I grew up a Missouri Synod Lutheran in pre-Vatican II Catholic New Orleans. The city was largely Catholic then; the religious leanings of metropolitan area were divided roughly into majority Catholic, minority Protestant, and people who lived in the French Quarter.
I was part of that minority Protestant group, although most of my friends (and neighbors) were Catholic. You couldn’t help but inhale some understanding of the Catholic faith, however. So from an early age I understand that “they” venerated Mary and we didn’t; our ministers married and their priests didn’t; nuns used rulers in the Catholic elementary schools and our public school teachers didn’t; they got a smudge on their foreheads the day after Mardi Gras and we didn’t.
However, we all celebrated Mardi Gras, and in much the same ways. But not like the people who lived in the French Quarter. Enough said.
One practice that was always a mystery to me was what at first I thought were phone booths in their churches. No, they weren’t phone booths, I was told; they were confessionals. Whenever I asked my Catholic friends what they did in confessionals, they would become nervous and uncomfortable and shrug their shoulders. “Just stuff.” “Stuff?” “Yeah, stuff.” “What kind of stuff?” “Just stuff.”
One friend finally told me that “stuff” was telling the priest all the sins they could think of.
I was shocked. “You tell the priest all your sins?”
He nodded. “And they you have to say some Hail Marys or Our Fathers, and it’s OK.”
I knew what an “Our Father” was – the Lord’s Prayer, even if Catholics said it wrong. But at my house, a Hail Mary was a football play on television.
Even as I grew older, I always thought it odd that sins had to be confessed to priests. At my church, we were long on “no mediator between you and God” but short – really short – on how to confess your sins directly to God.
Where I think the Catholics got it right was that confession is a kind of conversation – a conversation between the sinner and the Authority. For me, the Authority is still God, and He forgives, but it took a lot of understanding and study for me to learn that I had responsibilities, too.
Confession comes from a contrite heart, a contrite spirit.
Confession comes from the understanding that God wants to hear it all, even the things – especially the things – you’re least comfortable talking about.
Confession comes from the knowledge that you fall short, that you always fall short, but you still have to try, and you do try. And you pray.
And confession comes from the hope that one day, you won’t fall short, but it won’t happen in this world.
And confession is a good and right thing to do; Jesus made it a part of the Lord’s Prayer for a reason, because it is a constant reminder that forgiveness is there, made possible by the Son, and it is the Father to whom we confess.
Led by Tim Challies at Informing the Reforming, we’ve been discussing The Hidden Life of Prayer: The Life Blood of the Christian, the 1893 classic by David McIntyre. To join the discussion, please visit Tim’s site.