The Crisis of Confession
Cardinal Lamberto in The Godfather Part 3 had a moment any pastor who has watched the film might fantasize about. Michael Corleone is aged and reflecting on his past nefarious life as he seeks to make the family business entirely “legitimate.” When he encounters the cardinal for advice he is confronted with the lines from the cleric, “The desire to confess can be overwhelming, and we must seize the moment…would you like to make your confession?” Reluctantly Michael does and breaks down in tears when he confesses to ordering the murder of his own brother Fredo. The absolution is given and the Angelus bell rings three times. It is a powerful scene, but one that rarely ever happens in real life.
It would be wonderful if that were the case and I am guilty in my own ministry of hoping to be able to offer absolution for those deeply distressed, yet that moment is so very rare and if confession is heard it is rather mundane. While we should never seek out such moments, it is sad that they still rarely arrive. Confession and Absolution in most every church body, even in the Roman Catholic Church where it is obligatory, is on the decline. In the Lutheran Church even fewer make use of the sacrament and if it is offered on a public schedule, only one or two—perhaps none show. While we make full use of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, this important component has been relegated to a small part of the public liturgy and rarely received in its full form, on the individual and private level.
Today we are living in a time where we see the aftermath of the focus on a “personal” faith. This has been used to privatize faith, and personal faith has been an unintended victim. The emphasis within American Evangelicalism was to solidify the idea of an individual faith in sharp distinction from communal or institutional faith. The unintended consequences continued and within American Evangelicalism the communal aspect of faith has been severely damaged. Don’t believe the effects of American Evangelicalism on the church at large? Well, ask any Christian about confessing their sins to the pastor and most would probably balk at you. “It’s none of your business” would be a quick reaction to the idea that one would divulge their deep and dark struggles to their pastor. However, the particularities of the sin are not the focus, rather the absolution, the direct promise and gift of Jesus needed by the individual and that is certainly the pastor’s business. The pastor has been placed in a community to explicitly forgive sins.
Yet, the faithful people of God can only follow the example set for them. How can we blame the laity if pastors never avail themselves of this gift? The “evangelical style” that so many Lutheran pastors adopted in the 80’s and 90’s have given us generations of pastors unfamiliar and unwilling to even think of hearing private confession let alone giving it. More recently pastors have been encouraged to both go to confession and to make times available for it in their own parishes. Yet decades of abandonment have done their damage. Pastors are “too busy” with other aspects of ministry (administration, sick visits, etc.) to think of setting time aside to allow people to come and get rid of the burden they are carrying around. Pastoral conferences and even conventions have no area or time set aside where pastors simply sit and are available for confession. We focus on continuing education, not spiritual growth or aid when we gather together. To focus on the mind rather than the soul is far more comfortable and convenient. When we seek to bring each other closer it isn’t the holy things of God that bring it about but rather we enjoy spirits of another kind to lift the soul.
A further problem amongst the younger pastors who do avail themselves of confession they often go to peers rather than trusted more experienced pastors because trust is so weak within the rank and file. They feel they can trust their classmates or fellow workers to remain confidential and supportive, but spiritual direction is often lost in the mix because that develops with experience. In Seminary confession was regularly offered by the campus chaplain, a wonderful pastor who could have shown me how to hear confession as well as how to receive absolution, if only I had taken more time to do it.
I bring all of this up because the notion of helping church workers, and care for our pastors, keeps being brought up. The challenge is that there is no sense of building trust, no aspect of confession and direct care is ever mentioned and if it is it is a footnote to psychological care and retreats. Administrators want a nice easy package to present as the solution to all of our problems and one that fits better in the business world than in the Church. If a church worker is facing an issue; send them away. This only encourages pastors and church workers to continue to hide and remain stuck in the cycle of shame so that they are not placed in the pile of defectives. We have a treasure that has been rusted and seldom used for years that could offer a help to the crisis we face as a church. If we do want this treasure to be revived let’s start with Jesus. “Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld’ (John 20:19b-23).
Jesus himself tells his disciples and those who follow after them to forgive sin. In every ordination and installation it is brought up as an important part of pastoral ministry. We need to contemplate and discuss why this has been disregarded or relegated to a brief aspect of Sunday morning or melded into other responsibilities, which in the context of the ordination and installation rite it isn’t. We ought to be encouraged that by the power of the Holy Spirit we do have this authority from Jesus, we do have the door wide open to not have to carry around our sins anymore but to share them and not walk in faith alone. We of all people should never feel isolated, but work on recognizing fellow pastors as brothers in faith and ministry and not the competition.
Further, if we are to take this seriously let’s make spaces available at district and synodical events where pastors are present to hear confession from other pastors and church workers with all confidence that everything said will never be repeated or passed on. If it is visible and available you might be surprised in those gatherings who might take advantage. Even if no one does, it is a serious shift in the Church wanting to care for her pastors rather than caring only for their intellect. Creating a regular culture of confession and absolution for our pastors at the times they gather together just might begin to give them the care they need and it most certainly would go a long way in bringing God’s servants together.
No matter what we do, something needs to happen. Certainly we have a huge advantage in the gift Christ has given right in our midst. Yet like a water balloon at VBS that is about to pop because the volunteers don’t realize they are overfilling it, so are our pastors being stretched too thin and need to let some pressure out. If we don’t want our pastors to pop, let’s begin by actually caring for them in their lives, not just caring for one aspect of their ministry. Hopefully, we can all encourage each other and a change may take place so that the body of Christ can begin to heal from the crises that effect it and have spiritually strong undershepherds to guide it. If this happens, who knows? The people of God may notice and just might follow to seek the peace of the gift of confession and absolution themselves.