This is a crossover post, appearing in both the Morality Stream and The Boys from Aroma Hill Seminary Stream of the Catechist Café.
I vividly remember my first confession at Callicoon. I had arrived on a Saturday [September 8, 1962] as a high school freshman, and I found the regimentation very difficult. I was homesick and feeling out of place as the lifestyle, atmosphere, and routine were becoming clearer to me. After several days of a variety of orientations we were to begin school on Wednesday, and I had sincere hopes that after the academic routine took over, the seminary experience might make more sense to me.
On the Tuesday night before classes started, as I was coming out of the refectory after dinner, I got flagged by the assistant prefect of discipline, Father Cyprian Burke. He asked me my name, and then he said: “I was watching you eat. Your table manners are poor. You swallowed an entire tomato slice without cutting it. You need to improve your manners. I’ll be looking for an improvement, Thomas.” Then he dismissed me. This was the proverbial last straw of my initial St. Joe’s introduction. Four days and I had already messed up. I was learning a lot about the word “discouragement.”
In that evening gloom I wandered thoughtlessly down the long corridor to the chapel, where I discovered that Tuesday night confessions were taking place. [There were eight regularly assigned confessors—four on Tuesday night, four on Thursday night.] The first names of the friar confessors were posted on the confessional doors. To my surprise, I saw that Father Cyprian was one of the confessors. Aha! Here was a chance to make peace with the assistant prefect and assure him that I could obey the rules. So, I entered the box and confessed that I had been neglectful in my dining habits and that I would always cut my tomatoes like a gentleman, and that I thanked him for his corrective intervention.
Just as I was wrapping up my first St. Joe’s confession, I realized that I was not confessing to Father Cyprian Burke, the assistant prefect of discipline, but rather, I was confessing to Father Cyprian Lynch, the professor of history and civics. My distant recollection is that Father Cyprian Lynch took this odd confession in stride, told me to keep trying, and gave me absolution. As it turned out, I continued going to Father Cyprian Lynch throughout my high school years. I cannot remember how often we were required to go to confession, to tell the truth. It was either weekly or biweekly. [There was, of course, no way for the faculty to really know how often we seminarians went to confession, given the seal of the confessional.] I went to confession partly out of duty and partly out of the belief that the sacrament must be doing some good in an invisible way. I was generally faithful about going to confession at least every two weeks. Unfortunately, I cannot remember any advice that was proffered in those four years, or indeed, if any was proffered at all. And this is no reflection on the goodness of Father Cyprian, whom I later enjoyed as a history teacher and fellow priest-friar down the road.
We had Mass every morning at 6 AM, and during that Mass the seminary’s spiritual director, Father Eric Kyle—or occasionally a substitute—always entered the confessional and remained there until the distribution of communion. One morning, in a rare gush of devotion, I decided to confess during the Mass, and as it happened to Father Roman Pfeiffer, who was substituting for Father Eric. I served up my routine and shopworn list of venial offenses, and when I finished Father Roman gave me a scolding. “Don’t you know this time is reserved for emergencies?” I accepted the admonition though I was puzzled about what constituted “an emergency.”
I swear, I was well past 50 years old, a catechetical instructor for my diocese, thinking about old Roman Pfeiffer, and one day I slapped myself on the side of the head and exclaimed, “So that’s why there was always a confessor available every morning!” Since the Middle Ages—and up to the present day in the Catechism of the Catholic Church--official Church teaching holds that any violation of the sixth commandment is grave matter, i.e., mortally sinful. Cardinal McElroy of San Diego touched off a firestorm in recent weeks when he observed in the public media that the sixth and ninth commandments, which deal with sexuality, are the only commandments of the entire ten in which every offense is mortal. No venial sins where sex is concerned. All the other commandments break down into either grave [mortal] or venial matter. McElroy wondered aloud why this is, and whether the Church needs to revisit its official moral reasoning on human sexuality.
Of course, now having discovered that [e=mc2] and better understanding the sacramental rules of the game in our day—and, I guess, still today on the books--my mind rolled on to some curious subsets about life on the Hill. I thought about our library. In my early years at St. Joe’s Father Pascal Marie, our French teacher, was also the librarian. He exercised prudery like an art form, to the degree that he cut out of Time and Newsweek any photo of a woman except Eleanor Roosevelt, and you never knew when she might disappear, too. You might be reading a serious article about the Federal Reserve and discover that the critical 25% of the essay had been excised because a photo of John Profumo’s mistress, Christine Keeler, was printed on the reverse side. Which is why I never understood the extraordinarily long shelf life of a library book called The 87th Precinct.
There are over fifty books in this series of police novels about a New York City detective Steve Carella and his deaf-mute wife, Teddy. [There was a brief TV series based on the characters, too.] But there was a considerable number of us who were, at the least, aware that one volume of the Naked City series had somehow gotten into the stacks alongside of Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Pop Warner’s Football for Boys. It got to a point where page 157 became notorious for what the old morality manuals would have called ‘salacious” and “lascivious” subject matter. Not that you had to search much—if you stood the book on its spine, it opened to that page instantly. I don’t recall that anyone ever signed the book out of the library. It had unofficial “reference book” status among freshmen and sophomores.
For all of that, there wasn’t much of a black market for naughty pictures or other “grave matter” in my minor seminary experience. Possession of such material would have been cause for immediate seminary expulsion, let alone an eternity in hell. One of my best friends today used to get the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated [How? Our mail was censored!] and show it off to anyone who would give him an extra dessert at supper. I do recall in my junior or senior year of high school an episode where a new high school freshman brought a trunk full of hard core “literature.” Ironically, I was assigned to meet him and his family, give them the tour of the seminary campus, and carry his trunk to the storage room with no idea of its contents. At some point that year his armory of pulp magazines was discovered, and he was quickly dispatched. When I heard about it from a friend I asked, “Did they dust the trunk for prints?”
We were not saints in the seminary, by any measure. There was bullying, physical assault, cheating, and vicious reputation destruction in which I had varying degrees of guilt over my six years there. I can also safely say that there was depression, anxiety, family stress, loneliness, grief, low self-esteem, academic frustration, gender confusion, and vocational searching among many of us. [I gained fifty pounds during my freshman year.] Of course, I can only vouch for my own experience in the confessional back then, but my understanding of the Sacrament of Penance in my years at St. Joe’s precluded any consideration that the things truly troubling me might be matters for the box, and evidently none of my confessors back then were conditioned to think spontaneously or preemptively in those terms, either. This is sad, considering the amount of time we invested on Tuesday and Thursday nights which led, in my case at any rate, to a diminishment of confidence in the sacramental confession as a vehicle of growth for many years.
In reviewing Maria Morrow’s Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession, 1955-1975 [published, 2016] I have a better understanding that seminarians of our time, the 1960’s, might not have been different from the general Catholic public in finding its spiritual/personal needs unmet in this sacrament. As an ordained priest I worked very hard at the Sacrament of Penance—to invite individuals to unburden themselves of their troubles, and to embrace new types of spirituality and behavior, i.e., to help them grow. Some penitents, I discovered, were creatures of routine and did not express much energy in breaking the mold. I had obtained a master’s degree in counseling, and in one instance I had a weekly penitent who confessed a compulsive sexual act at every confession. The sin was troubling, to the point that the individual wept every week during the confession. Finally, I offered this thought: “Perhaps the sin has a clinical compulsive base. [OCD] You know, I have read in my journals that tricyclic antidepressants can be very helpful in reducing the stress you are attempting to relieve in your behavior.” The penitent fired back: “I don’t come here for psychological bullshit.” Which leaves the question—why was this individual coming each week? Was the absolution part of the pathology?
In Morrow’s book she quotes a parish priest: “Quite often adult Catholics prepare for confession with the same examination of conscience they used as children, with the one exception of their expanded appreciation of the sixth commandment. As a result, their self-knowledge is often little more than preadolescent. The rarity with which sins of racial injustice are confessed and the almost utter oblivion of Catholics to their unchristian lack of involvement with the needs and problems of their environment point to a deficiency in their appreciation of sin and those responsibilities that go beyond the commandments. These are problems that obviously the mere frequency of penance will not solve. Indeed, habitual mechanical confessions serve only to perpetuate them.” [p. 223]
Even my father, a devout Catholic who confessed every two weeks, admitted that “I don’t get much from confession.” My mother, who made him go frequently, wasn’t too happy to hear that, and I thought it wise not to tell them that I agreed with my old man and that I only went to confession when I was able to confess to a skilled spiritual master of the sacrament, such as on retreat or visiting a religious house or friary. Morrow researched church documents from the 1950’s and discovered that Pope Pius XII felt compelled to admonish priest confessors for their complaints about having to hear routine or repetitious confessions where there was no evident change or growth taking place in the sacramental encounter. The priests, evidently, were as burned out as the penitents! If one thing becomes clear, it is that Penance as a sacrament needed a rethinking and a reform. What happened after the Council was that the format was changed but the philosophy did not.
“A change in philosophy” would include a return to the earliest roots of confession where the goal of the sacrament was growth in virtue, not the periodic juridical expulsion of evil. The ideal confessor would become a spiritual director, cognizant of such factors as human development. Teenagers in my day, and teenagers today need the subtle openness of wise adults to journey with them as they pass from childhood to adulthood, to cite one example. I believe there is hunger for this kind of sacramental approach today. I could have used that help sixty years ago. In the present day there are many laity and clergy seeking to develop their spirituality in self-study groups, personal spiritual direction, spiritual reading, and retreats. My own diocese is seeking to train new lay spiritual directors precisely because of a demand for such services. Spiritual guidance and direction in the following of Jesus appears to be the origin of personal confession as it evolved from the monasteries of Ireland. There is nothing to keep us from exploring reform of the penitential sacrament in this direction.