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.