Sunday, December 10, 2017

Dan Mattson and the Transformative Power of a Good Confession

Dan Mattson and his book

(Second Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on December 10, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; 2 Peter 3: 8-14; Mark 1: 1-8.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Advent 2017]

Daniel Mattson is a 47-year-old man who has experienced same-sex attraction in varying degrees since he was 6-years-old.  He was baptized a Catholic, but during his youth his family left the Catholic Church and joined an evangelical Protestant community.  Not surprisingly, Dan eventually abandoned Christianity altogether.  In his autobiography, which I’m currently reading, he talks very candidly about how, over a number of years, he came to reject God, identify himself as gay, and adopt the gay lifestyle.  Clearly, he was looking for love and happiness in his life—and that was great.  Everyone does that!  However, because of his woundedness (a woundedness rooted in his past experiences), he was looking for that love and happiness in all the wrong places.  As he said in his book:
In my life, the seeds of my same-sex attraction are all clear to me: seeds sown with my neighbor when I was a boy, seeds of teasing and alienation from other boys, seeds of envy stemming from doubts about my body, seeds from gruff men and a father who sometimes intimidated and scared me, and seeds from rejection from women, as well as a mother who had an unhealthy and controlling attachment to me because of her own wounds.
Throw a large dose of pornography into the mix, and you have the formula for producing a very misguided and mixed-up young man.

That was Dan Mattson.

What led him back to God—and ultimately back to the Catholic Church—interestingly enough, was his experience of suffering: his experience of suffering after a couple of broken relationships (one with a man, the other with a woman).

In an attempt to help Dan deal with his pain, his Catholic godparents invited him to attend the national conference of Courage, which was being held that year on the campus of Villanova University.  Courage is a Catholic organization that provides pastoral care and support to men and women who experience same-sex attraction, but who have made the choice to live chaste lives by following the teachings of the Catholic Church.

His participation in that conference—and specifically in the opening Mass—is what changed his life.  As he said in his book, “Before the Mass began, I wasn’t a practicing Catholic.  But somewhere during the hour-long Mass, I decided to be reconciled with the Church.”

Of course, that meant he had to go to confession, which he did.  Listen now, to his description of that experience and what it meant to him:
I saw a priest who was free and walked up to him nervously. “Father,” I said, “I haven’t been to confession in over 30 years. I’m not sure what to do.”He guided me through the process with fatherly love and compassion. I told him everything. Everything, from the very beginning—all my moments of shame, all of my moments of addiction, all the furtive search for happiness in the dead ends of sexual pleasure. I poured out a lifetime of sin and sorrow in one liberating moment of emancipation and release.And then he raised his hand above my head and said the most glorious words anyone has ever said to me [the words of absolution].I had never felt so free, so liberated in all my life. These weren’t empty words; I experienced joy—abundant, ebullient, and overpowering joy—as he said those words. The words of the priests have power, given to them from Christ while he was still among us, after he was raised from the dead, a power unimaginable: the power to forgive sins. …As I left the priest to go back to my pew I knew truly that all of my sins had been forgiven, through the grace of Christ and power of the priest to forgive sins. I knew this just as surely as the Roman centurion who, on the day of Christ’s last breath on the Cross, as St. Matthew tells us, said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” I knew that here, at last, my sins had been forgiven.I went to bed with joy and peace in my heart, looking forward to the next day when I would finally be able to partake of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
I tell you this story today for a reason.  Notice who’s back with us this morning: John the Baptist—John the Baptist, with his message of repentance.

John makes an appearance every Advent and every Lent in at least one of our Sunday gospel passages.  It doesn’t matter which cycle of readings we’re in—cycle A, cycle B or cycle C—John is always there preparing the way for Jesus.  That, of course, was his role in salvation history, as prophesied by Isaiah in today’s first reading, and reiterated by St. Mark in this gospel.

John was sent to “prepare the way of the Lord” and to “make straight his paths.”

That means, quite simply, that if you want the Lord to have a “straight path” into your heart, if you want Jesus to be more fully present in your life, you need to heed the words of John the Baptist and repent of your sins.

There’s no other way.

That’s what Dan Mattson came to understand at that Mass during the Courage conference.

It’s also what St. Peter believed when he wrote today’s second reading.  It’s what moved him in that text to urge us to take advantage of God’s patience and to turn away from our sins now!  He wrote, “[The Lord] is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”  Later on he added, “Be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.”

As eager as Dan Mattson was at that conference!

I also told Dan’s story today because it says something important to us about confession.  Confession is the normal way for Catholics to have their serious sins forgiven after Baptism.  It’s a great gift from God, through which we can respond to the call of John the Baptist to turn away from our sins.

And yet we can so easily neglect the gift or take it for granted, can’t we?  That’s the thought that came to me as I read Dan’s story the other day. 

Here’s a guy—Dan Mattson—who did not take the gift for granted!  Here’s a guy who had his life transformed because (unlike many Catholics today) he made an honest—and thorough—confession of his sins in the sacrament.  He didn’t make excuses for what he had done; he didn’t hold anything back; he didn’t rationalize his sins away; he didn’t fail to confess something that he knew deep down inside he needed to confess.

He put it all out there!  He brought every serious sin he could possibly remember to Jesus Christ, his Lord and Savior, through the priest—and Jesus took all those sins away, giving Dan a joy and a peace in his heart that he had never known before. 

John the Baptist would love it!  John the Baptist would highly approve.  John the Baptist would be greatly pleased.

Which brings us, at last, to the really important question of the day: Would he—would John the Baptist—be just as pleased with us when we go to confession?