There are times in our lives when we need to unload the weight of our spiritual baggage. We sometimes need assistance in removing the spiritual obstacles in front of us so we can live more wholly. These are the times when we are encouraged to seek the sacrament of reconciliation. This sacrament, however, can cause discomfort for many. To see a priest for reconciliation or attend a penitential service is not an easy thing to do, because one can feel vulnerable and even embarrassed about what they share or reveal.
I have been fortunate that my confessors have counselled, not dictated; loved, not admonished; understood, not judged, and my confessors made this sacrament one of grace and not of meaningless penance.
I became a teacher-chaplain back in 2001. The priest-chaplain with whom I worked closely that year was Rev. Bob Halbauer, OMI. Anyone who knew this man can attest to his magnificence. In short, he was a man of profound faith, deep prayer, unbridled youth despite being well over 70 years old at the time, and Father Bob possessed a vision of church that was years ahead of its time.
In his school ministry, Father Bob never missed an opportunity to be with students at their athletic events, their drama productions, or simply doing things for them as much as he was able. Even during final exams, Father Bob constantly roamed the halls with his book of prayers as he faithfully prayed for the students, whom he affectionately referred to as “his kids.”
Every time he addressed the student body at a pep rally or at the end of a school mass, Father Bob would say, “If no one has told you today that they love you, let me be the first to tell you.” In my estimation, it was his mission in life to give to the students, and be for the students the voice, face and presence of God. He died in August 2002. Father Bob’s funeral was one of the biggest funerals I have ever attended, as almost every student that ever knew him must have been there.
When Father Bob was a young priest, one of his first placements was in the far northern town of Manning, Alta. Some of my wife, Norma’s, aunts and uncles actually lived there when he was the pastor. They shared with me many wonderful stories of Father Bob, including the boldest move they ever witnessed a priest make. Father Bob’s first project was to visit the parish cemetery to specifically see the graves of suicide victims buried outside of it. He organized a bulldozing of the line of hedges surrounding the cemetery. Next, he re-planted the hedges around all the graves in order to include suicide victims.
In this way, Father Bob welcomed back, into community, those people who had taken their lives. It was his way of correcting a “grave error.” No one is ever outside of God’s love, healing, compassion, and mercy. Father Bob used to tell me that we have no right to judge their actions or condemn them to an eternal life of incessant torture of remorse.
The theology of the 1950s stipulated that people who committed suicide should be buried outside the church cemetery. It was a mortal sin to take your own life; hence, they had no place in death within the rest of the faith community. Thankfully, we have come a long way in our theology and in our understanding of God since the Dark Ages thinking of that time. We do not think or believe that any longer. At least, I hope we don’t, but I know many still subscribe to the medieval notion that mortal sin can somehow separate us from the love, forgiveness and mercy of God.
Why is it that we still claim to know better the mind of God when deaths like suicide happen? God is not made in our image and likeness. Moreover, why does judgment continue to be thrown down upon those who die by suicide? Is it our right to decide where they go? Is dying by suicide more sinful than someone who dies of cancer?
Father Bob was my spiritual adviser and confessor. Each one of my confessions ended with Father Bob saying, “I forgive you for every sin you’ve ever committed in your entire life. Go in peace knowing that you are forgiven and deeply loved.” That is, ultimately, the essence of reconciliation. It is about love, not punishment; mercy, not penance. It is knowing we are forgiven and deeply loved despite our brokenness, despite our sinfulness, and despite our penchant for making God in our own image and likeness.
Saretsky is a teacher and chaplain at Holy Cross High School in Saskatoon. He and his wife, Norma, have two children, Nathan and Jenna.