Early in my life I came to know that God and Church were two realities that merged and were the center of life for my family. Living in what could perhaps be called an Irish Catholic “ghetto” made it easy: we lived about a half-mile from the church and went to the parish school (as did all my friends), my parents volunteered and socialized at the church, most of our holidays began with church services…and we claimed one of “God’s own,” my mother’s brother, our uncle Walter who was a priest. Reverence for my uncle was widespread, springing both from his person and his vocational ministry. It was said especially that “he was good in the box.” That meant that there were lines of people, usually on Saturdays but other times as well, who waited to meet him in a small structure in the church called a confessional (somewhat bigger than a box!) where he would sit on one side of a screen and they would kneel on the other to tell him their sins and wait for the forgiveness of God, mediated through him. His compassion and love for people was a great gift and he gave it willingly.
Today our Church celebrates the feast of St. John Vianney, a humble Frenchman who had one desire: to become a priest. His lack of education was a stumbling block, however, and failure to understand the Latin lectures made him withdraw from the seminary. He was so determined, however, that he sought private tutoring and was eventually ordained. John Vianney was a holy and humble man whose work as a confessor became legendary. It is said that he spent 10 to 16 hours a day in the confessional reconciling people with God.
Times have changed since the nineteenth century when John Vianney lived. Many people who receive the sacrament of penance/reconciliation these days have never been inside a confessional “box” because we understand that we needn’t hide behind a screen declaring our sinfulness: we are all sinners of one stripe or another. Even the priest shares this common trait of humanity. The sacrament has become a relational event, a conversation about the unconditional love of God and the forgiveness that is always accessible to us so it makes sense that it is a “face-to-face” meeting.
Today I pray for all the priests and pastors who try their best to mediate God’s love through whatever ministerial gifts they have received and are willing to share, asking God’s blessing on them and all who receive their care.