When it comes to fallen away Catholics, it seems that each person has a singular event that pushed them over the edge. More likely than not, it was a harsh encounter with a religious. A nun yelling at them or a particularly brutal confessor, the trauma that resulted sadly caused them to leave their home. Like a young runaway, they found themselves in a strange place, cold, alone, and hurting with a possible return truly doubtful. I think that so much of that hurt comes from an experience that didn’t reconcile with their vision of the Church. The Church, and Christians in general, are supposed to be loving, kind, and gentle people, while being compassionately firm when correcting one another. Those in the religious life are supposed to epitomize those characteristics. So when one has a difficult encounter with a religious, they can understandably question the entire system.
I think that it’s a valid reaction to be shocked and hurt when experiencing a blistering confessor. When I go to Confession, I’m in a vulnerable place. I acknowledge where I’ve gone wrong and am frustrated and sad that I’ve made poor choices that were entirely, if not easily, avoidable. I want the carrot, not the stick. I want to be reminded of the ultimate reward for a life well lived, not a beating for the mistakes that I’ve made. Positive reinforcement with some helpful suggestions always carries me further than an indignant response from my confessor. We all feel this way.
The emotions of the penitent is what makes it so important for priests to really focus on their skills as a confessor. This is truly the moment that can make or break faith. The penitent takes a risk, naming their sins and seeking forgiveness. If all goes well, they may reform and make it to the finish line. If the experience is a scarring one, those wounds may cost the game.
While we need tender care in the confessional, there are also times when we need to be called out. Sin takes root and thrives when we’re comfortable. In fact, I might even make the argument that we’re too comfortable. From time to time we really need a reality check in the confessional, but one that comes from solid counseling, not solely from firm admonishment. I think back to the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me Satan.” Had Jesus left it at that, Peter’s hurt very well may have caused him to, like the rich young man, go away sad. Although it’s not included in the Gospel, I like to think that Jesus pulled Peter aside and offered kind words and encouragement. This is the model of Confession that I think we can get behind. Clear boundaries are drawn, then we’re built back up and sent on our mission.
It’s terribly sad when people feel excluded from the life-giving mission of the Church. While we all have, and will, experience very difficult encounters with religious, faithful, and our fellow Catholics, it’s important to analyze our own emotions and motivations. Perhaps we’re all just living a little too comfortable and could use more accountability in our lives. How we respond in these situations could make or break us. Choose to accept the situation in humility and let nothing prevent you from actively participating in the life of the Church.