The tradition of beginning the school year with the Mass of the Holy Spirit predates the founding of our famed Alma Mater by several centuries, yet as with so many aspects of Jesuit education we at Saint Ignatius like to put our own spin on things. Here I refer neither to the place – the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist – nor to the means – walking to and from the Cathedral with blue blazers blazing, but to the lead-up during the week of the Mass.
Early on in his time as President of Saint Ignatius Fr. Robert J. Welsh, S.J. ’54 was looking for a way to impress upon the student body just how important the Mass of the Holy Spirit was to our mission as a Catholic and Jesuit institution. He concluded that the best way to bring this thought to the forefront of the minds of all on campus was to offer the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation several days prior to the Mass. His reasoning was sound: The best way to approach the altar of the Lord is with a clean heart, and the best way to have a clean heart is to avail oneself of the Sacrament of Confession.
Each year the Church sets aside times of reflection and penance – most particularly the days of Lent, but also to a lesser degree the season of Advent. But, for our community at Saint Ignatius the beginning of the school year also affords us the ability to step back and take an honest assessment of where we are on our spiritual journey. The summer can be a time of relaxation and carefree escape from the daily grind, but it can also be a time where we take a vacation from God, from prayer, and from the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist.
For Fr. Welsh the primary concern was always what was best for his boys, and most especially for the spiritual health of his boys, and so the tradition (NB: At Saint Ignatius, a “tradition” is anything that was done once and therefore will be done until the Parousia) of late-August confessions was born.
As a Theology teacher, this beginning of the year event allows me to give my pitch for a sacrament that needs to hire a marketing firm. For example, what do we call it…officially? The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) gives several names: “the sacrament of conversion…the sacrament of Penance…the sacrament of confession…the sacrament of forgiveness…the sacrament of Reconciliation.”
Maybe another name could be the sacrament of honesty. The day before we go to the St. Mary of the Assumption Chapel for confessions I hand out to my seniors an examination of conscience that was written specifically for students in a Jesuit high school. The instructions begin with a call to prayer using the following words:
“Come O Holy Spirit, and help me to remember my sins. Give me the honesty I need to reflect upon my thoughts, words and actions. Amen.”
It takes courage to be honest, to look in the mirror and see the blemishes, the scars, the birthmarks, the receding hair line. It takes courage to walk into the confessional and point out those blemished, scars, birthmarks and receding hair line to the priest whose presence represents that of the all loving and all forgiving Lord Jesus Christ.
Without honesty there can be no sacrament, and without the sacrament how hard will it be for us sinful humans to be brought to conversion? Without honesty we let ourselves off the hook for offenses that we would find repugnant if the tables were turned and we the perpetrators became the victims. Without honesty we blind ourselves to the reality of our sinfulness, like an addict who claims that she or he can quit whenever they want.
Each year I am heartened by the willingness of our students to be honest with themselves and to bring that honesty to Jesus in such a holy and sacramental way. In doing so they – whether they realize it or not – are participating in one of our most important and most essential traditions.