That Kneeling Pope

Rocco wrote, “(N)o Pope has ever been seen as a penitent.”

That never occurred to me when blogging about it last week. Perhaps I’ve become accustomed to seeing priests confess to one another in form II. Perhaps I’ve become accustomed to gestures from Pope Francis to the point where I shrug and say, “Of course.”

One cynic I read last week suggested that with the hiring of Greg Burke, everything is staged and nothing spontaneous at the Vatican any more. Does that mean the resignation of B16 was a media-savvy event, too? Somehow, I can’t imagine Mr Burke telling the Holy Father, “Pope Benedict, you’re killing us. It’s time to step down.”

Rocco’s eastern bias comes out, and I don’t know where he gets this bit:

With Francis – who has attributed his own conversion to an experience in the Confessional – any return to “box”-free absolution is about as likely as the restoration of the tiara.

It’s a nice sentiment, but the last handful of pastors I’ve worked for have noticed a few trends in the “box.” Yes, if they offer evening hours, penitents will come. The uptick, if we can assess it as such with our ever-shifting student population, is that more people are increasing their frequency, rather than believers going just that once more a year–or ever.

For the most part, the sacramental ministry of reconciliation is directed to and utilized by people well within the walls of the sacred country. Solid citizens are the ones I see lining up for form I on Saturday afternoons and Thursday nights at the student center. Likewise, those who will attend the communal liturgy the evening after tomorrow and again next week.

Pope Francis confesses twice a month. He would certainly be among the spiritual aristocracy of the capital city of the sacred country. As an archbishop, he was surrounded by priests. And when he wasn’t, he easily could be. As a Jesuit, his circle of colleagues and friends were certainly priests in much larger part than anybody else in a parish. In such instances, confession is possible, available, and even perhaps hard to avoid. That’s not a bad thing. But it is very exceptional.

For the average parish priest, a faith community full of twice-a-month confessors would be a challenge to the personal calendar, to be sure. In my parish, we have a good bit more than two-thousand registered parishioners of the age of reason. How long do you think it would take to hear four-thousand confessions every month? Do you think two minutes is enough for each penitent? That’s a full-time job right there.

There is no way the Roman Catholic Church is ready for a flock confessing at the regularity suggested by many “devout” commentators. The bishops aren’t ready–they can’t provide priests. The priests don’t have time for that quantity. Even my own pastor, who has said he’d much rather serve for the reason he was ordained–to celebrate the sacraments–rather than attend meetings, has also said he doesn’t see himself as a 21st century John Vianney.

Believers are not ready. Pope Francis has preached many times about ministry at the margins. The sacrament of reconciliation is not celebrated at the margins, in the sense of the people attracted to it and utilizing it.

Form III strikes me as a possible frontier. Not really tiara material. But there probably needs to be more searching and fearless discernment on the real–not imagined–need for reconciliation. The frontiers I would see would be person-on-person reconciliations within families and among co-workers. Bishops and women religious. Pastors and uppity sheep. Estranged spouses before they separate. Left and right.

Form I strikes me as a little too sanitized. A little too safe. A little too insulated from the roots of sin and division. Not really that different from the cheap grace attributed to so-called general absolution.

I would be very surprised if Pope Francis looked to this frontier. I think the future Church, if it wants to be credible on this sacrament, will have to look a good bit deeper. But I don’t think that day is today. I wish it were. But we’re just not ready to address reconciliation beyond the confessing of sins and the lift of good feeling we get because we’re told we’re supposed to feel that way.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to That Kneeling Pope

  1. LIam says:


    This post poses as provocative, but the energy in it eems more ruddered by resentment (over the effective withdrawal of Form III) than by prophetic vision. You’ve got your safe little set of talking points over which to point fingers. It’s not inspiring. It doesn’t seem to hunger and thirst for sacramental abundance, let alone hope. Rather, it reminds me of the peevish way clerics and prelates defend their ways. It’s very different in tone from Pope Francis.

    Of course, the most effective evangelisers for Reconciliation are:

    1. The example of priests who joyfully make it abundantly available as a foundational priority, rather than treating penitents as parasites on their precious and limited time.
    2. The word of mouth of participating faithful.

    I realize this may sound recherche to some, but I would speculate, btw, the Pope’s biweekly confession pattern may also be informed by a desire to offer indulgences – the norms are such that each confession “counts” towards Communions received during the week before and after if done with the intention of applying indulgences. It’s one of the most commended ways to perform a spiritual act of mercy.

    I use Form I on a monthly basis. Some experiences can be particularly challenging, and it is unusual that I don’t gain some insight and challenge from it. Am I all healed? Nope. It is classically denoted as an argument from the Evil One to counsel despair to those who don’t have a Damascene reform of life from each experience of Reconciliation. Btw, while twelve-step programs may seem to offer a different model of amendment, they don’t necessary: rates of what might be called recidivism or back-sliding are extraordinarily high as best can be determined – they are no more magical than the box is.

  2. Pingback: The Rudder of Missed Opportunities | Catholic Sensibility

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