Although it was my first time to the Met, being there reminded me of attending “Museum School” as a child. For one full week in Grade 3, my class and I had daylong visits to the Glenbow Museum where we explored art, artifacts, exhibits, historical documents, and international collections. We were given journals and encouraged to be curious and careful observers. The goal was to be still and observe with a sense of wonder, reflectively considering the “5Ws” – who, what, when, where, and why. We were encouraged to not try to observe everything, but rather to observe a few things well. We were educated to not race throughout the museum saying superficially, “That’s nice” and “That’s interesting.” In short, the most memorable lesson of Museum School was: “Don’t be a nodder.”
My child, sit here with me. Tell me what troubles you. Only if you want to. I am Father Gregory. […]
I can’t tell you, Father.
Would you like to go to Confession?
I can’t, Father. I did terrible things.
God forgives all who repent. He sent his only Beloved Son to die for us.
I can’t, Father. I can’t.
But you could tell St. Francis, couldn’t you? […] We’ll sit here and you’ll tell him the things that trouble you. If I sit and listen it will only be a pair of ears for St. Francis and Our Lord. Won’t that help?
– from Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
The sacrament of Confession can be, all at once, mysterious, perplexing, terrifying, humbling, and liberating. The Catchecism says that “even from a simply human point of view, frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby
opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a
new future possible.”
The Catechism also says:
Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the “sacramental seal,” because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains “sealed” by the sacrament.
The word ‘sacrament’ comes from the Latin meaning ‘sacred sign.’ The sacraments are intended to point beyond themselves to the fullness of God’s mercy and loving justice. It is the responsibility of the priest to be a servant of God’s forgiveness and to mediate between God and the penitent. The sacrament of Confession or Reconciliation is rooted in both Sacred Scripture and Tradition.
When [Jesus] had said this, he breathed on [the disciples] and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” – John 20:22-23 (NRSV)
Father William Saunders tells this story about the inviolability of the sacramental seal:
A beautiful story (perhaps embellished with time) which captures the reality of this topic is the life of St. John Nepomucene (1340-93), the vicar general to the Archbishop of Prague. King Wenceslaus IV, described as a vicious, young man who easily succumbed to rage and caprice, was highly suspicious of his wife, the Queen. St. John happened to be the Queen’s confessor. Although the king himself was unfaithful, he became incrasingly jealous and suspicious of his wife, who was irreproachable in her conduct. Wencelaus, as king, demanded that St. John break the sacramental seal. Although Wencelaus tortured St. John to force him to reveal the Queen’s confessions, he would not. In the end, St. John was thrown into the River Moldau and drowned on March 20, 1393. Similar stories abound, especially in the past century during the awful persecution of the Church under Communism and Naziism, where priests were tortured, imprisoned, and executed because they would not break the sacramental seal.
Though “it is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason” (Code of Canon Law, no. 2490), there are instances where priests have betrayed the authority and responsibility of their positions. Though the sexual abuse scandals that have occurred have been the main focus of attention by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the sacred trust abuse scandals deserve, I think, our serious attention, especially in light of dozens of efforts by governments that threaten the inviolability of the sacrament.
Though the known cases of abuses of the sacramental seal are very few relative to the longstanding tradition of secrecy, it is wrong to underestimate these known cases and to omit from our consideration the possibility of many possible unreported cases.
The most startling example of a breach of the sacramental seal that I have learned about occured in the life of a young boy. I will excerpt his whole account of the experience from his autobiography:
An Early Traumatic Experience
You should know that I took my religion very seriously. The first serious crack in my religious belief happened when I was thirteen years old. On a Saturday morning, during the usual pushing and shoving to be the first one into the gym, I accidentally pushed a classmate down the stairs. Throughout the years, hundreds of students must have sailed down these stairs without any serious injuries. This time he was unlucky; he broke his ankle. I was punished with two hours of detention. I went to confession in the afternoon as I did every week, confessed what I did like a good boy, but I didn’t say anything about this incident at home because I didn’t want to spoil Sunday for my parents. They would learn about it soon enough in the coming week.
That evening my confessor, who was a good friend of my father, was visiting at our house. The next morning my father scolded me about the pushing incident, and I was punished because I did not report it to him right away. I was devestated, not because of the punishment, but because of this unheard of breach of confidence by my confessor. Wasn’t it always taught that the secrecy of the confessional could not be broken? Even the most serious crimes that a person tells the priest in the holy confessional cannot be reported to the police. And now this priest, whom I trusted so deeply, who was my steady confessor and knew my whole little world of sins by heart, had broken the secrecy of the confessional for such a minor incident. Only he could have told my father.
Neither my father, mother, nor anyone else from our house had been in town that day. Our telephone was out of order, and none of my classmates lived in our neighbourhood. No one had visited us except my confessor. For a long, long time, I checked all the details of this over and over because this was such a horrible thing to me. Then and even now I am firmly convinced that the priest had violated the secrecy of the confessional. My faith in the holy profession of the priesthood was smashed and doubts began to stir within me. I never went back to him for confession because I could no longer trust him. I told the priest that I was going to our religious instruction teacher in the church near my school because my father lectured me when he discovered I was no longer going to the priest. My father believed it, but I am convinced that the priest knew the real reason. He tried everything to win me back, but I just couldn’t go back to him. In fact, I went even further. I didn’t go to confession at all anymore if I could get away with it. After this incident, I could no longer trust any priest.
In religious instruction we were told that if a person went to communion without confession, he would be severely punished by God. We were told that someone had done that and had dropped dead at the communion rail. With childish simplicity I begged God to be lenient because I could no longer confess faithfully and to forgive my sins, which I now recited directly to him. So I believed I was free of my sins. Full of doubt, I went trembling to the communion rail in strange church. And nothing happened! So I, poor earthworm, believed that God would hear my prayers and agree with what I was doing. The deep, true, childlike faith which so calmly and surely guided my soul until this time was smashed.
How sincere and contrite! Who could refuse pity and sympathy to this boy whose trust and childlike faith were so terribly betrayed? What became of this boy? The next year his father died. The boy was supposed to become a priest. With the loss of faith and the loss of his father, he became zealous to join the military, though he was just fifteen. He doubted his vocation to be a priest and explained that both the traumatic incident of betrayal and having witnessed the trade in holy relics that he had seen in the Holy Land had destroyed his faith in priests. His mother then died and the young man became more and more convinced of his desire to be a soldier.
The one of whom I speak is Rudolph Höss and I have been quoting from his autobiography Death Dealer: Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz. According to the back cover, “Höss (1900-1947) was history’s greatest mass murderer, personally supervising the extermination of approximately two million people, mostly Jews at Auschwitz.”
Two months before he was hanged at Auschwitz Höss ended his memoirs saying:
May the general public simply go on seeing me as the bloodthirsty beast, the cruel sadist, the murderer of millions, because the broad masses cannot conceive the Kommandant of Auschwitz in any other way. They will never be able to understand that he also had a heart and that he was not evil.
Though his memoirs are filled with alternations between truthtelling and lying, the challenges in deciphering the truth render the work all the more fascinating. And so, from this Nazi we have an extraordinary testimony on the absolutely paramount secrecy of the Seal of Confession. Though the terrible betrayal of trust (whether sexually or with respect to sacred trust) does not exonerate penitents from future sins, it does rouse heartbreaking sympathy for those who, in their vulnerability and trust, have expected to
place themselves before the mercy of God, but have instead encountered extreme human weakness, and perhaps even Satan.
But “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NRSV), there is a need for the sacrament of Confession. It is a real, transformative event through which God imparts His loving mercy even though priests fall short of mediating (as Christ does) the perfection of the love of God the Father.
In her Letter to a Priest, Simone Weil writes: “The Church is only perfectly pure under one aspect; when considered as guardian of the sacraments. What is perfect is not the Church; it is the body and blood of Christ upon the altars.” Similarly, it could be added: What is perfect is not the confessors; it is the mercy of God poured out through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Confession is a powerful experience. The priests through whom I have confessed my sins have been extraordinary examples of Christ’s love. They have always listened lovingly and patiently. They have often given helpful advice, encouragement, and spiritual direction. I am thankful for their ministry. It is truly amazing that there are priests all around the world listening to hours of confessions every week. They are doctors of the soul and deserve our gratitude for their selfless service. Still, we must encourage and pray for them, that each would “lead a life worthy of the calling to which [they] have been called.” (Ephesians 4:1)
Today the second reading at Mass struck me.
Here it is:
“My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.
For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in,
and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’
have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?” James 2:1-5
In a room there is a common temptation to scan the room for the so-called important people. The failure to resist this temptation often leads to someone dismissing one conversation partner so that he or she can “work the room.”
A friend with whom I volunteered at a lofty dinner event lamented that one of the other student volunteers turned her back on her mid-sentence to shake the hand of someone who she determined to be more worthy of her time.
Sometimes it seems that adults will follow the person with the most dignified title or position in a foolish manner comparable to how small children will all chase after a soccer ball in a cluster.
The above reading challenges us to recognize the equality in the sanctity of each person. While we can respect certain offices and authorities, ultimately we should be able to shake someone’s hand in a similar spirit of respect and charity whether that person is the prime minister or a person outcasted by much of society.
Mother Teresa was able to do her good work because she said, “I see the face of Christ in one of his more distressing disguises.”
A friend of mine named Laura Locke reflects on this topic very beautifully. She writes:
“Why is it that we so often feel drawn to people on the other end of the spectrum? We give our attention to the powerful, the good-looking, the rich, the talented, the confident ones who are very successful at looking after themselves. I guess we naturally lean towards people whom we secretly strive to be – and who strives to be an outcast? But Jesus invites us to follow in his footsteps, to walk with him down the dusty back roads, seeking the people that normally garner no one’s attention.”
The gospel is filled with paradoxes. This is true of philosophy also and very untrue of ideology.
It is interesting to reflect on the different experiences of community from an informal gathering sharing coffee and donuts with strangers after church to the experience of attending a political convention which tends to consist in swapping business cards and credentials. There is something to learn from both and really from any experience with others. However, I think it is important to balance these sorts of experiences so as to not become blinded by the partiality mentioned in scripture.
At every mass the congregation says, “I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned through my own fault….” Whereas, at political events we tend to essentially find a way to say, “I profess to you my colleagues and acquaintances that I have succeeded through my own achievement…”
The more that we derive our sense of identity from what we do rather than who we are, the more challenging it is for us to see the instrinic dignity of others.
Young people are often encouraged to network so that they can “get ahead”, but this seems to be a perverse notion of relationship. Instead, let us be encouraged to love one another so that we can get to heaven. I think that the authenticity of the latter will bear more fruit both in this life and the next.
Before arriving to Reno, my only impression of it had been what I had gleaned from a couple of scenes in the film Sister Act. I landed in the Reno-Tahoe airport after arriving from Birmingham. A local in the airport advised me against my plan to take a cab and find a hostel for the night. She said, “Reno’s hurtin’ bad. Take a free shuttle downtown and you can stay at a hotel for $35.” Praise God for putting locals in every single city I visit.
I took the shuttle to Circus Circus hotel and was told that the room would be $47, plus tax and plus some additional fee. For a hotel room it wasn’t bad, but I thought that I could do better. When I said I might go down the street and compare prices, they dropped the price $10 and I checked into the hotel.
I had arrived to Reno two days early for the 31st Annual G.K. Chesterton Conference taking place at the Silver Legacy Hotel and Casino. After settling into my hotel, I strolled the streets of downtown Reno observing the hotels, restaurants, movie theatre, and street names.
On August 1, I woke up and soon after phoned Joan and Michael who agreed to host me during the conference. I arrived to their home on Wednesday afternoon. Asked if I’d like a drink, I said yes and Mr. Cassity offered to make me a martini! As we drank our martinis we discussed liberal arts education, great books, tradition, conversion, conservatism, travel, and more. Mrs. Cassity made a delicious dinner and served wine. I was well taken care of by my Chestertonian host parents.
The next day, they offered to take me to Lake Tahoe. I am so glad that they did. It was a beautifully scenic drive. They told me that their children can ask themselves in the same day whether they’d like to go skiing or golfing. The Cassitys told me about Mark Twain’s visit to the region in 1861. Of Lake Tahoe Twain wrote:
“At last the lake burst upon us–a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft three thousand feet higher still! As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface, I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole world affords.”
After returning home, Joan and I prepared for the conference. Then, we drove to the venue. Walking through the Silver Legacy Casino en route to the conference room was an interesting experience. Chesterton would probably get such a kick out of conferences being held in his honour in Reno, of all places! Joan and I arrived to the conference with plenty of time to register and browse the various tables that were set up to feature various organizations, initiatives, and books for sale.
I approached one very eye-catching display for Titanic Heroes. “Tell me about your display,” I said to the young woman waiting to greet passers by arriving early to the conference. An impressive young woman named Cady explained that she and her brother Benjamin had taken an interest in studying the Titanic. “Here is my new book,” said fifteen year old Cady holding up a copy of her just-published book A Titanic Hero: Thomas Byles. It’s the story of “One man…one ship…one night that was to be remembered forever. Thomas Byles, a Roman Catholic priest on board the R.M.S. Titanic, had the saying, ‘Give what you have,’ instilled into him from a very young age. His training, commitment, and love for others culminated into one shining example of fortitude in the face of danger. This book, historical fiction, narrates the life of Thomas Byles.”
Cady and Benjamin and the other three Crosby siblings are a shining example of homeschooled children. Since they are homeschooled, they have plenty of time to participate in speech and debate, publish books, and to “cultivate titanic virtue” by sharing the stories of Titanic heroes through their presentations across America.
The conference kicked off with an introductory lecture by Dale Ahlquist, the president of the American Chesterton Society. He encouraged attendees at the Reno conference to “put their money on the Chesterton table” and to support the Society by buying Chesterton books and even the “CHE-STERTON” t-shirt. The Chesterton Society has plenty of quirky rituals and this is exactly what a good society requires. From allowing whoever experiences the greatest series of unfortunate events throughout the conference to drink from the “cup of inconvenience” and then be awarded the “mug of consolation” to having an annual clerihew contest where the prize-winning four-line biographical poems are recited and celebrated at the final banquet.
Next, Joseph Pearce delivered a lecture titled, “The Humor and Humility of Chesterton.” Pearce’s message celebrated tradition and repudiated what he terms “DWEM-ism”, which represents the contempt held by progressives for “Dead, White, European, Males.” Joseph Pearce asks, “Can a person help that they are dead? Can a person help that they are white? Can a person help that they are European? Can a person help that they are male?” Of course not. Hating tradition is like racism. This is Pearce’s message and it is a very sincere one. It comes from a man who was formerly aligned with a white nationalist party in England before his conversion. Pearce’s conversion from racism to Catholicism was greatly motivated by his reading of Chesterton. Pearce is now a tremendous apologist for the faith, an excellent biographer, and active in promoting homeschool education, the great books, and liberal education.
The following day, there were many excellent lectures given by: Cameron Moore, PhD at Baylor University; Ralph Wood, Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University; Jason Jones, President and Founder of Whole Life America and Producer of the film Bella; Mark Shea, Author and Master of Blogosphere; and Kevin O’Brien, President and Artistic Director of Theater of the Word Inc. Needless to say, the conference far exceeded any expectations that I had. The lectures were top-notch and paid good tribute to Chesterton. Key themes of the lectures included: transcendence and mystery, wisdom and humility, the goodness of existence, paradoxical truth and conversion, and wonder and awe.
My favorite speaker was Jason Jones who delivered one of the most extraordinary speeches I have ever heard. He began by joking that he is a Chesterton fan “more like a twelve-year-old girl feels about Justin Beiber.” For Jones, reading Chesterton also played a significant role in his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Jason was raised a scientologist, but rejected scientology in eighth grade and became “a hardcore Randian objectivist” until his early thirties. Jason grew up in south-side Chicago, surrounded by anti-Catholic bias.
I knew that Jason Jones had helped to produce Bella, a pro-life film released in 2006. Jones said to us, “As of today, 581 women who were going to have abortions saw Bella, changed their minds, and let us know.”
He said that receiving text messages informing him that another woman has chosen life for her child is the very best part of his job. All of these details become even more beautiful in light of Jason’s conversion story.
Jason was sixteen. It was two days before his seventeenth birthday and a Saturday morning after a Friday night high school football game. His girlfriend came into his bedroom, “the room of a boy” and informed him that she was pregnant. “There I was with my girlfriend and we needed a strategy,” recalls Jason. The plan we came up with was this: On my seventeenth birthday, I could drop out of school and join the army. She would wait for me to come back.” His parents were supportive and the principal was happy to sign the papers. And so that’s what Jason did. He piled his belongings into a pillow case, along with a razor that he didn’t yet need and went to join the army so that he could support his family upon his return.
One day, a call came in and Jason took the phone, though he knew he wasn’t meant to leave his station. His girlfriend was on the phone and she was crying, “like I’ve never heard a woman cry before. And the only way that I can describe it is that her soul was crying. She kept saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Then, her father picked up the phone and said, “Jason, I know your secret and your secret is gone. I took Katie to get an abortion.”
Just then, someone came and hung up the phone and told Jason to get back to task. Jason, angry and shaken, said, “Sir, call the police. My girlfriend’s father just killed my child.” In reply the man said to Jason, “Why would I call the police? Don’t you know that abortion is legal?”
Jason did not know.
Jason was a poor student, but he says that he knew then that life began at fertilization. He was heart-broken. When he had the opportunity to phone his girlfriend back, he said to her, “Katie, I promise you that, even if no one cares about abortion and if it takes me the rest of my life, I will end abortion for you and our daughter Jessica.”
Jason and Katie know that the abortion ended the life of their daughter because when the abortion was done, the abortionist then said to Katie, “By the way, your baby was a baby girl.”
Since this experience, Jason truly has dedicated his life to striving to end abortion and to help create a culture of life and build a civilization of love. He converted to the Catholic faith and now has six children. He is producing more life-affirming films, directing the organization I Am Whole Life, and travelling the world advancing respect for the sanctity of all human life from the moment of fertilization until the moment of natural death.
Conversion stories are awesome. They make the most beautiful stories because they bear witness so wonderfully to the path of salvation history consisting in passion (suffering), death (dying to self), and resurrection (new life in Christ).
On Friday evening at the Chesterton conference, there was the world premiere of the film Manalive, based on Chesterton’s novel by the same title. Manalive is the story of Innocent Smith, a character who is tried for such crimes as burglary, desertion of a spouse, polygamy, and attempted murder. If I may excerpt from Wikipedia, here is a summary of the wonderous Chestertonian paradoxes in the film:
“[Innocent Smith] fires bullets near people to make them value life; the house he breaks into is his own; he travels around the world only to return with renewed appreciation for his house and family; and the women he absconded with are actually his wife Mary, posing as a spinster under different aliases so they may repeatedly re-enact their courtship.”
After watching the film, I thought: I am a “cradle Catholic” yet I think I ought to convert to Roman Catholicism. I imagined myself taking Rite of Christian Initiation for Adult (RCIA) classes. Of course, life is a continuous experience of conversion, of return to God. Chesterton’s wit and wisdom adds wonder to the experience and reminds each reader that he is also “the man who with the upmost daring discovered what had been discovered before.”
On Saturday the conference sessions included a lecture by Nancy Brown on The Plays and Poetry of Frances Chesterton, a session by Julian Ahlquist on Chesterton and Aliens, a small group discussion on the economic ideas of distributism, and finally a closing lecture by Dr. Andrew Tadie contrasting Chesterton and H.G. Wells.
There was 5:00pm mass on Saturday evening celebrated at St. Thomas Aquinas Cathedral with the Most Reverend Randolph Calvo, Bishop of Reno.
Then, everyone returned to the casino to a ballroom where the closing banquet was held. There were jokes, toasts, songs, drama and musical performances, clerihew readings, a live auction (a signed Chesterton book was the top prize), plenty of wine, and lots of other fun.
The conversations that evening at my table centred around the presidential election, Austrian economics versus distributism, summer travels, music, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Catholicism, and our favorite Chestertonian aphorisms. It was an absolute delight to dine with young people who light up while discussing Chesterton because of how instrumental he has been in helping them to see more colourfully. Chesterton helps souls become poetic optimists. Chesterton writes:
“The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in light of the supernatural.”
I look forward to reading more works by Chesterton.
To everyone, I recommend his book Orthodoxy.
G.K. Chesterton, pray for us.
This blog post is dedicated to Joan and Michael Cassity in gratitude to them for having hosted me in their home and for having shared many wonderful conversations during the 31st Annual G.K. Chesterton Conference in Reno, Nevada. God bless you!