“No one or anything can separate us from his Love. Go out and proclaim, go out and show that God is in your midst as a merciful Father who himself goes out, morning and evening, to see if his son has returned home and, as soon as he sees him coming, runs out to embrace him. An embrace which wants to take up, purify and elevate the dignity of his children." —Pope Francis in his homily during the papal mass Friday at New York City’s Madison Square Garden
“Brace yourself, Father,” I said, taking a seat in a plastic chair facing my would-be confessor in Madison Square Garden’s dimly lit Madison Bar on Friday, a few hours before the start of the papal mass.
The bearded Franciscan priest in his dove gray vestments laughed and said, “No way. It’s all fine. Think of it as a big embrace of forgiveness from your heavenly father.”
OK. I tried to warn you.
“Let me see if I remember how this goes,” I began. “Bless me father for I have sinned; it’s been 35 years since my last confession.”
He tried not to look startled and almost pulled it off.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here,” he said, smiling kindly as he reached beneath his cassock to pull out a small paperback tract that, he explained, contained a list of questions that he could ask me that might make recounting all of my trespasses since the third grade a little less daunting.
Did I believe in God?
Had there ever been a time in the last 35 years when I didn’t?
Are my parents still alive?
My mother is; my father died two years ago.
Am I married?
“That’s a blessing,” the priest said.
Were we married in the church?
“Not this church,” I answered.
Have I ever practiced witchcraft or voodoo, participated in a séance, fortune telling, had my palm read, or done yoga?
He kind of shrugged.
Did I still believe in the power of the sacraments?
“But you just don’t practice all of them,” the priest said, with a knowing wink.
I explained that my family left the Catholic Church when I was 10 years old — not long after I made my First Communion — and that I’d been Protestant or Anglican ever since.
He didn’t ask me why I decided to participate in the sacrament of reconciliation today in a bar inside the home of the Knicks.
I appreciated that as I was unsure how to answer it. I don’t know why, exactly, but I just did.
He didn’t ask me whether I wanted to “return” to the church.
He simply asked me about my life, listened, and extended God’s forgiveness.
About a half hour before I decided to confess my sins to a complete stranger in a very public place (there were no portable confessionals, just two chairs and a priest), I had been riding in a packed elevator from the 10th floor of the Garden where the media covering the papal mass had been sequestered, down to a lower floor to grab something to eat.
When the doors opened on the sixth floor, another woman on the lift said, “Sixth floor: Concessions and Confessions.”
I laughed, but as I waited to pay for my cheeseburger with fig jam, I started thinking about confession. I’ve probably spent more time in Catholic churches in the last 20 years as a religion journalist than I ever did when I was actually a practicing Catholic. In recent years, particularly when I am in Rome and especially since Pope Francis became pontiff in 2013, I’ve felt a pull toward the confessional.
But as I stood in line with a half-dozen other people waiting for an available priest, I started to feel a lot like Showtime’s Ray Donovan from a few episodes back when a priest pressures him into a dark confessional, urging him to “unburden” himself. Ray starts with, “Bless me father, for I have sinned; it’s been 36 years since my last confession” — but doesn’t get much further before he bolts from the box and runs out of the church, with the priest giving chase and hurling threats of excommunication.
Still, as a journalist, I’ve watched people go into the confessional and come out a few minutes later looking, somehow, refreshed. Relieved.
I don’t believe that I need an intermediary to ask God’s forgiveness, but there’s something powerful about naming aloud my sins to another person, about owning my gnarliest mistakes and worst missteps and telling someone I yearned for forgiveness for them.
Friday was my birthday. I suppose part of me wanted a fresh start. A new beginning. And I wanted to see if that extra spring in people’s steps I’ve observed on occasion when they leave the confessional was an actual thing.
The kind Franciscan was patient and good-natured. He listened. He didn’t judge. He encouraged me to think about the forgiveness and not simply how I can receive it, but how I can extend it to others.
He asked me whether there was anyone I thought I should forgive.
A lump appeared in my throat.
Yes. There is.
“Who,” he asked.
I told him.
I felt tears welling in my eyes.
“Would you like to forgive her now?”
He asked me to say out loud that I forgave the person by name for what she has done to me, that saying it would be like taking the knife out of a wound so it could heal — so God could heal it.
I did. A confession of a different kind. I forgave her.
He offered me absolution, and for my penance he asked me to meditate on the story of Jesus’ baptism, when a dove appeared and the crowd who’d watched John the Baptist dunk Jesus in the river heard God’s voice say, “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.”
He asked me whether I knew why God said that out loud so people could hear it.
I admitted I didn’t.
“Jesus presumably already knew that. So why did God say it so others could hear it, write it down, and include it in the Bible?” he said.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“For you,” he said.
God feels that way about all of God’s children, the priest said.
It’s something I’ve heard all of my life, but I never tire of hearing it again.
As I got up to leave, I thanked him for taking the time and for his kindness.
“Maybe don’t wait another 35 years to do this again?” he said, grinning.
“Don’t you feel great? Like you’ve just gotten a huge hug from God?”
I did feel great. Lighter, somehow.