Wednesday, 4 May 2016
Forgive me Father ... For I have sinned.
It was one of those old fashioned wooden confessionals consisting of a large cubicle into which he sat and at either side of him there was a little window covered by a thick curtain. On the other side of the window his parishioners would kneel to confess their sins; alternating one on the left and one on the right.
He was half-way through reciting the Hail Mary when he heard two people kneeling at either side of him. He leant to his right and said quietly “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
This was his signal for the person at the other side of the curtain to start his confession.
At first he had two or three young children confessing their usual “I have been naughty … I disobeyed my parents … I forgot to say my evening prayers …” type of sins.
These were then followed by a few adults with more mature sins to confess. Nothing too serious though like murder or robbing a bank; but the usual sins he had heard times before perfectly symbolizing the frailty of human nature and the tendency to fail again and again at the same stumbling block.
It got to the point that, over the years, he got to recognize his parishioners by their voices and he could foretell their litany of sins before they even started speaking.
“Ah … it’s Mrs Salter once again …” he would think, “and here comes that same old sin once more … it’s like going to the doctor for a repeat prescription for the same old ailments!”
He would yet again, gently and with love and sympathy, dispense his words of wisdom before absolving her and mete out a penance.
And Mrs Salter would be followed by Mrs James … and Mr Collins … and so on and so forth … all religiously kneeling beside him confessing, more out of habit rather than determination, the same old sins week in and week out.
He’d fantasized that one day he’d stop one of his parishioners before they started and he’d say, “Now let me guess … you’ve done this and that once again this week … and you’ve also done this …”
Of course, Father Ignatius would never sully the sanctity of the Confession by doing such a thing, but the thought had crossed his mind many a time. Besides, if he did such a thing they’d probably think he was a mind-reader … and that would be worse for his reputation!
One Sunday morning he resolved to address the problem head on; but he had to do it with kindness and diplomacy.
He approached the lectern and said:
“I love ginger marmalade!”
Well … that certainly focused his parishioners’ attention.
“I have ginger marmalade on toast for breakfast every morning,” he continued, “sometimes Mrs Davenport, our kind and very helpful housekeeper, only serves me two slices of toast for breakfast …
“So I wait when she's not looking and sneak into the kitchen for two more slices!”
Mrs Davenport frowned in the front pew as the congregation laughed.
“Mrs Davenport says that I am putting on weight …” said Father Ignatius, “and it’s true that when I stand on the weighing machine it confirms what she says …
“So I have resolved to do something about it …
“From now on, I promise to stop weighing myself!”
The congregation laughed again. The priest waited until they’d settled down before going on.
“You see … ginger marmalade is my weakness. You may call it my sin.
“No matter how much I try … I always weaken and have some more. Sometimes I serve a little bit more marmalade than I need on my plate; and then, having finished the toast, all four slices, I enjoy the extra marmalade by itself …
“But this is not my only sin of course. I confess many others to Father Donald and Monsignor Thomas when he visits here …
“Now I don’t know about you … but I find that I frequently seem to confess the same sins I committed before …
“Just like ginger marmalade … the wily old devil seems to know my weakness and he tricks me yet again into the same sins.
“Do you remember I wonder when the Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman caught committing adultery?
“Now that was a whopper of a sin! Not just an extra spoon of ginger marmalade … was it?”
The congregation laughed.
“And according to Jewish law she had to be stoned to death for that sin,” continued Father Ignatius gently.
“Now we’re told in the Gospel of John that Jesus wrote in the sand with His finger.
“We’re not told what He wrote … I guess He wrote ‘Dear God … will they never learn?’
“But that’s not important … what is important is that after He said let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone … and when they all left one by one … Jesus turned to the woman and asked ‘Is there no one left to condemn you?’
“She said ‘No one …’
“And Jesus replied ‘I do not condemn you either. Go, but do not sin again.’ ”
Father Ignatius paused for a few moments.
“Go, but do not sin again,” he repeated.
“Now Jesus did not mean do not sin any sin whatsoever ever again for the rest of your life …
“He knew that that would be impossible. The woman was human, and it is natural that she would sin again.
“Jesus knows our human nature and He knows that we are liable to sin again and again …
“What Jesus said to the woman is, do not commit that particular sin again … it is serious enough to get you into a lot of trouble with the Pharisees as well as with God Himself.
“And that’s what Jesus is saying to us today …
“He knows we are weak … He knows that we will sin … which is why we have the Holy Sacrament of Confession.
“By saying ‘do not sin again’ Jesus is warning us to beware of those particular sins which are serious enough to lead us into damnation, and into an eternity of exclusion from our Father in Heaven.
“As we prepare for our weekly confession we need to consider carefully the seriousness of our sins. Which ones are ginger marmalade sins; and which ones are grave enough to exclude us from God’s ever lasting love.
“In our propensity to sin, God is loving and caring enough to forgive us again and again.
“But with our confession there should also be remorse and guilt for what we have done. Confession should not be just a laborious recitation of the same old sins; and a futile exercise which serves no one and certainly does not fool God Himself.
“Without true remorse, and a genuine resolve not to repeat our sins; then confession means nothing. And it would be better not to come to confession at all. At least that is honest in the eyes of God."