Lent is a penitential season, a time of purification and of clarification: of being purified of our sins and of clarifying the roots of what has been keeping us from God in the first place.
Purification and clarification can come about through the typical Lenten observances: prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. Fasting, for example, not only acts as an immediate purification of something (ie, a thing is taken away), but it can also clarify in that, as we are feeling the freedom (or the pain) of the purification, we start to ask questions: for example, “why have I felt that I have needed this something in my life”; “what in my life has made me become attached to this”; “what is the root of my sin problem”; and so on.
Questions are crucial when we are striving to get at the root of our actions and when we are trying to better walk in the ways of holiness. The Examination of Conscience, therefore, and all its questions, is a most useful tool in this pursuit for holiness. Often, after a good examination of conscience, I discover that I have forgotten past lessons learned or I discover that I have a certain oversight that I didn’t realize I possessed. Such discoveries, when the results of which are put into daily practice, lead to a greater holiness and integrity of life.
Questions in the Confessional
For the first couple years as a priest, I would go through the usual Lenten ritual of sitting in the confessional for hours at a time, hearing various parishes kids’ confessions during school. And every year, I would hear the same litany of sins: “I was mean to my brother; I lied; I didn’t do what my mom told me to do; I said a bad word; and… I didn’t go to Mass.”
As a young priest, I wasn’t yet jaded to simply chalk this up to the typical child’s confession. So, a little surprised that
a child didn’t go, I asked a simple question: “Why didn’t you go to Mass?”
And the kids would answer in one of three ways: “Because I had a [sporting event/vacation]”; “Because we slept in”; or (and most frequently): “Because my parents don’t take me.”
“Because my parents don’t take me.”
I would hear that answer a lot. And what really struck me about this—what really shook me to the core—was not simply the frequency that this was said, but that most of the children were saying this with a deep sorrow in their heart and a deep longing to go to Mass. They knew they were supposed to be at Mass and they thought that t
hey themselves were to blame for their not going. They didn’t yet realize that if their parents didn’t take them, then it wasn’t their (the kids’ fault), but the parents.
Quietly, there began to develop a righteous anger in me at the parents and a desire to “propose” certain questions to our parents, questions such as “Do you realize the impact you are having? Do you realize the sorrow that you are bringing to your child’s heart?”
But those questions I kept to myself. And the anger I brought to prayer and the tempering that experience would likely bring. Maybe I had an oversight; maybe I was being harsh and not compassionate. My anger subsided into a kind of pity for the whole situation.
Cultivating Indifferent Consciences
That is, until last year. Last year, I started to notice that, by the time the kids were in the seventh grade, they would confess this sin of missing Holy Mass with a kind of nonchalance. They would go through their litany of sins, but totally dispassionate. Some would even confess with a smile on their face. Why was this? During their earlier years, they confessed this with sorrow. But now, with lukewarmness? Why?