How the confessional is better than a time machine

5 mins read
A woman offers her confession to a priest May 8, 2019, at St. Francis of Assisi in East Palo Alto, Calif.(CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

Scour the pages of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and you won’t find the term “time machine.”

Watch, or re-watch, the 1985 blockbuster movie “Back to the Future” and you won’t spot a scene where anyone speaks of going to confession.

Still, we humans really like the idea of a time machine — maybe especially one embedded in the trappings of a 1982 DeLorean car — and shy away from the idea of a confessional.

It seems like a time machine would fix everything, doesn’t it? Go back, adjust this, fiddle with that, and voilà! All is well when you return home.

On the other hand, emerge from a confessional and, well, there you are. Yes, there is grace and you have a penance to do, but it’s the same day, same place.

Those familiar with the Catechism know that it covers the Sacrament of Reconciliation in detail. And rightly so.

Those who know “Back to the Future” backwards and forwards have to admit a “flux capacitor” can go wonky and impede one’s return. (And without that malfunction, it would have been one short film.)

So, for the sake of discussion, let’s take a look at the advantages of each.

Pros and cons

Time machine: You can go back poor, buy some now now-skyrocketing stock for pennies and come back filthy rich.

Confessional: You can enter nearly spiritually bankrupt and exit up to the brim with grace.

Time machine

Time machine: According to the “rules” of such a device, if you interfere with the “space-time continuum” you can cause all kinds of catastrophic events, both personal and global.

Confessional: According the teachings of the Catholic Church, if you interfere with a habit of sin or near occasions of sin, you can cause all kinds of blessings, both personal and global.

Time machine: If your past self sees your just-visiting self, well, it’s not good. It’s really not good.

Confessional: If your right-now self takes an honest look at your back-then self (that is, since your last confession) it’s good. It’s really good.

Time machine: You need to be a super geek or a close buddy of one to build or use a time machine.

Confessional: You can be dumb as a post — that sounds harsh — but if you make a sincere confession to the best of your ability, you’re good to go!

Time machine: And speaking of building, a time machine needs some serious financial backing.

Confessional: Free.

Time machine: It can be really, really fun! What an adventure. (All with no long lines at the airport.)

Confessional: It feels kind of like a dental checkup. Yes, it’s a necessary and wise thing to do, but it’s also easy to put off till later. And leaving is always better than going in. (Sometimes there is a line to get in, but seldom a long one.)

Time machine: Can be life-changing.

Confessional: Always soul-changing, which, if you really think about it, can be life-changing.

No surprise that this article — published in a Catholic newspaper — is strongly slanting toward confession. Certainly the same topic — in a science fiction monthly — would lean the other way. And it probably would use a lot of words to describe just how, theoretically, such a machine could be built.

Nuts and bolts of confession

So here, theologically, are some of the nuts and bolts of the sacrament — the engine that drives the confessional, so to speak. And here, too, is a bit of advice.

1. Take comfort in the fact that there’s nothing you can say that’s going to surprise God. He already knows. And the priest has already heard that sin or a variation on its theme many, many times.

Still, it can — and perhaps always does — take some courage to go to confession.

2. If you’re concerned that the priest will recognize you from behind the screen or (for sure) know it’s you because you’re sitting face to face, go to a different parish. It’s OK.

There’s no such thing as being “out of your coverage area” when it comes to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It’s not like a cellphone plan or health insurance contract.

3. Avoid the temptation to get a little huffy because going to confession is too easy. Yes, it can feel too hard to get in there and then seemingly too easy once you’ve stated your sins, made a sincere act of contrition, received your penance and absolution, exited and gone to perform your penance.

What? You want to haggle with the priest for a little fire and brimstone before he absolves you (that is, when Christ absolves you through the priest)? And then you’d prefer he really blasts you with a huge penance?

4. A rose by any other name — a sacrament by many names. As the Catechism teaches:

“It is called the sacrament of conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus’ call to conversion, the first step in returning to the Father from whom one has strayed by sin.

“It is called the sacrament of Penance, since it consecrates the Christian sinner’s personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance, and satisfaction.

“It is called the sacrament of confession, since the disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is an essential element of this sacrament. In a profound sense it is also a ‘confession’ — acknowledgment and praise — of the holiness of God and of his mercy toward sinful man.

“It is called the sacrament of forgiveness, since by the priest’s sacramental absolution God grants the penitent ‘pardon and peace.’

“It is called the sacrament of Reconciliation, because it imparts to the sinner the love of God who reconciles: ‘Be reconciled to God.’ He who lives by God’s merciful love is ready to respond to the Lord’s call: ‘Go; first be reconciled to your brother'” (CCC 1423-1424).

Let’s add a couple more:

It’s just the ticket for your life on earth (on a time machine that’s stuck in forward). It’s your passport to a space and time — and beyond space and time — to a never-ending continuum of joy.

Bill Dodds writes from Washington.

A little friendly — and saintly — advice

There are numerous quotes by saints about the Sacrament of Confession. Here are just a few:

  • Pope St. Clement I: “It is better for a man to confess his sins than to harden his heart.”
  • St. Augustine: “The beginning of good works is the confession of evil works.”
  • St. Francis de Sales: “My child, never allow your heart to abide heavy with sin, seeing that there is so sure and safe a remedy at hand.”
  • St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: “Our Lord himself I saw in … this venerable sacrament. I felt as if my chains fell, as those of St. Peter, at the touch of the divine messenger.”
  • Jesus said to St. Faustina: “Write, my secretary, that I myself am the spiritual guide of souls — and I guide them indirectly through the priest [in the confessional], and lead each one to sanctity by a road known to me alone.”
  • St. Teresa of Calcutta: “Only to confession can we go as sinners with sin and come out as sinners without sin. … Confession is Jesus and I, and nobody else. Remember this for life.”
  • St. John Paul II: “To speak of reconciliation and penance is for the men and women of our time an invitation to rediscover, translated into their own way of speaking, the very words with which our savior and teacher Jesus Christ began his preaching: ‘Repent, and believe in the Gospel,’ that is to say, accept the good news of love, of adoption as children of God and hence of brotherhood. … [I]t has to be added that this reconciliation with God leads, as it were, to other reconciliations which repair the breaches caused by sin. The forgiven penitent is reconciled with himself in his inmost being, where he regains his own true identity. He is reconciled with his brethren whom he has in some way attacked and wounded. He is reconciled with the church. He is reconciled with all creation.”

No time machine can do that. Not even one retrofitted into a DeLorean.

Bill Dodds

Bill Dodds writes from Washington.