Our souls are being contested for, and we deny this at our peril
“So, you’re a Jesuit—that means you’re an exorcist, right?” My response to that all-too-frequent question is (muttered under my breath, of course), “Thanks a lot, Hollywood!”
It seems that any priest, and especially any Jesuit priest like me, speaking of spiritual warfare and the like, invites inevitable questions and comparisons related to William Peter Blatty’s famous novel and movie from the 1970s, The Exorcist. Just as one can’t hear Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” without thinking of graduation, so too any clerical mention of the devil stirs up in the popular imagination Jesuits performing exorcisms, Hollywood style.
That’s as unfortunate as it is unnecessary. We need instead to have a sober and reasoned conversation about the reality of spiritual conflict in every Christian’s life. In 2011, The Rite was Hollywood’s latest contribution to the, “Every-Jesuit-Is-An-Exorcist” theme. It was a movie of modest merits, except for the last scene. There we see a newly-ordained priest, convinced by his Jesuit mentor that the devil is real, undertake his lifelong battle against evil by….hearing confessions. Hollywood got that part right. In its most common form, the fight against evil is not spectacular; rather our confrontation of evil most often starts with a long look in the mirror, moves to a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, transitions to the confessional, and then out into the everyday world, where we try to put the graces of repentance into practice.
As in so many other areas, so too in the spiritual life—the spectacular can be a distraction from the nitty-gritty, daily grind of daily fidelity, with humble admission of sin followed by grateful reception of grace. What a tragedy, what a disaster, that the practice of frequent reception of sacramental confession has withered, almost to extinction! The most ordinary and necessary means of fighting for our souls has been voluntarily abandoned!
In my research, I was surprised to find in the liberal, secular news journal, Slate, a reflection on the falloff of sacramental confession in an essay from 2005. The concluding paragraph was painful to read—because of its accuracy:
“The biggest barrier between Catholics and the confessional, however, may be the real effort it requires. Unloading your transgressions on the Internet takes a few computer clicks—you can do it on your coffee break. But done right, Catholic confession demands a rigorous examination of conscience and real contrition, to say nothing of the prayers you may be assigned for penance and the thinking a priest may ask you to do about the ways you’ve let yourself and God down. No wonder we are more comfortable with the Eucharist service, which demands only that we line up like consumers and accept something for free.”
Ouch! The author’s words sting for two reasons.
First, he rightly notes that real repentance (of which sacramental confession is an essential element) is difficult, and therefore is less likely to be taken up precisely because it is difficult. (To that I’d add, “If you think confession is hard, you haven’t thought much about Hell…”)
Secondly, he notes the horrifying contemporary trend to treat grace, which is free, as something that is cheap. If people “line up like consumers” to “accept something for free” when they receive Holy Communion (and the dearth of confessions and the long lines for Holy Communion suggest that he may be correct), then we are in very great need of catechesis as well as conversion. If it is sufficient to be merely “nice” to gain entrance into Heaven and come before the presence of the All-Holy God, then we can afford to let sacramental confession die a quiet death. But Sacred Scripture says otherwise: “None but the righteous shall see God.” (