by Ross Decker Sr
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession.”
When I said those words, it struck me that I’d never thought that The Penitential Act of confession would be one of the major attractions to Catholicism for me. Why would I sit in a dimly lit booth and speak my sins out loud to another man? For thirty seven years it had been drilled into me that there was no mediator between man and God but Jesus Christ, and I could access God’s forgiveness at any time by merely thinking about it in the privacy of my head. Now, I was comforted while confessing my sins to a priest.
There was something very welcoming to me about confession. I knew for certain that it was the Seal of Confession more than the confession itself that drew me. I knew that whatever I told the priest would not be shared with anyone else, not even with me. And that was very different from the religious culture I’d come from.
During my previous thirty seven years I’d learned that you had to be careful what you allowed people to see of you in church. The Apostle Paul, Saint Paul, wrestled openly with sinful desires. He didn’t hide that. Romans 7:15-20 has him writing “ For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” Let me be clear; Saint Paul would be excluded from ministry in a few churches I’d attended.
In all of the churches I’d attended, only one pastor, Glenn Blossom, ever admitted to the same struggle Saint Paul so openly wrote about. His openness about his own temptations and failings created such a comfortable environment at that church. He often said that the church, a precursor to our heavenly family, must be the safest place on earth. I wonder too, if the ability to speak freely about ‘little’ sins might be a good defense against the major failings we’ve seen via Ashley Madison. Maybe, if Josh Duggar and Sam Rader weren’t conditioned to hide their sin as a means of self preservation, perhaps someone could have helped them avoid this latest scandal.
Needless to say, those other churches were never the safest places on earth. Following the pastoral lead, everyone dedicated themselves to hiding and denying any sin issues in their lives. To be discovered would mean being shamed, being curtailed from any ministry you might be doing and, what I didn’t find out until much later, being grist for the pastor gossip mill. Just before I left the Evangelical church on my tiny island, I learned the secret that moved me out. The pastors on Staten Island socialized regularly. Their topic of conversation? Their congregation.
I was naive enough not to know that. These pastors all preached about the sin of gossip from their pulpits. It was dishonest. It was hurtful. It ruined lives. It tore congregations apart. Yes, they told us that gossip would surely do all these things. And then, they gossiped.
In the last church Liz and I attended, the one that drove me to the open door of Catholicism was where I found this out. Liz was asked by the choir director to take over the choir. This is Liz’s gift, she has led worship for many years. Surprisingly, the pastor said she would not be allowed to do it because she had been greatly hurt in a church fifteen years before. I immediately asked for a meeting with that pastor.
I was concerned about two related things. First, I wondered why he thought Liz was troubled fifteen years after an event. Secondly, I wanted to know why he thought, believing that to be true, would tell it to his current choir director.
The amazing revelation about the meeting was that the pastor realized that Liz and I did not know the two people he’d heard the story from and….wait for it…..he remembered that the story was about someone else and he’d thought the story was about Liz. He didn’t want to create any “confusion” so he thought it best that Liz not become the new choir director anyway. Besides, he said, he’d spoken to another pastor about us and that pastor told him our twitter pages had “dark posts” on them.
I asked him if he didn’t consider all this to be gossip and he assured me that he didn’t. He told me that he regularly got together with a few Island pastors, naming them, and said that they always talked about the people in their congregation. He said they did so to “protect” the congregation. When someone from their churches left to go to another church the past pastor would call the new pastor to alert him to things he should watch for in the new attender. We asked a pastor friend of ours why this could happen and he answered readily. “It’s because pastors believe the lie that they’re special.”
Staten Island is a small island. Knowing that all the pastors gossip about their church was an eye opener to us. But learning it meant there now was no way we could again sit in an Evangelical church without the reasonable fear that the pastor had heard a story about someone else and now thought it was us. We couldn’t listen to another sermon about “integrity” without feeling betrayed. The church was no longer the safest place on earth.
We began to think about the local Catholic Church parishes. We weren’t thinking of converting. We were just looking for a place to live out our faith in the presence of God without worrying about the gossipers. We knew there was no interplay between the Evangelical pastors and the Catholic priests. Catholicism seemed safe. We drove past one church, The Church of The Sacred Heart, and noticed that the door was always open. That attracted us. We went inside. The service was beautiful. There was so much meaning to me at every moment.
So, as I knelt in the confessional, confessing my sins to a priest, I was confident that no one else would hear about them other than the three of us in that booth. Only me, the priest, and god. I knew that the priest would strive to not even remember my confession. He wouldn’t bring those sins up to anyone. Not even me. I was safe in church, I was home.
As always, I look forward to reading your comments.