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What federal prison taught me about confession

A priest prays with a death-row inmate in 2008 at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Indiana. For rehabilitation to occur in prison, the prisoner must undertake an honest self-examination. CNS PHOTO/TIM HUNT, NORTHWEST INDIANA CATHOLIC

by Doug Fencl
Special to The Leaven

I will be the first to tell you that I don’t like confession. Why? Because if done right, it is painful. The ego hates it. But as we have seen in the Resurrection, pain is often the path to joy and eternal life.

And what a relief a good confession is, for God has forgiven what the ego has selfishly constructed, allowing us to see ourselves, and reality, in the light of God’s truth.

Yet, for most my life, I thought confession to be no more than a tired vestige of the past, a kind of annoying ritual that made people temporally feel good but had little practical use or benefit.

It took federal prison to set me straight.

By way of background, I retired from law enforcement after a 30-year career, dealing with criminals ranging from bank robbers and drug dealers to members of organized and white-collar criminals.

From that experience, I became aware of one commonality shared by most offenders: They usually saw the world in a completely different way than most law-abiding citizens — a kind of blindness to reality, as if living in some kind of alternate universe.

Often, offenders live in a world different than most law-abiding citizens.

After my retirement, I got involved in the prison ministry at Leavenworth federal prison, where I spent nine years as a mentor/counselor.

During that time, I learned as much about myself as those inmates with whom I worked.

It turns out that “their” alternate universe was closer to “me” than I thought.

My experience in prison showed me that successful prison rehabilitation can only be effectuated when the inmate can begin to see through his own self-made reality, a reality of excuses and justifications that become his truth.

For example, I heard these kinds of things repeatedly: “I sell drugs to take care of those I love,” or “If you get to know me, you’ll find out I’m really a good person.”

In short, it is a total lack of honest self-examination, lies they told themselves over and over again until it becomes, in their own minds, reality — an alternate universe created by their own ego.

For rehabilitation and change to occur, the aforementioned drug dealer must begin to see his actions in the light of God’s reality and admit that the reason he sells drugs is because he’s addicted to the excitement and the easy money.

Then, secondarily, he must admit to the pain he has caused his family and those families of the people to whom he has sold drugs. The inmate who believes that “I’m really a good person” must realize that giving $20 to a homeless person, money that was proceeds from a bank robbery, doesn’t necessarily make one a good person! Focusing on one good act, while ignoring other destructive behaviors, is not honest self-examination.

Offenders must admit to the pain they caused their loved ones in order to heal.

Acknowledging the reality of these truths can be a gut-wrenching and agonizing experience. Change can only occur when the comfort of self-delusion is seen for what it really is — a self-satisfying construction of the ego that blinds.

After a couple of years of engaging in this process with the inmates, I soon realized that I was doing the very same kind of thing in my own life, comfortably living with my own ego-constructed reality. I, too, was suffering from the “good guy” syndrome, smugly living in my own alternative universe, giving no thought to my own actions and victimizations.

For if I have convinced myself, for example, that I am a good husband or parent, without self-examining what a good husband or parent really means, then I am fooling myself and not doing the hard and painful work of the self-examination required for positive change. I was pointing fingers at the inmates while engaging in the very same kind of self-satisfying ego-driven mental gymnastics.

Yet when I began to see myself in God’s light, outside of my ego-constructed fabrications, it was an agonizing and humbling experience — what I imagine purgatory to be.

I think, as Catholics, we have a God-given process, the efficacious gift of confession, in which we have a way to combat the self-delusion of ego-constructed reality.

The shame of it all is that if not done correctly (without a thorough self-examination before confession, for example), the ego undermines all our good intentions.

We leave confession forgiven, but without truly confronting the underlying causes that hamper positive change. We become recidivists ourselves — never changing, doing the same destructive things over and over again.

True change — to become more like Christ, our Christian mandate — begins with unblinking honesty and in-depth self-reflection, an often painful process that thankfully leads to humility and contrition.

It is only then that the sinister and confining walls the ego has constructed can be razed by God’s mercy and love. And once liberated, we can begin to see ourselves, and reality, in the freeing light of God’s truth.

Doug Fencl worked in the field of law enforcement for more than 30 years, after which he worked for almost 10 years as a mentor/counselor in prison ministry at the U.S. Penitentiary Leavenworth. Fencl is a parishioner of Church of the Ascension in Overland Park.

About the author

The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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  • Perhaps every priest in the diocese should consider crafting a Lenten homily around this “confession” of an article by a member of our very own flock. The context of a false reality that leads to imprisonment (in more ways than one) could not be more real or convincing of our collective need for regular confession, forgiveness, and true contrition. Personally, I vow to go deeper in self-examination before I enter the confessional. Thank you, Doug, for being the example we ALL need, especially during this season of suffering, forgiveness, and renewal.

  • A CATHOLIC RECIDIVIST is one of the best articles I have read in the Leaven in quite some time. Thanks for sharing your experience!