a relatable priest, the students perceive me as a coach. I often feel that I can be a coach, a teacher, an entertainer, but I often do not feel like I am a priest. Since I gave up so much to be a priest, it has left me very unfulfilled to not preach enough, to not hear Confessions much, to not do Spiritual Direction, or offer much Pastoral Care. Here, I cannot be artistic, poetic, philosophical, and spiritually mystic. Maybe the kids need more coaches, but this has made me unhappy. What makes me even more unhappy, is when adults try to give me some encouraging word on how this is a good thing. I have felt trapped in a box. I have not felt like myself. I do not have the opportunity to be who God made me to be when I am trapped in the coach paradigm.

So, despite this not being the best fit, I do have a series of good memories that I will be posting about tomorrow. I feel like the ministry and job has paid off for me in many ways. Sometimes I feel as if I have benefited from it more than they benefited from having me. I have benefited by being here in San Diego, and developing relationships in the school and the diocese. I have been blessed being part of an awesome Catholic community that impacts Southern California. I have been fortunate to have the credit of running 28 retreats. I have learned much in terms of administrative tasks. I have gained confidence in certain areas. I might rethink being a teacher at some point later in life.

4 Underrated Catholic phrases I use in my homilies

fr-mark-menegatti-osa072In our Catholic Tradition there are several phrases that are opted out of. For some, it may be illiteracy of Church Documents and Tradition. It could be a lack of articulation. It could be a recent trend in our faith that dismisses any use of jargon in favor of a more user-friendly approachability (ie people who think consubstantial is bad). It could be for an opposite demographic, in favor of strong catechetics, imagining that a revival of Tridentine era phrases, will fix everything wrong in the modern church.
I often feel that a is a lot missing with all of these approaches. I think that illiteracy with Church Documents and Tradition is a great tragedy in our contemporary Western Church, and requires more critical adult faith formation. I believe that watering down our language is as equally harmful as overbearingly beefing it up.

  1. Encounter with Jesus Christ: I am not opposed to the fact that many Catholics refer to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I believe is essential to the Western Christian Tradition (bearing in mind that Eastern Rite Christians never had the Tradition of Adoration, the Feast of Corpus Christi, or Eucharistic Processions.) I believe that many Western Catholics are stuck on “Real Presence of Christ.” Not mutually exclusive, I sense that Encounter with Christ is a more dynamic way to express what we experience. The Real Presence of Christ is a dogma, a theological idea, that fails to capture the way in which we relate to it, or the way that it effects our lives. An Encounter with Jesus Christ encompasses the Real Presence in the Eucharist as well as the Word, the Minister & Gathered Assembly. Catechetical Settings might be more appropriate for the term “Real Presence.” (By the way, if we, as a Church, could do a much better job with Catechetics, there wouldn’t be individuals that insist that every Homily become a Catechetical Instruction).
  2. Christian Discipleship: Faith Formation is radically underdeveloped in our American Church. The Scriptures refer repeatedly to disciples. It is presumed that Christian Disciples can no longer exist. Discipleship happens at Mass, it happens at Faith Formation, it happens at Social Gatherings. Were I in a parochial setting where I had a say in what happens, I would primarily find ways to concretely promote Christian Discipleship. Since I am not, I would rather speak of it often. I would rather hint at what it is, rather than wag a finger. I would rather entice them, to ask the critical question, “Why is this the first time that I am hearing about Christian Discipleship?” Instead of pointing fingers at particular faults of a parish community (or generic faults of the American Church), I would rather throw this phrase out there haphazardly, so that more people might think about it. I hope that I may send the signal, so that people might say, “Well, Father Mark seemed to do a lot of this discipleship stuff in his life (which I did), it may not be some exotic thing way out of our reach.”
  3. Paschal Mystery: This refers to Jesus saving act in our lives, by becoming Incarnate, living among us, doing great deeds, dying on the Cross for our Sins, and Rising that we may have life with him forever. There has been a lot of emphasis on how Christ’s crucifixion is expiation for our sins. The Catechism, the Second Vatican Council, and the Council Fathers, have wanted to recapture the ways that the Incarnation, the Perfect Moral Life of Jesus & His Resurrection also contribute significantly to our salvation. We are called upon to participate in the Paschal Mystery, and this also means that our suffering is effected by uniting to Christ. It also means that suffering is transformed, and we too become transformed. Many devoted and involved Catholics are aware that Mass brings us closer to the moment where Christ died for our sins. It also brings us very close to his Real Presence (Incarnation), his live (In the proclamation of the Word), and the Resurrection and coming again in glory.
  4. Evangelization: The New Evangelization as a term has been picking up momentum, at least among young Catholics. I rarely preside at Liturgies in which there is an exclusively young group. There are still many devout Catholics, who attend Mass weekly, who are involved in the parish life, but who have no idea that they can or should be sharing their faith. Many of them grew up in an insulated Church where they believed everyone non-Catholic was somehow damned, and were surprised to find any goodness outside of it. Many of them still don’t know what it means to have a relationship and living faith in the person of Jesus Christ. Many of them do not even have the basic vocabulary of faith to describe it. It does not mean that their Catholicism or faith is insufficient. They may not even have anybody in their life that they can evangelize to. It is my experience that many older people don’t quite get it, and probably need to hear me say it more. On the flipside, there are still many younger Catholics who might be at a Sunday Mass, who might still need a little evanglizing to themselves.

Confession: Common things I say

Recently, Sr Teresa Aletheia asked for a quote for me on the topic of Confession. I had returned from World Youth Day, and was a month behind preparing for the new school year, I could only come up with a sentence.

It is important to bear these things in mind:

  1. The Sacrament of Penance may be therapeutic, but it is not a counseling session.

Although I am open to give practical advice, or helpful perspective, I believe the grace of God that they receive in that Sacrament is more important than anything that I can say. I also believe that people would be happy for there to be advice or perspective that is not merely practical, but explicitly  spiritual. Finally, bearing in mind, that many people don’t want or need any advice whatsoever (often this is how I feel going to the Sacrament), I merely need the grace that the Sacrament offers.

  1. People may need moral clarity, but it is not primarily a catechetical session.

I have had a difficult time with older priests assuming that I am paralyzed with guilt over sins. Catholic guilt is not something I suffer from. In fact, I wish my contrition was deeper and more heartfelt. I don’t think a person needs to be explained that they did not in fact sin according to the theological moral criterion and definition of sin. The peace that forgiveness grant’s is more important. That doesn’t mean that the questions of a penitent ought to be disregarded.

  1. People are not forced into the Confessional these days.

Involved Catholics gripe that there is not enough talk of sin in the pulpit. I am sure there are some who would want to know that I am scolding & castigating every last sinner who comes in. The fact is, nowadays, there are no social pressures to go to Confession. Whether or not there should be is another question. What that means, is that whoever shows up, has done so freely, set aside time from their busy life, because they know what they did is wrong, and they know that they need the help of God and the Church. They don’t need moral lessons, they need God’s grace.

  1. Catholics are not encouraged to grow spiritually

I find that most of their regular sins are their own personal spiritual plateau. Faith Formation ends at 14 for most Catholics. Catholics have mistaken holy darkness for atheism or agnosticism. Sometimes a one-on-one session with a Priest is an opportunity to teach them that God’s plan for them is satisfying beyond their wildest dreams.

Now when they show up, I keep these things in mind, and it informs the advice that I give them. As I have advised often, I find that there are a things that I turn to often. People think that they are so alone and unique in their sins and struggles.

  1. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is an Encounter with Christ and his mercy.

I know I can get legal minded, and I do encounter this with others as well. This is how relationships are made whole, by communication, by apologizing, by receiving forgiveness. It is personal, not just legal. Sometimes the remorse of the sin, or the preoccupation with the ritual can make people forget that Christ stands at the center of this.

  1. Strategies are not as effective as God’s grace.

I get a Confession of a sin, followed by a lengthy explanation of what they are doing to work on that sin. Maybe they are used to priests scolding them, or challenging them to think about ways to overcome that. Any strategy we make to overcome sin is entirely ineffective if we are not praying, not going to confession, not receiving the sacraments. I often find that the practical advice is inadequate. The most that I often do is ask them to find a mentor or few friends who can help with advice and accountability.

  1. Read the Scriptures

I know Catholics suck at reading or studying the Scriptures. I am not comfortable giving this out as a penance to many people, because many people look at the bible like operating a complicated and elite piece of machinery. I remind them that the Psalms are a good source of prayer, and the Gospels are how we can know about Jesus. This is also very dangerous. It can provoke them to love God and others more.

  1. The Holy Spirit seems to be working in their life

I can’t count how many times, someone enters Confession, after having to traverse many internal challenges. I really admire so many people boldly crying out to Christ in their brokenness. I am moved. As they are their wallowing, imagining that God wants to lunge and hurl condemnations, that the opposite is very true. The courage that to show up is probably an indication of the Spirit’s guidance in their life.

When Penance time comes around I usually assign a few non-traditional penances

  1. Read the Sunday Bible Readings

Every once and a while, I find that someone wants more. They have no legitimate mentors in their life to steer them in the direction of mature faith. One simple thing anyone can do is spend some time in prayer with the Readings for Mass. I started doing this my Senior Year of High School, now it’s my job to do it.

  1. Gratitude List

If someone doubts, they need to see evidence of God’s loving activity in their life. If someone sins, they need to see evidence that God will care for their needs. A gratitude list is a practical way for anyone to look with their eyes, and read aloud, the good things God does for them. Then they can thank them in a Litany. I tell them, as a penance, that they are required to do this once within 3 days, and that I encourage them to do it regularly 1-2x/week. This is very much rooted in Augustine’s Confessions: Writing down exactly how God has been good and generous in your life.

  1. Jesus Prayer

This is one of the ancient practices of our faith. Catholics are trained to see encountering God as a tedious, and often emotionally exhausting exercise, instead of seeing Christ as the source of all our new life. I find, over and over, Catholics are astounded that we have had this simple quiet meditation prayer for centuries, and that they are only hearing about it now.

  1. Offer a Mass Intention / Offer a Holy Hour

I save this one for Catholics that I have indication to believe that they are involved in their faith. I charge them to offer a Mass intention or a Holy Hour (it depends on the circumstances), in reparation for their sins, and in reparation for others who have struggled with the same sin. Sometimes I hear confessions before Mass, or during a Holy Hour. I also trust that they might be happy to bring their bibles, rosaries, and prayer books to adoration, and be set.