I didn’t mean to confess my sins to you.
This week, the Pope gave a message during a ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica. His message was about forgiveness and the need for confession. Afterward he stepped down from the pulpit and was directed towards an empty confession booth to hear the confessions of the Catholic people. However, instead of going straight into the booth – as is tradition – the pope continued over to a booth occupied by a priest and gave his own confession to the priest in front of millions.
No pope has been seen giving his confession in public before.
Thanks to the world wide web, you can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKHKmEtpWao
There, of course, has been a lot of discourse over the event on the internet and it has brought to my personal attention the need to revisit the idea of confession, not just for Catholics and not just for Christians, but for everyone.
Like most, I don’t believe there is a human alive without their own “sin.” Pride exists in us all. It especially exists in the ones who say they have no pride at all. And like most, I grow wary of a leader who is reluctant to talk about their shortcomings. Most public leaders don’t acknowledge it within themselves and probably should. That’s not to say a leader should necessarily broadcast their dirty laundry to the world, but they should have a group of individuals willing to hear their confessions.
Those who are willing to acknowledge their shortcomings within themselves are usually not in the limelight. They are often leaders of small groups, medium-sized corporations, and ordinary companies that supply the basic and “boring” necessities of life. We don’t often uplift the kind-hearted CEO of a toilet paper manufacturer or the honest owner of a small but personable car dealership. Perhaps it is because they are good at not letting their pride propel them center stage.
Some see confession as a sign of weakness. The leaders and mentors I look up to tell me that time and wisdom teach you quite the opposite – it is a sign of strength. But how come? These thoughts, along with the pope’s confession, should make us turn our attention to what happens at the fundamental level when we confess.
According to Dr. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, author of the incredibly challenging book Glittering Vices, confession is the roadmap to breaking free of the vices like greed and envy that grip us where it hurts most. She explains that “naming our sins is the confessional counterpart to counting our blessings.” (page 21 of Glittering Vices). We are quick to count our blessings but slow to confess our problems. There is Thanksgiving but no holiday named Confess-mas.
DeYoung chalks our reluctancy up to pride. Counting our blessings is often an effort to remind ourselves and others of our happiness, and we love to be the harbinger of our own happiness. Confession doesn’t tend to do this. It tends to remind us of how messy and irritable we can be. Dr. Brene Brown, author of the wonderful book Daring Greatly, says this is because of our fear of scarcity. We are afraid of not being __________ enough. Confession begins by reinforcing that we are indeed not __________ enough.
DeYoung says it beautifully: “It is not so surprising, then, that pride — that desire to have control over our own happiness, whether out of fear or overconfidence — is the root of vainglory after all.” (page 73 of Glittering Vices)
So back to the pope. Say what you will about his motives – none of us can know what they were since none of us can be in his head – but his action demonstrated to the world that he is not worthy enough to be perfect. He, like the rest of us, has that gunky stuff inside that needs confessing. And while no pope has ever been seen giving a confession in public before, I’d be willing to argue that no (or very few) great leaders today have given a very sincere confession in public either, not until their arm is twisted by whatever is being called into question.
Though we live in a world of immediate transparency – posting and tweeting the feed of our life publicly each day – the transparency is a facade. The confession is insincere. It is reduced to 140 characters. Subtitles that cue us in to a person’s sincerity such as silence, a shameful glance, or a stooped posture are lost. How can forgiveness and restoration be made if we are unable to genuinely confess our humanness to a fellow human?
Physician Dr. Ira Byrok, a doctor who spent much of his life around end-of-life patients, wrote what he thought were the four basic messages a person at the end of their life need to hear the most: “Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. And, I love you.”
Perhaps we all need to hear that message. There is much more to say on confession and I’m afraid I’m not entirely qualified to say it all. I invite you to share your thoughts on confession below. But I do know this from what little experience I have – when we can reciprocate a confession with forgiveness, healing can begin. I reckon there are a lot of companies, organizations, leaders, families, brothers, sisters, friends, and humans that could use a little healing. And I reckon we could all use a little more confession.