I am afraid that on top of our Catholic parish problems with Covid-19, we might be creating another. With bishops having exercised authority to absolve all Catholics in the United States from the Sunday Mass obligation last spring, the question has now become how to reinstate the obligation. I listened to Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki’s three-minute video to Catholics of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, where the obligation of Sunday Mass is being restored this weekend [September 19-20]. In essence, he restates the Church’s general law about Mass attendance on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, which has for years described details of exceptions from Sunday Mass for the seriously ill, and those who care for them. He is one of the first bishops in the country to reinstate the obligation after the first wave of Covid-19. I assumed that the Archbishop had been in sync with Milwaukee’s civil authorities in terms of safety regulations, but in reviewing the city’s local newspaper coverage [The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel], it would appear that the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s relationship with the city of Milwaukee has been, for want of a better word, odd. As early as May, several Catholic churches were reopened as the diocese declared itself an essential service, though groups bigger than ten [e.g., the Milwaukee Brewers MLB team] were closed to the public by civil authorities.
The coverage of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is beginning to bring to Catholic media the question of whether Catholics are truly bound under pain of mortal sin to return to public Mass if their own reading of public health factors and conditions are more serious than the reading of a local bishop, the corollary issue being whether a bishop can declare individuals in grave, hell-deserving sin on September 20 when he did not condemn the absence from Mass on September 13 as equally sinful Trust me, you will be asked this question or, just as likely, forced to describe Church discipline by anyone who depends on you for “the Catholic straight dope.” I don’t normally post from the news service Life Site because of its sometimes too literal interpretations of Catholic life, but I was intrigued by LS columnist Phil Lawler’s critique of the way the American bishops have pastorally managed sacraments and closings during the Covid-19 first wave. Lawler believes that the Covid closings and dispensations—in the fashion they were executed—have cost bishops a good deal of authority. I told my wife in March that people—particularly parents—will decide when to resume church and public life, and not one minute sooner, despite what our bishop or governor might say.
Lawler makes a particularly good point about the exercise of authority. On the question of when to return to common Eucharistic worship on Sundays. He writes “the individual must answer that question for himself. His answer will depend on his particular circumstances: his age, his overall health, the possible risks of exposure to new disease. The pastor cannot come take his temperature and his medical history. The individual must trust his own judgment.” Catholics presumably read newspapers or their on-line equivalent and/or watch local news. If they read The New York Times this morning [September 22] which provides an up-to-the minute national tally of cases and trends, they might have noticed Wisconsin’s third place showing in the last fourteen-day “fastest spiking of the virus” derby. Evidently the Bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin, reads “The Grey Lady,” for he did not reimpose the obligation of Mass. [By the way, that NYT database is free, as I understand it, and you can have it emailed to your home.]
I have to say that the process of deciding when it was safe for me and my wife to return to public Masses was not by any stretch anguishing, but we did think about it critically. We are both well into the “precondition of age” category used in risk management for Corona though with few if any other preconditions. Florida locked down by state order in mid-March, but my parish offered the livestream Mass and the Triduum via YouTube, and we attended from home for a while. I believe it was late May when my parish reopened for offering public Sunday Masses, and weekday Masses soon thereafter, using a computer reservation system for the limited seats on the weekend. We determined during the summer that we would be safe attending the Thursday noon Mass live, as very few people attend that Mass.
Florida, as you might remember, was the heart of the “summer spike” with ten to fifteen thousand new cases per day in our state, but as July moved into September and our daily state numbers now sit in the two to three thousand range, we mutually decided to attend a weekend Mass to gauge the safety against our standards. For about a month now we have been attending our Sunday evening “Life Teen” Mass, though evidently some of our senior friends and fellow parishioners also feel safe at this lightly attended Mass, and I got to thinking that the “Life Teen” Mass might acquire a new nickname shortly. I think that collectively our conscience decision circled round our personal Catholic upbringing and understanding of the importance of the weekly Eucharist, our sense that going to Mass together is an important part of our marital common life, and that my wife’s high visibility as the parish school’s founding principal has some sort of bell weather influence on others thinking of returning. In addition, on a more practical note, the University of Central Florida reopened and my wife needed to return to her UCF supervisory role of student teachers at a variety of neighboring public schools, where admittedly some risk is involved [though the public school protocols seem to be holding up quite well, albeit with a bit of anxiety.] We agreed that attending the Eucharist on Sunday deserved the same level of faith-driven risk taking that teachers take on in their work environment.
My own personal reflections on returning to Mass ran in a different direction. Strange as it may seem, I deeply enjoyed the break from the Sunday live attendance for a time. For all my adult life I had attended and/or pastored small parishes—seating several hundred—so adjusting to an affluent mega-parish was hard. Our church is situated in a wealthy suburb north of Orlando, and in all my years there we have never had a sermon that might “afflict the comforted,” as someone put it. Actually, I am not criticizing the preaching; it is the best product to be expected in the present-day atmosphere of the unholy marriage of politics, culture wars, and ultratraditional spirituality. Dividing a long-established canonical parish community is a serious thing, and my priests have stuck to a formula that largely avoids this problem.
Unfortunately, the product of years of peace keeping is a vanilla religious experience that describes not just the sermons but the selection of music and the style of the rites. If I were to say that “I get nothing out of Mass” the textbook response would be that my malaise is totally of my own making. Perhaps this is true in my case. But sacraments did not and do not originate from sole human experience. They are extensions of God’s love and direction. The Eucharist is the consummate feeding sacrament—feeding of the mind, of the emotions, of the body. Logically, an expectation of being taken to a new plane of existence ought to be the norm for all sacraments, but particularly for the Mass, an in-time reenactment of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the rising of the Lord [hence, “the Lord’s Day”].
The Greek philosopher Aristotle [384-322 B.C.] composed The Poetics, considered the greatest definition of the qualities of drama and tragedy of all time. The Poetics was considered required reading at my seminary, as the celebration of Mass is the enactment of the pivotal drama of human experience. Two points from Aristotle:  drama must maintain unity of action, i.e. every word, every rite point to the climax, and  the dramatic climax must raise our emotions to a point where we feel washed out, an experience called catharsis.
I have experienced precious little catharsis over the years of attending Mass; the sacrament seems celebrated as a checklist of things to be done, interrupted by personal pieties of the celebrant or the inordinately long list of “announcements” that go on longer than Luther’s 95 Theses. And so, for a period of weeks, on and off, I did think about making a break from active membership. I envisioned what life might be like without the Church, or in another faith community like the Quakers, or as a “sole proprietor” of my soul. I suspect that I decided not to give up on Catholicism in large part because I was baptized as one and honestly cannot imagine being something else. Curiously, the Café blog was helpful in stretching my own frontiers of belief and devotion. In doing an entry on the Reformation, for example, I was deeply moved by Martin Luther's metaphor of the Eucharist. When the bread and wine are changed at Mass, he wrote, we experience the final act of the Incarnation--God entering our world in full reality.
I remember the first evening I returned to a live Sunday Mass, and as I was leaving I laughed at myself as I remembered all the reasons I was so dissatisfied earlier in the year, and by George, they were all still there. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it is the need for every Catholic to own his or her faith identity in every sense of the word. Put another way, to cultivate a well-formed Catholic conscience in the active tense, to take responsibility to look at the enormous corpus of Catholic prayer, theology, and history. To know one’s self well enough, for example, to confidently make moral choices such as whether it is safe and prudent to attend Mass. To pray in a truly cathartic sense. To do nothing to divide the Church and society further apart. To endure uninspiring liturgy for the many tangential reasons that make sense to you: good example to others, for one.
I will probably wrestle with liturgical agitation for a long time, but if I may quote the wise old New York Giants Coach Bill Parcells, “You are what your record says you are.” So, if your behind is weekly planted in a church pew, then you know who you are.
One final point: Catholics will always be in tension with some aspect of the Church’s human frailty. I like to think this is one of the reasons Christ instituted the Sacrament of Penance—the place to be honest about who and where you are.
All sacraments are gifts of God. In one sense the gift is always the same, a better union with a God who is total love. In another sense God’s gifts are differentiated to account for the age of the recipient and his or her specific needs to grow over a lifetime. In its treatment of sacraments during the Council, Vatican II [1962-1965] called for reforms of the seven sacramental rites so that Catholics—and the world at large—can more clearly experience and understand what is happening to them at the hands of God.
Unfortunately, the rites and the catecheses of sacraments have been poorly explained or not executed so that the experience of sacraments is reduced to mental belief in formulas. The old Baltimore catechisms of my Catholic upbringing promised a great deal from the sacraments, but in my own case, I remember how let down I was after my Confirmation that I felt exactly the same after the rite as I had before. [Years later, the American Benedictine liturgist Aidan Cavanaugh would say of Confirmation that that it takes as much faith to believe the bishop is using oil as it does to believe in the coming of the Holy Spirit.]
This is the fifth post of a series on COVID-19; specifically, the question of how many Catholics who are not presently celebrating sacraments during the pandemic will or will not return as it is deemed safe to do so in the various regions of the country by health officials. My theme throughout these entries has been  to take the longer view of fifty years of Catholic departures, of which Corona is a major but momentary spike in the depletion of parishes, and  to recommend a rethinking of why two or three generations of Catholics have already left for good, looking at how the Church might improve our modus operandi and attract or reunite with the many who are not with us now, regardless of the timing.
I have been focusing on the sacrament of Penance, though the other sacraments will get their turn. But I focused first on Penance because even the best Catholics, those still attending, struggle to experience what the sacraments promise. My father who attended daily Mass and rosary, admitted to me forty years ago on a fishing trip that he never got anything out of confession, and he went “only because your mother said I have to.” I was in my 30’s then, a pastor, and his comments got me to thinking about the wide gulf between even the most faithful of Catholics in terms of what they were experiencing and what the Church promised regarding Penance, and for that matter, all the sacraments.
The heart of Penance is the experience of God’s loving healing through an intermediary ordained to make this love personal and relevant, to help a penitent set aright the areas of life that distract from or dissuade from the journey to the perfect God. The Baltimore Catechism states clearly that we were made to know, love, and serve God in this life and be happy with Him forever in heaven. Spiritual writers through the centuries have advised that in our journey to God, we are either moving forward or drifting backward. Unfortunately, the penitential sacrament became the “automatic pilot” exercise and appears to remain so today, possibly because the term “good Catholic” has become equated to the stable Catholic.
It would probably help Catholics if there was a clearer catechetics about sin and forgiveness. The division of mortal and venial sins, for example, results in something of a paradox. Mortal sin is defined in the Catechism [para. 1861] as “a radical loss of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying [saving] grace, that is, the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices forever, with no turning back….” The Catechism balances the scales by giving devoting large sections to the joys of heaven and directives on living a virtuous, prayerful. All the same, the idea of a hopeless and abandoned existence such as hell tends to dwarf the rest of the conversation. If there is a second category of sins [venial] not deemed sufficiently bad enough to send one to hell, then we have stretched the word “sin” almost to the point of breaking.
The very existence of hell has come under renewed scrutiny throughout my lifetime. Stepping aside from the ivy-cloaked academic halls of theology and related disciplines, the basic catechetics of parish life, starting with the second graders, hammers home not just the reality of hell but also the idea that all of us live very close to the guard rail from eternal damnation. [First Penance, for reasons unclear to me, is presently celebrated before two sacraments of initiation into the Church, First Eucharist and Confirmation.] Given that so little energy was invested in the full Vatican II theology of Penance, and that the full rite of penance is not used even today in many parishes, it is helpful to see what is supposed to happen during individual confession, as in the British Rite of Penance [paras. 15-20]. In 2015 Pope Francis also wrote a personal exhortation to use the full penitential rite [Ordo Paenitentiae, 1973] in personal confession.
I offer here two strands of popular thought that need to be addressed if the sacrament is to become part and parcel of Catholic life.
 God did not have to create us. He did so, we are told, as an act of pure love, and He desires our companionship for all eternity. And yet He has created us with enough free will to land ourselves in eternal torment. Many Catholics find this theology hard to grasp and/or have crafted personal “salvific plans” that they can live with in this world or the next.
 If a mortal sin can actually bring a Christian to such an unthinkable destination, then it would stand to reason that mortal sins must be universally recognized by reasonable folks, such as atrocious deeds, universally despised, in the league of Hitler and mass murderers. But the Catechism  states that “no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man.” The statement suggests that this inborn knowledge of the law of nature is known and easily accessible to all persons. To complicate natural law further, all sexual sins are considered mortal in official Catholic theology because human intercourse was created. Artificial birth control, for example, is considered, ipso facto, a mortal sin, though I would wager that not one in a thousand Catholics has any idea of the Church’s philosophical argument to support this. Or put another way, do the thousands of Catholics who use the pill to space their children either know or believe they are in mortal trouble, so to speak?
 I do not know how many people still publicly argue that “I confess to God directly” rather than to a priest or another human being. The question may be moot as, noted above, it is quite possible that many people sense no need to confess in the first place. However, as a close friend critiqued my thinking for this entry, I have to admit that the Church needs to consider the skills set of confessors to personify the various needs of penitents and the best ways of phrasing Gospel morality to a particular soul. My friend and I are both of the “Required Mandatory Withdrawal from IRA Accounts” age, and we talked about whether newly ordained priests, for example, sufficiently grasp the realities of seniors, spiritual and existential.
According to Canon Law, any priest validly ordained and enjoying the faculties [judicial approval] of his bishop or religious superior can hear the confession of a Catholic of any age and impart absolution of confessed known mortal sins, as well as of venial sins. But nowhere does the Church teach that in the normal liturgical life only the words of absolution constitute the rite. The penitent should have the opportunity to explain and examine what he or she understands about their current life’s journey and how it is intertwined with conduct at this particular instant, negatively and positively.
In my own case, I begin every confession with a very brief but descriptive curriculum vitae, that I am a laicized priest and now a man who is validly married in the Church for nearly a quarter century. I tell my age and talk about the moral challenges unique to this constellation that is me: I have my health, I am not poor, I am happily married, I am trained in two distinct disciplines, theology and mental health. I exercise. Given my advancing age, I know that I do not have unlimited days, so the question of how to do the most good with a racing calendar is always on my mind. I do have doubts from time to time that God loves me or is pleased with the 72+ years body of work I have amassed so far. And with the inevitable wisdom that comes from age and experience, I look back with regrets about the things I have left undone as well as what I have done.
Now it may occur to some that such soul searching would be better done in a counselor’s office or even in spiritual direction. But God did not establish a psychotherapy sacrament; his intention was a sacrament which replicated the ministry of his Son, who advised the enthusiastic young man on his conversion [Matthew 19: 16-22], engaged the Samaritan woman on her marital and doctrinal outlook [John 4: 1-26]; and persuasively led a questioning Nicodemus toward a new vision of his faith [John 3: 1-21].
Since the Council of Trent [1545-1563] the Church has placed a great premium upon the healing exchange of the Sacrament of Penance. The patron saint of parish priests, St. John Vianney [1786-1859], was known throughout Europe for his confessional grace, sometimes spending eighteen hours per day engaged in the Sacrament of Penance. Princes and rulers sought to confess to him; obviously, they were seeking more than a brief, juridical exchange they could easily have received from their personal chaplains. In our time, Pope John Paul II restricted the used of General Absolution [a rite of canonical forgiveness without confession] in favor of the interpersonal experience of the confessional, God’s personal intervention and interaction with his people who, like the proverbial snowflakes, are beautiful and unique.
If this is what we want, how do we get there?
I did not leave Washington, D.C., immediately after my ordination in September 1974, but I remained at my home friary near Catholic University for an extra five days to visit the high schools in Georgetown where my retreat teams had given three-day retreats over the past four years. Armed with my “faculties” from Cardinal O’Boyle, I offered the student body Mass at each location, and then I told the principal I could stay for a while if anyone wanted to go to confession. [There was a long tradition then of confessing to “Father Visitor” in parishes and schools.] Those days were my first true full immersion into the Sacrament of Penance. Some of the students had been on three or four retreats with me over the years, and I remember my overriding intention in those confessions was to reinforce the idea that the Church was their home and that they could trust priests to help them through life. I honestly cannot say I was aware of significant departures from the Church in 1974 [though later professional research would establish that] but I did know that teenagers commonly left the Church in college or the service. I felt a mission to do what I could to reverse that.
After my first day of hearing confession, I felt like I was born for the task in terms of comfort with the rite and the human interchanges. I had done hours of counseling during my years giving youth retreats from the major seminary, so the interactions in the confessional were quite easy. The rite of the sacrament then—confession of sin and absolution—was not exactly rocket science. In fact, just months before my ordination, the Vatican released the “study copy” of the post-Vatican II proposed reform rite for the Sacrament of Penance, so technically we were still using the old rite in 1974, though many parishes and religious communities were experimenting with proposals from the newly proposed rite of Penance, from face-to-face confession to group penance services. I might add here that the New York Times did an exhaustive article on the Vatican Penance reform in 1974, and it is interesting to see the Times predictions vis-à-vis the state of confession in 2020.
During my first week of confession I found that my young penitents “had narratives” or life stories to tell, some quite emotionally. This jelled with what my professors had taught, that the moral life was not just a succession of hermetically sealed missteps but a major journey toward meaning and virtue. In the relative leisure afforded to me that week, I was able to hear their narratives. I explained to them that in their parishes their priests might not have the time to give them significant attention or counsel, so I advised them to find a priest they were comfortable in talking with, perhaps at my seminary where a surprising number of “retreat alumni” were already attending our 11 AM Sunday conventual Mass. I told every one of them that Jesus and his Church loved them; I guess that would be called “evangelization” today but it was an attitude that me and many of my ordination classmates absorbed by disposition and example. It did not hurt that my branch of the Franciscan Order had a particularly good reputation as confessors and spiritual directors in the Catholic University ambit.
I got to my first assignment later in September 1974, to the chaplain’s office at Siena College. When I got there the term “college chaplaincy” was morphing into “campus ministry” and creating a new template for college work, but basically the chaplains [there were three of us on the team when I arrived] were operating a canonical parish within the college. While not overwhelmed by confessional demands, I have to say that Mass attendance by the students was very impressive. I remembered something from a grad school lecture by the late liturgical scholar Father Regis Duffy. A sacramental genius, Duffy told us that young people effectively minister and heal each other, and that we as future priests must respect and enhance this process. I found this to be excellent advice. Providing compelling Eucharistic celebrations, particularly on the weekends, was my focus, i.e., I spent a lot more time arranging music ministry than hearing confessions.
That said, much of my time was spent with students in the coffee shop and the Rathskeller [as well as arranging weddings for alumni.] Sometimes after a long conversation one or another student might spontaneously request absolution. During my final semester there, I offered a late evening Mass on every wing of the boys’ dormitories during Lent and I included General Absolution in the Masses, to keep the sacramental sense of forgiveness and divine reconciliation alive in their formation. I found that, spiritually speaking, most students who confessed or sought advice were using the college years to “figure things out” in the best sense of the term. For example, I got more feedback from students about our 10:15 PM Sunday Quiet Mass than anything else we did. I did not initiate this custom, but I wish I had. We had a commuter student with an ear for meditational music who would play pieces through our sound system in the parts of the Mass where there would have been congregational singing. The most common assessment: “I really liked that opportunity to be quiet with God and get my head together for the next week.”
Given the size of our campus ministry staff, I had opportunities to take weeks off during the school year and summers to conduct retreats for communities of women’s religious in New England and New York. [I had made many connections with communities during summer school years at St. Bonaventure University.] In those circumstances I was responsible for the conferences and the confessions. It was involving work, to say the least. Nearly all the retreatants were professed sisters, professionals in education, medicine, or a comparable field. And appropriately enough, many would use the occasion of the annual retreat to make a general confession. Looking back to my first week retreat for the Sisters of Mercy in 1975, I can only shake my head in bemusement. I guess all of us of a certain age look back on our youthful adventures with a certain shudder and say, “I could never do that today.”
In my own case, I think that whatever success was achieved in the conferences and confessions of those early years was sustained by youthful enthusiasm. This is not a bad thing except that enthusiasm of itself is not enough to sustain a minister for the long haul. I was able to affirm religious penitents in their ministries, to thank them for their work, console and commiserate with them at a stressful time in the Church’s history, give space to those who were debating their futures, and accept their intentions to live their lives and/or their vows in step with Divine calling. I had the advantage of being young, open-minded, musical, and liturgically updated as well, which might not be so typical for the older diocesan priests who regularly served the religious communities.
I learned my inadequacies: I needed more training and personal experience in the development of a spiritual life, both for consecrated religious and the lay persons of the Church [and myself, of course]. I was not satisfied with my advice to sisters, for example, who would tell me of their difficulties in binding together their prayer dispositions with the stresses of work that filled their day. I needed much more understanding of works from Erik Erikson and others to grasp the significance of human development and life stages to provide religious counsel in the confessional in “age-appropriate” idioms. I realized that better retreat conferences require much more “desk time” and research—a lesson reinforced by the Café blogsite just about every day.
I had hoped that I might become a full time retreat master for my Order, but I felt that to strengthen my credibility with religious and Church ministers, I should give several years to the stresses of parish life. After four years at the college, I informed my Order’s superior of my intention, and “several years” quickly became eleven years of pastoring one church and four years at another in Central Florida. This span of years included building a new church and serving in several diocesan capacities, including president of the priests’ council twice. I even had time for one sisters’ retreat. I received a frantic call from the chancery one Friday morning informing me that a big-name retreat master was unable to conduct the diocese’s annual sisters’ retreat, and could I be ready to go on at 6 PM at Treasure Island Resort in Daytona Beach? But those opportunities were few and far between.
Instead, I was a 24-hour pastor, and after a year or two I learned some things about the spirituality of parishes. Parishes are places that “always remain the same” where the dependable services are celebrated day after day or year after year. You can always count on your parish for Sunday Mass, daily Mass, First Communion, weddings, funerals, Mass cards, etc. Parishes sustain Church life. The challenge for a pastor is making sure that sustaining the faith does not stultify it, either. Confession is a good case in point. When I arrived at my first parish, confession was offered Saturday before the Vigil Mass and “by appointment.” This seems to be an arrangement still current today.
Confession in a tight time window—with a line behind the penitent—puts a premium on efficiency for the “sinner” and “the priest.” Such a format only permits time for the bare canonical or legal requirements of confessing all known sins and the absolution of sins by the intercession of the ordained minister, a far cry from the full rite for individual confession released in the post Vatican II reform in the 1970’s. The EWTN website provides the rubrics of how the Penance sacrament is supposed to be celebrated in the confessional. In a sense, years of customary brief confessions overpowered the much more powerful sacramental rite put forward in the 1970’s.
The reading of Scripture, the opportunity to personalize the need for forgiveness, the offering of comfort and spiritual advice by the priest—were [and continue to be] stifled to the point that going to confession has become just another “devotional” for a minority in typical parish life.
Next time, I will talk about some strategies we employed to communicate the richness of the Penitential experience—some success, some failures. Of course, I was not totally plugged into the reality that by the mid-1980’s a good many Catholics had abandoned the rite altogether.