The “cancel culture” movement seems to be gaining ground. We have “progressed” from tearing down statues to removing food labels to censoring books and cartoons. Now toys have become targets of the woke warriors.
Society, it seems, has taken the offensive against being offended. No stones are cast in this new version of public judgment, but Twitter flames are fanned in the hope of silencing the suspect and trouncing their transgressions.
Throughout the history of the church, a different kind of cancelling movement has been operative. It proceeds from a different mentality and advances toward a different goal. It’s called confession.
In its own way, this sacrament is also counter cultural. Centuries ago, St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) penned a brief commentary (“Advice to Confessors”) that awakens us to how and why.
Today’s movement appears justified as a quest to eradicate remnants of social wrongs that have long gone unnoticed. Confession seems to have the same focus, as penitents admit to wrongdoings in their own lives. Admitting to sins – “in what I have done and what I have failed to do” – shines an uncomfortable light on anyone’s personal past.
But as a sacrament, and not merely a therapeutic exercise of self-examination, confession is primarily about the present moment. Its emphasis is not the past, but the now of experiencing divine grace that renders the penitent worthier than before. As the saint reminds us, “confession and penance render a man infinitely more honorable than sin renders him blamable.”
Sadly, for many people that truth has been marred by experiences that focused more on the blame than on the honor. Far too many are the stories of priests chiding penitents harshly for the faults that have burdened them, or of questioning them so extensively as to make confession more like an inquisition.
Cancel culture may come with outrage, but confession never should.
As the saintly Bishop of Geneva advises the priests of his diocese: “Remember that at the beginning of their confessions the poor penitents call you ‘Father,’ and that you must indeed have a fatherly heart toward them.”
Acknowledging that confessors “so austere in (their) corrections … are more blamable than (the) penitents are culpable,” he reminds priests that “being sinners themselves (they) are obliged to be humble, meek, and to lower themselves with the penitents by a gentle condescension.”
Still, the experience of confessing one’s sins can be uncomfortable, even shameful. Wokeness may want to excite that kind of emotion in society so as to rage against wrong. But in persons going to confession, that feeling usually make them rather apprehensive.
Again St. Francis de Sales offers a counter view, when he assures us that “the greater our misery, the more is the mercy of God glorified.” Consider, he says, the great saints who were also great sinners (e.g., St. Peter, St. Matthew, St. Mary Magdalene). Recall, too, the words of Jesus who “prayed to his Father for those who crucified him, to let us know that even if we were to crucify him with our own hands, he would willingly pardon us.”
From that biblical revelation, Francis concludes that “we can do no greater wrong to the goodness of God and to the Passion and Death of our Lord than to have a lack of confidence of obtaining pardon for our iniquities.”
The season of Lent seeks to instill this confidence, as we journey toward that Paschal Mystery by which our Lord has redeemed the world and brought sinners – us included – to salvation. We best prepare for this by confidently entrusting ourselves to the mercy of God, which is communicated to us uniquely and experientially in the sacrament of confession.
Whether it has been weeks or months, years or even decades, the opportunity to be unburdened, to be forgiven, to be at peace awaits. No statues need to fall, no labels to be removed, no books to be banned.
Instead, what gets cancelled when we celebrate the sacrament of confession is sin, and what will get restored is us, through the unfathomable and unending mercy of God. As Pope Francis remarked in his very first Angelus address eight years ago this week, “God never ever tires of forgiving us” despite our hesitancy to ask at all or to ask yet again.
To ask forgiveness in confession is to join and benefit from the Church’s counter-cultural movement, one that through grace will bring not the cancellation of culture but its reconciliation.
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Father Thomas Dailey, O.S.F.S., is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, and a research fellow for the Catholic Leadership Institute in Malvern.
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