On Wednesday nights during the Year of Mercy my parish has adoration and confession. I hadn’t gone the first few weeks, but decided it would be a good practice to go during Lent. Plus, the allure of adoration and incense does eventually break me down. I settled in, said some prayers, read some from a devotional I had brought (which turned out not to be that great), and wound up just sitting silently in Christ’s presence.
It was then that I began to really take in my surroundings. It was crowded; people were continuing to come in. The nave was fuller than it was most early Sunday mornings. It smelled holy (again, sucker for incense). Except for baby gurgles, it was pretty quiet. Several priests were offering confession, so they were stationed around the church: one back in the confessional, one in the side chapel, and one near the statue of St. Joseph (the front right). There weren’t any partitions. It was hard to look toward the front of the church without seeing who was at confession up there. Someone a few pews closer might have been able to make out what was said, but even across the room I could see the priest’s and penitent’s faces.
I was amazed by the people who went to confession during that hour, so publicly, in front of so many. Sure, the rest of us were mostly preoccupied by adoration, but still, the confession was taking place literally right in front of us. In the front of the church, lighting and acoustics are against any hope of privacy.
In the early church, confessions were made publicly to the congregation. To sin against God was to damage the community of believers. It’s difficult enough for me to go now, in private, with a screen and seal. But I can see how everyone being that vulnerable and raw would bring the community together and help hold one another accountable. I wonder if the people I saw confessing felt some of that. When you go to confession, you’re at a turning point. You’re reaching out for grace. The weight and stain of sin is peeled away. It’s a glorious, intimate moment. I’ll admit, it would take me being in pretty dire straits to go to confession so openly. I was both baffled and impressed by those that did.
I think that the front-of-the-church confessions were a great representation of the Year of Mercy. It was beneficial to me to watch a sacrament with a bit of detachment. It’s just as beautiful when it happens to someone else. I got to witness something normally tucked privately away. I got to witness that others struggle, too, and I got to witness them being washed in mercy.