Skipping Confession:
 Tales from a twenty-something Catholic

John Gehring

The sounds, smells and symbols of the Roman Catholic Church run deep in my blood. Iím a former altar boy who went to Catholic schools from kindergarten through college, a passage from childhood into adulthood seemingly forever linked with feast days and novenas, holy days of obligation and stark Lenten Masses. I still remember my eyes burning as I helped the priest prepare incense. The fear of entering a dark confessional. Strict nuns with their steady gazes and tough love demands of impeccable penmanship and perfect posture.

Nerves had been bubbling up in my stomach the entire week before my eighth grade Confirmation class went to confess our sins for the first time. The thought of kneeling in front of a screen with the outline of a priestís head and shoulders looming before me and putting into words all the slights, large and small, I had managed to accumulate against God and man in my fourteen years had haunted me for days. Our class of hormone-saturated, awkward adolescents had been fully briefed in the churchís detailed ecology of sin. Over the weeks leading up to the big day, the list accumulated in my notebook like stones weighing on my soul: venial sins, mortal sins, sins of omission, sins of commission. You had to give it to the church. They had this sin business down cold. Centuries of practice. Whether it was the prospect of sinning by not telling the priest all my sins, or just a nameless fear that gripped me, I never made it to Confession that night (Iím sure also a sin), and I went to bed that evening with a heart full of guilt.

Now that I am a twenty-something Catholic, that night seems a long time ago, but I continue to share a unique relationship with a Catholic Church that in different ways nurtures me, at times frustrates me, and always challenges me to be counter-cultural. Indeed, if the Gospel message of our market place, complete with its promise of salvation through stock options and the other sacraments of "stuff" preaches its own brand of Good News from Madison Avenue, my faith speaks of humble service and the blessed poor. 

To the message of rugged individualismóa "donít tread on me" American ethos of restless self-relianceómy faith answers clearly with a call for community and selfless discipleship. In a culture where ethics are relative, carefully crafted legalisms seem to substitute for honesty and moral codes are subservient to personal ambition, I canít ignore an uncompromising message of universal values and truth. And in a world where instant gratification, the almighty dollar and scientific certainty make up our secular trinity, there again is my faith as always in my ear and even deeper in my heart reminding me of the Spirit, of self-denial, and that from dust I came and to dust I shall return.

Itís not easy being a dual citizen. Like many Catholics conflicted by a church they love but sometimes see as a hierarchical, rigidly removed institution where the marginalized, particularly women and gays, have trouble finding a true home, I wonder indeed how much of this church I can call my own. I wonder even as I attend Mass every weekend and feel the ache of a traveler who has been too far from home when I miss it, how to explain to non-Catholic or non-religious friends why I remain committed to this church that for them at best seems disconnected from the real world and at worst is a source of hypocrisy and divisiveness.

Bob Dylan famously remarked that everyday people are leaving the church and finding God. His sentiment is understandable and expressed in the expatriates of my faith who have felt unheard, unspoken for and worn down by a church they see as an immovable rockóone very different from the one on which they imagine Christ intended to build his church. But for all the reservations I have about the Catholic Church, I know Iím a part of a body of imperfect believers who in myriad ways try in their daily lives to walk a path Christ laid out for them. 

Even as we may disagree with each other over positions on the death penalty, papal infallibility, or the need for theologians at Catholic universities to receive a mandatum to teach, we are still one Body who belong to something larger than ourselves. Like a family who donít always like one anotherís company, we still break bread together, struggle together and, most importantly, keep the faith together in a powerful way. Private spirituality has its place, but participating in public worship is a visible symbol of people working to make the kingdom of God real in this world.

Searching for the words to explain why I remain committed to the church and how my faith shapes my cultural and political world-view seems like fishing for experiences that swim in the unconscious. It is something that doesnít take the bait easily. Being Catholic is simply a part of who I am. Itís something that is subtly with me as I walk to work and still, after all these years removed from the Jesuit priests at Loyola High School, say the prayer of St. Ignatius to start my day. It is with me in the spirit of Rev. Joseph Kerr, S.J., a wrinkled, white-haired man who survived a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp so that in his eighth decade of life he would be around to scare my eighth-grade class into believing that we should close our eyes in a movie that showed a naked woman lest we fall into sinful temptation.

My Catholic imagination informs my beliefs that here in the richest nation in the world cutting welfare to families with children or spending millions on fighter jets that wonít fly in the rain while corporate welfare swells and too many students attend crumbling schools is small of spirit. My Catholic imagination allows me to envision a more just world where judgment is tempered with compassion, and the divisions of race, gender, and geography are bridged with recognition of common humanity. 

My Jesuit, Catholic education in high school and four years at Mount Saint Maryís College taught me more than how to evaluate literature or calculate algebraic equations. By their lessons, but more importantly their lives, my religious and lay teachers instilled within me the value of being a man for others and offered the great challenge of dedicating my days Ad majorem Dei Gloriam (for the greater glory of God). Every day I fail at reaching those goals. But every day I work toward them knowing Iím not alone, and that I stand within a tradition that can help me move closer to them. I have learned that being a part of a church does not mean checking my conscience at the cathedral door. 

My opposition to the Churchís teaching on womenís ordination or contraception, for example, doesnít mean I seek to leave the church. The writer James Baldwin once said he loved this country so much he insisted on the right to criticize it perpetually. Thoughtful dissent, the genuine struggle to understand for yourself rather than accept blindly what you have been told, is to be engaged with your faith in the deepest possible way. "Leave the country if you donít like it!" some hissed at Vietnam protestors. What knee-jerk patriotism misses, and what a mind set that considers the Catholic Church a monolithic institution misses, is that the impulse to disagree is not always rooted in disrespect but rather a desire to see what you love live up to its highest ideals. Jesus saved his harshest condemnation not for the scorned adulterer Mary Magdalene but for the Phariseesópious men who were well versed in the letter of the religious law but far from its spirit.

While I am free to disagree with and challenge the Church, I also know she has important things to say to me if I can learn to slow down and listen to her wisdom. In the way any powerful experience writes a story on oneís soul that is a silent, indelible imprint, my faith is a language all its own that often defies easy translation. What I do know is I would not be the same person today without the presence of the Catholic Church in my life. Full of her rituals, her opportunities for grace, her windows into a world of humility and mercy, she is a nurturing home in which to dwell. Together, I hope, we can make each other better.

Read other articles by John Gehring