A little coffee spill shouldn’t be a problem for a Franciscan. Their robes are brown anyway. And I’ve seen Franciscans pull things out of hidden pockets, so each one probably holds a stash of napkins at the ready. Besides, I asked myself, what was the chance of my empty coffee cup having anything to do with a Franciscan prayer circle a floor below?
One Saturday per year, I join 2,000 other enthusiastic “Catholic Men for Christ” to hear nationally renowned speakers in a posh, comfortable opera house. Various vendors of spiritual materials and refreshments are waiting for us during session breaks. During the first break, I finished organizing my sample materials in my free carrying bag, only to notice my $4 cup of coffee on its side, displaying a telltale brown puddle. Casually, I dabbed the spill under my shoe with some of the handouts that didn’t interest me. I was quite relieved to whisk these useful handouts to the trash without anyone noticing, and complimented myself for my ingenuity. Then a couple drops left hiding in my hand cried out, “Surprise!”
Paper handouts are not very absorbent. My clever foot dabbing had simply pushed the edge of the puddle off the balcony onto the main lobby below. Sneaking a peek over the railing, I spied six Franciscans peacefully gathered in prayer. After a deep breath, I mustered the courage for a second look, but none of the friars bothered to look up. Whew, I was glad I didn’t have to go down there!
Two hours later, I was in the line for confession. What a beautiful sight that was! It was a line snaking throughout the theater, with about 200 men at any time waiting his turn for pardon and peace. Ironically, the speaker during that session was focused on the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
He reminded us that only this sacrament, instituted by Christ himself, provides true healing. We may find some solace in human therapies or remedies, but nothing compares to the miracle of divine forgiveness. We are given the invitation not to just recite our sins, but to pour out the darkness of our soul to the merciful God. One particular comment caught me: “In the confessional Jesus himself waits for you.”
Forgiveness is central in Christ’s message. Matthew (9:13), Mark (2:17), and Luke (5:32) each record Jesus’ unequivocal declaration, “I did not come to call the righteous, but the sinner.” The healing of a paralyzed man recorded by these passages is preceded by Jesus’ comforting assurance, “Your sins are forgiven.”
John’s Gospel includes Christ sending the apostles to spread the good news, and entrusting to them a particular directive. “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them” (Jn 20:23). Jesus came purposefully for sinners and granted a means of forgiveness. To believe in Jesus includes believing he continuously calls us, and eagerly offers reconciliation for sorrowful admission of sins.
“C’mon” and a tap on my shoulder snapped me back to the present. “You’re next, go to 17.” That day’s confessional was actually a small ballroom. I saw dozens of stations with individual dividers, reminding me of office cubicles. I found “17” on a station and hurried to the divider. With one last nervous exhale, I walked around the divider looking for the kneeler and privacy screen. Instead, I almost landed on the lap of a Franciscan.
“I’m afraid you entered through the exit,” he explained with a grin. “But I guess it doesn’t matter where you start, only where you end up.” Trying to recover, I eased into the seat opposite the friar. My intention for an anonymous, faceless confession was certainly gone. My composure was so thrown off that my mouth began running by itself. “Uh, do you think Jesus enjoys comedy?” came out before
I could stop it.
“Probably,” he sighed. “Look at the funny outfits he put us in.” I saw before me a man who I seemed to know. His blue eyes were captivating. His perfect auburn beard framed a welcoming smile. His features told me we were about the same age, and his hair was cut like mine. Though we had not met before, it seemed so reasonable that we had golfed together, or maybe had partnered on some project together.
I proceeded to my most profound confession ever. Because I started with such embarrassment and surprise, formalities were gone. We engaged in a conversation, a real give-and-take dialogue.
We spoke at length of my spiritual successes and progress, which I found very uplifting. We talked about trends in my life, and how I can build up the good and forgo the bad. I did not just recite my sins, together we examined underlying causes and messages therein. Lastly, we brainstormed and agreed upon my penance.
At the point of absolution, I had some regret that it was over. Certainly this had been an experience of embarrassment, humility, and remorse. But I had a much greater experience of guidance, understanding, acceptance, and, mysteriously, friendship. I am not a Vatican scholar on the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I am, however, a regular beneficiary of its healing graces. With minimal effort, I have found Reconciliation offered on weekday mornings, daily at noon, various evenings, and Saturday afternoons.
I have even used same-day appointments. With a little reading, I know that Reconciliation is intended to be accessible, accommodating, and individualized. Substance has precedence over ritual. Because of human frailty and circumstance, Reconciliation can, at times, be unconventional. Rising to my feet, I needed to acknowledge this man’s kindness and understanding. “Sorry for my rather awkward entrance, Father,” I offered.
“That’s OK,” he replied, with eyes twinkling. “I got your morning coffee instead of you.”