The shades of grey prevail in life. – Pope Francis to Polish Jesuits, July 27th, 2016
At sunrise, everything is luminous, but not clear. – Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through it
If we are honest with ourselves, we will readily admit that we do not often want to do the right thing: rather, we want to do something, and we want that something to be right, and so we take refuge beneath, or behind, the thick grey veil that covers an existence marked by something else – something we used to call, “sin”.
In calling his brother Jesuits — and through them, all priest-confessors, and with them, all of us — to “discern in the grey,” and to teach other priests so to discern, as he did in remarks to Polish members of Ignatius’ Company during the course of an unscheduled private visit on July 30th, 2016, Pope Francis was calling for a frank recognition of this ineluctable fact.
A just reading of the Holy Father’s remarks will acknowledge that there is some ambiguity in them: is he calling on confessors to justify penitents’ twisted desires, or perhaps to excuse them on the grounds of impenetrable moral imbecility? Is he rather calling confessors to recognize the muddiness and murkiness of our affairs, and to help penitents achieve a measure of clarity in their vision of their deeds and of their souls?
A just construction of the Holy Father’s remarks, informed by charity, will not fail to account for the inchoate presence in them of three elements, which are hallmarks of Ignatian spirituality and basic Christian anthropology: that the Lord has made the world good and ordered our being to Himself; that the darkening of our intellect as a result of sin has made it more difficult than it ought to be for us to know the good, and still more difficult to pursue it wholeheartedly; that we are nevertheless moral agents, capable with God’s grace of more godliness than angels, and of more devilishness than demons without it.
“[I]n life,” Pope Francis told his Jesuit brothers, “not everything is black over white or white over black.” He went on to say, “The shades of gray prevail in life,” adding, “we must teach [seminarians in our charge] to discern in this grey area.”
To discern in this grey area is — whatever else it is — the task of Christian conscience. The Pope is reminding confessors of their duty to help souls. This means that confessors are to be mindful of their own sinfulness and limitations as they are about their work. It means that they are to resist the temptation to justify, and so to eschew such facile dismissals of real conscientious struggle as, “That isn’t a sin (anymore),” while keeping vigil against the apparently opposite though in reality identical impulse — albeit manifest negatively — toward condemnation.
The Christian life is one in which we are constantly playing out matters of eternal life and eternal death: the temptation to justify (“That’s not a sin anymore.”) and the temptation to condemn (“You’re back again? You can’t be really sorry.”) are equally rooted in the temptation to despair: as if we were beyond the power of grace, and so dependent on a re-casting of the moral stuff of creation in order to achieve salvation.
Note that the Holy Father’s remarks also work out of three assumptions about the Christian life: that it involves failure; that it requires repentance; that the work of grace, though often imperceptibly slow, is nevertheless inexorable when we cooperate with it.
Said shortly: he expects Christians to sin, and to avail themselves of the confessional when they do — and he expects the priests who hear their confessions to take our capacity for both sin and for repentance seriously.
Pope Francis hears the confession of a young penitent in Rio, July 2013
Addressing the Missionaries of Mercy commissioned in the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis said, “We are his ministers; and we are always the first to be in need of being forgiven by him. Therefore, whatever sin may be confessed — or if the person dare not voice it, but makes it understood, it is sufficient — every missionary is called to remember his own existence as a sinner and to humbly act as a “channel” of God’s mercy.”
While the Holy Father’s express willingness to apply a liberal interpretation of the Church’s teaching in the Council of Trent with regard to the need for confession of each grave sin in number and kind as a condition of valid absolution may be a matter warranting some circumspection, it need not be a cause for scandal.
Indeed, taken with his later challenge to discern in the grey of life, we may understand him to be offering instruction at once to confessors and to penitents: confessors ought to be ready to absolve any and all matter they have understood to have been confessed; penitents ought not make it difficult for their priest-confessors to understand the matter for which they are requesting absolution.
Nevertheless, the confessional will be as messy a place as any other we encounter and inhabit in life — and “cleaning it up” will be as constant and unremitting a chore as keeping any other place we inhabit.
Finally, and at the risk of stating the obvious: messy as it must be, we must encounter God’s mercy in the confessional if we are to be serious Christians. Confession must be a part of life for us, full stop.
The best thing pastors can do to make confession a part of life for the faithful, is to make it a part of life for the faithful: to be there, in the box and waiting.
I remember making my way one late afternoon through the center of Rome and past several Roman churches including St. John of the Florentines and St. Philip Neri’s chiesa nuova, until I came to the minor basilica of San Lorenzo in Damaso (around which they built the Chancery). I entered just before Mass was scheduled to start. As the celebrant made his way into the sanctuary and began the rites, a priest made his way to a confessional, followed by a penitent. That man made his confession, and, seeing that there was a priest available, I quickly examined my conscience and knelt behind the grille to make my own when the time came. After me, another penitent — a woman who had stumbled, so it seemed, into the basilica — knelt behind the grille on the opposite side of the box and made her confession. Moral of the story: if you are a priest, and if you sit in a confessional, behind a grille (some folks prefer face-to-face confession, and that is fine, but both priests and penitents have a canonical right to anonymity), people will come and they will confess their sins. On the other hand, if no priest is there to hear confessions, then people cannot confess.
The lives of priests — especially parish priests — are all too often impossibly hectic, so the burden such presence must place on their time and energies is not one either they or we ought to take lightly.
Nevertheless, people who were hell-bound before confessing their sins, are heaven-bent after they confess them and receive absolution: priests can save people from hell, in ways that I and other lay people simply cannot – but it all begins with being there: theirs, and ours.