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Issue Date:  August 13, 2004

I hear confessions


I hear confessions at St. Francis of Assisi Church in midtown Manhattan. It is possibly my chief work. The two confessionals are spare, small and often cold. In summer, awful odors can linger, a composite of perfume, cologne or spent breath. The stale smell of a cigarette occasionally rises from clothing or is borne on the spoken word. My tiny fan does battle with it. This is the setting in which a variety of people pop in to go to confession. They are at all points in the journey to God.

Some are in the midst of an anxiety attack and desperately want to be at peace. Delicately, I try to deepen self-understanding but their defenses can be formidable: fear of change and emotional withdrawal. I encourage a spirit of openness, of maintaining a network of good friends. I urge them to live a balanced life: Eat well, pray, be productive, keep up with family and friends, get some exercise. I think perhaps these may give birth to insight that will liberate them from fear and set them in the right direction.

Many people deal with anger over genuine hurts and with their inability to forgive someone. Perhaps bitterness and resentment have killed off a valued and cherished relationship. We both sense the way forward lies in forgiveness. But how does it work? I offer the thought that forgiveness breaks a chain to old hurts and their hold on me. It frees me from reacting to what has been. I am increasingly free to choose how I shall respond and live. That at least is my own experience of forgiving another. It is a little morsel to offer, but with it God can feed them.

Some have suffered abuse. They visibly struggle to speak about a consuming darkness. The voice may crack: Where was God when I needed him? I wonder the same thing. They have decided they will forgive God. I am stung by his or her greatness of heart. In the next breath someone has knocked down one or another of the commandments like a bowling pin. There is no boasting. It was a slip-up. But sometimes there is sadness in the voice. Something is a besetting sin. Shall he ever be free of it? I wonder how to encourage him. I urge patience with oneself and with God’s grace. Live each day simply and roundly. Appreciate that maturity and self-control take shape over time. I emphasize the strengths he has already developed. He listens and shares a smile.

People say they have failed to trust God. A man in his 50s is let go after a quarter-century with his firm. A single mother is now knocked back into welfare. A grandmother discovers that her grandson, a teen, has dropped out of school or is running with the wrong crowd. A breadwinner is taken seriously ill. At home there is a handicapped child. The outpouring numbs me. I am stung that my comfort and security threaten to distance me from them. Do I even know what it means to be tempted against trusting God? When did I last pray, “Lord, save me”? Like a chorus at my center, I hear the words “O man of little faith …”

Though small as the mustard seed, faith knows a good, hearty laugh. Take the little boy who confessed adultery. “And what is that?” “When you hit your sister.” We talked about getting along, even loving one’s sister. That proved too much for him. Defeated, I told him next time just tell the priest you hit your sister. With that agreeable conclusion, he was out the door. Then there was the little boy who didn’t know how to begin. Trying to jolt his memory, I asked when was his last confession. In the instant he was on his feet. Throwing open the curtain, he yelled in a crowded church, “Ma, when was my last confession?” Mortified, she lowered her head. I went out to her, steeped in apologies. She was gracious, and at the telling of the tale we shared a soft laugh together.

People’s faith is gentle and humble. In particular, the poor pray with profound gratitude for all God’s blessings. I think to myself, “What blessings?” But I learn from them. They are my teachers. And then there are intimate moments. Sobbing may accompany words of sorrow. Absolving, the Spirit lifts one into the Kingdom of the Beloved Son and strengthens us to walk as children of the light. At the end, a pause, a breath of silence before God who has moved among his children: Go in peace.

Fr. Kevin M. Tortorelli is a Franciscan priest in New York.

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 2004

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