Monday, January 23, 2006

thou shalt not smell

In these times of waning interest in the sacrament of reconciliation among the faithful, we administrators of the sacraments should go the extra mile to make confession as available and inviting as possible.

As Demagistris admonished us constantly back in the day: "Non fare oneroso il sacramento!!!"

A youngster's first confession is often a make-it-or-break-it experience. Years down the road the penitent may not remember what he or she confessed that day, but the impression and feelings of the moment will linger for a long time.

I heard first confessions this weekend at St.Michael's, an African American parish in the heart of this city's war zone. If, along with grace and forgiveness, the kids left the church with a smile and a desire to come back some time, I'd say I did my job.

The Exorcist humbly offers a few tips to brother confessors that may help make repeat offenders repeat penitents.

1. Do not smell. More folks have abandoned the confessional because of the padre's doggy breath or fermenting socks than were 'reeducated' during the Inquisition. For most kids, the reconciliation room is as close up as they've ever been to that guy who stands behind the altar in the flowing robes. They simply will not get past a bad odor. Brush your teeth. Use mouthwash. Shower. Shave. Soap and deoderant are real crowd pleasers. Wear clean clothes. Don't gross the folks out.

2. Assuming you've gotten #1 down, SMILE. A sincere, friendly smile tells the penitent that he'll probably come out all right. It seems to imply that the priest has pretty much heard it all and will not get all medieval on him. It definitely means that the padre is not in a hurry, not bored, not wishing he were somewhere else or with someone else.

3. Be serious. Not mean, not harsh, not threatening. Listen and guide, but don't belittle or make light of anything you hear in the confessional. If it meant enough to the penitent to bring it to the confessional, it is to be taken seriously.

4. Restrain yourself from asking unnecessary questions. A good confessor knows how to glean what the penitent means from what he has actually said. If you get it, move on. There is such a thing as a confession that is TOO detailed.

5. Give a penance that means something. The ol' "three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys" isn't terribly pedagogical, whereas "say a personal prayer of thanksgiving for all the good things God has done for you", "go out of your way to be charitable to someone you dislike", "sacrifice some of your free time to help out around the house", "read and meditate on the parable of the good samaritan"... and the like work a lot better.

6. Be there. After a couple of years without set confession times in the parish, I began sitting in the confessional from day one for half an hour before each Mass. It is never a waste of time.