The pope’s apology to Pentecostals during his visit to the church pastored by Giovanni Traettino speaks to the importance of memory. As Augustine recounts in his Confessions, the memory is a vast storehouse of many chambers filled with countless images. Indeed, the entire work is an extended analysis of memory in which Augustine confesses through a continuous exercise of recalling his own history and the gradual surrendering of that history to God. This culminates in book ten where the link between confession and memory becomes clear. It is there that Augustine proclaims “great is this power of memory . . . an inner chamber large and boundless.” Augustine shows that confession and memory go together in the tasks of knowing the self and God.

Some memories must be cleansed by unearthing them and repairing the guilt, hurt, and pain they embody. To bring memories of past events to light involves recovering part of one’s identity since memory is the bearer of events and actions stretched out across time. This is the work of repentance in its twin dimensions of confession and contrition. Confession and contrition are about cleansing the memory of the stains of the past. The washing of forgiveness begins with unearthing the wounds. Augustine’s autobiographical interrogation of his past exemplifies the way in which confession requires a probing deeply into the recesses of memory to assess the past. Just as scientists access the universe’s history by peering into deep space, so humans launch out into the mind’s storehouse through sustained meditation.

Probing the past can be a difficult and challenging experience. This is partly because one is not simply probing a personal memory, but a collective memory; and partly because acknowledging embedded memories of past events and actions requires a moral appraisal. It is for this reason that most persons prefer to let the past stay buried in the sands of time. Pope Francis’s confession was an exercise in recalling the collective memory of Italian Catholicism in relationship to Pentecostalism, as challenging as that may have been for Italian Catholics. He was not confessing any personal wrong, but was instead bringing into the light the way in which Italian Catholics were complicit in the Fascist regime’s persecution of Pentecostals.

Interrogation of the memory is part of the journey into knowledge of the self. It is a precarious journey fraught with the possibility of misinterpretation and misunderstanding. The journey into the memory, then, should not be a solitary pilgrimage. It is made in the company of others who help one face the perturbations of the soul that form obstacles to proper understanding. For Christians, this means it is faced in the context of the communion of the saints, the company of friends into whose presence baptism welcomes the believer. The pope joined hands with Giovanni Traettino and together they journeyed to reconciliation. And yet, as important as these companions are, they cannot generate the confidence necessary to deal with demons that lurk in the darker parts of the soul. They support, but cannot cure. As Luther noted, one must face memory in and through the power of the promises of God to redeem and to forgive. Under the shadow of God’s wings, we fear no evil.

The importance of Pope Francis’ confession is that the minister or priest stands in the place of Christ for the believer. Normally such a position means that the minister extends the grace and mercy of Christ to believers, but it can also mean that the minister repents on behalf of the community. When the community sins, it requires a vicar who makes communal confession. The minister must say the truth about past actions of the community’s members. This is especially so given that Christianity sees the communion of the saints as a living organism, connected in fellowship by the Spirit.

No movement toward communion or fellowship can occur without the interrogation of personal and collective memory. One cannot build a future apart from open acknowledgement of past wrongs. Yet, confession and contrition would be incomplete without concrete steps to re-build. It takes satisfaction. Such satisfaction flows from the forgiveness received and therefore belongs to the work of sanctification. At the personal level, it means to cooperate with the Spirit in the rebuilding of one’s life. Theologically, there remains a connection between confession, contrition, and satisfaction even for Protestants once one acknowledges the role of sanctification in the construction (or reconstruction) of Christian character.

Satisfaction is now what must happen through ecumenical dialogues. By unearthing events in the collective memory of Italian Pentecostals and Catholics, Pope Francis has begun to probe the past. In the light of this noon-day sun, we must extend and receive forgiveness and work to build a future. There is no single person who can do this work. It takes the totality of the gifts of the Spirit spread throughout the communion of the saints. It takes, as the Holy Father said with a phrase borrowed from one of his evangelical brothers, “a diversity reconciled by the Spirit.” We must engage in the work of sanctification since, as Augustine reminds us, in memory we find ourselves and we find God.

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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