By Norris Burkes, April 29, 2022
“May I call a priest for you?” might not be something you’d want to hear, but I find that it’s a welcome offer to our Catholic patients in hospice care.
Recently, I was visiting a patient in a nursing facility and noticed she was praying with her rosary beads.
When I asked if she’d like me to call the Father, the octogenarian’s response took me aback.
“Why?” she asked.
“Well, perhaps he would bring the Sacrament of the Sick.”
If you aren’t Catholic, you’d likely call this the “Last rites.” But the church renamed it Sacrament of the Sick to emphasize its use for all illness, terminal or not.
“No,” she said, “I’ve already received that.”
“Perhaps he could hear your confession.”
Again with the “Why?”
I stammered a bit, answering only with an open palm. She continued.
“All I do is lie here all day. I haven’t done anything that needs confessing.”
We shared a chuckle over the truth of her claim. Years had likely passed since her last “sin.” She was well loved by family, staff and our visiting hospice team.
A few minutes later we concluded our visit by reciting the Lord’s Prayer together.
I didn’t think of her again until my visit to Trailhead Church last month in Edwardsville, Illinois. The church sits outside St. Louis, across the Mo. state line. Although nondenominational, the staff borrowed from their liturgical roots.
I first recognized that connection when the worship minister had us recite the Prayer of Confession.
I’m embarrassed to say that the scripted litany of high church often sends me into unfeeling autopilot. My Baptist tradition normally shuns prewritten prayers, favoring the extemporaneous instead.
Somewhere in my muddle, I heard something about confessing the sins of “thought, word, and deed.” I expected the usual list of suspects — lust, lying and stealing. Yada, yada, yada.
I sympathized with my patient. Nothing to confess.
However, somewhere mid-prayer, a phrase caught my attention. It was an assertion that we can sin not only “by what we have done” but “by what we have left undone.”
Left undone? Like what?
The prayer specifically calls out our lack of devotion to God and to his people.
“We have not loved you with our whole heart…
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”
Those two phrases laid bare my patient’s claim that one need confess only what one has done wrong.
By the prayer’s standard, there is much to confess.
There aren’t enough priests in town to hear confession for the times we’ve been silent in the face of injustice, hurt and pain.
I’ve sat silently as I allowed the bigot to rage. I’ve remained mute to the cries of the unhoused. I’ve been reticent in fighting injustice.
And what about the times I should have stayed a little longer, listened a little deeper and loved more intentionally? My sins of omission are perhaps greater than those who lie, cheat or steal.
But gratefully, the prayer leaves me hopeful as it promises mercy and forgiveness.
Today, whether you count yourself in the Christian tradition or from another, I think we all would benefit from examining our hearts and confessing what “we have left undone.”
This prayer suggests a model for all our traditions. Pray it with me today as our world struggles to know this mercy.
We confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed;
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole
heart and soul and mind and strength.
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
Lord, in your mercy,
forgive what we have been,
transform what we are,
and remind us what we will be,
so that we may delight in your will
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your holy name.