Anyone for confession?Annabel Miller
- 17 March 2001
Confession used to be one of the defining marks of Catholic practice. Yet today confessional boxes often stand empty. What has happened and what is the way forward? The Tablet?s executive editor suggests some answers to those questions.
WHEN was your last confession? It is ironic that one of the practices which non-Catholics most associate with Catholics has almost disappeared in the average English parish. Before the Second Vatican Council, Catholics used to go to confession every week so that they could receive Communion in a state of grace. Things have changed. These days, at least in England, confessional boxes are lonely places where priests wait in vain for penitents.
Fr Nick Wilde, of Kirkby, Liverpool, reckons that in a single year only about 20 people will come to him for formal, individual confession. The practice has tailed off completely, almost finished, he told me. Fr Wilde is parish priest at St Laurence?s church which has a congregation of 250. In his opinion, many practising Catholics have dropped individual confession because they have developed, with the Church?s help, a greater sense of self-worth, and are no longer prepared to whisper guilty secrets to a mediating priest. He spoke of the popularity, by contrast, of communal reconciliation services where penitents either make an individual confession during the service or receive general absolution.
To many Catholics today, the idea of entering a box with a man in black, running through a list of sins and emerging forgiven, can smack of a superstitious ritual rather than a process which actually changes anything. Another factor which lies behind the dramatic decline in individual confession is that many practising Catholics do not agree with church teaching on certain moral issues, particularly those involving sex, and so do not wish to confess to sins for which they are not sorry.
Sr Gemma Simmonds, chaplain at Heythrop College in London University, thinks the traditional form of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is being dropped by English Catholics because people do not look at their sins in isolation ? three lies, four impure thoughts ? but rather see them as part of a whole pattern of living as a necessarily flawed human being. The old way of going to confession made people feel guilty about trivial things without giving them a sense of responsibility for bigger things, she said. It was part of the minutiae of privatised religion.
Another factor in the waning popularity of individual confession is that Catholics used to be taught to go regularly, in order to be eligible to receive Holy Communion in a state of grace. Each week, they engaged in a sin cycle ? confession, communion, sin, confession, communion, and so on. The Church no longer insists on such regular confession ? though it is forbidden for anyone to receive Holy Communion who has committed a mortal sin and not confessed it. Most ordinary Mass-goers would be hard-pressed to define a mortal sin, and I, for one, have never heard the definition explained from the pulpit.
So what should the Church do about the fact that in England many committed Catholics have dropped confession, because they don?t see its spiritual worth? Should the sacrament be quietly abandoned to the few who still find it valuable? Or should something be done to revive it?
The priests and religious to whom I have spoken on the subject all wanted to see a revival of the sacrament. Mgr Keith Barltrop, the episcopal vicar for east London, had some sympathy with those who did not see the point of queuing to confess a couple of impure thoughts and swear words. But he believed that individual confession was essential, and that people should be introduced to a new way of doing it. Dioceses need to set up policies of instructing people on confession, teaching them how to review their lives, focusing on the good and the bad things. Individual confession should last 15 or 20 minutes, he thought, and be undertaken every couple of months. Keith Barltrop believes that Catholics need to be educated afresh not only about confession, but about the whole teaching on sin, judgement and the love of God. Something radical is required, because the Catholic world has changed. On the eve of the Second Vatican Council, too many Catholics lived in fear and psychological oppression, he explained. After the council, things moved to another extreme and the general view of these matters became rather shallow. God was seen as a kind of grand-father who did not really mind very much what we did. The purpose of such a renewal of emphasis on sin and confession, as Mgr Barltrop sees it, would not be to make people feel guilty, but to encourage them to come to terms, in a healthy way, with their humanity and their need for God?s grace. Bishop Patrick O?Donoghue of west London put the same point in another way: People carry around a lot of guilt complexes. Some like to hang on to their sins. Confession, properly used, demonstrated that sins could be let go of, he explained, and that total forgiveness was available immediately. While individual confession is no longer popular, there is still a great desire among Catholics for forgiveness of sins, as revealed by the popularity of services of general absolution. According to canon law, these should only be used in unusual or extreme situations, and should be followed by individual confession, but many parishes have been using them as an alternative. The anecdotal evidence is that they are always popular with parishioners. They are not, however, popular with Rome. The Vatican scotched a plan by the episcopal conferences of Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales to offer general absolution on the Saturday before Palm Sunday in the Jubilee Year, followed by individual confessions in Holy Week. In Westminster, Cardinal Murphy-O?Connor has asked his priests to stop offering general absolution to their congregations. But people like a penitential service which can include an opportunity for individual confession or general absolution. People see themselves as part of the Body of Christ and like coming together in this way, Fr Nick Wilde says. It is not experienced as an easy option. As for the priests, he told me, many found it difficult to have a large, obviously penitential congregation in front of them, for example at a funeral, without giving them absolution. In general absolution services, penitents do not have to tell their sins to anyone but God, and the priest does not have the power to choose who receives, or does not receive, absolution. At the end of 1999 and the beginning of 2000, lay people voiced their support for general absolution in letters to this newspaper. One asked not to be named, so as to protect the parish priest concerned: I attended a penitential service on the Friday before Christmas. It was conducted in an exceptionally reverent way, in a candlelit, welcoming church with beautiful, appropriate music softly playing. I found it a rewarding and spiritually uplifting experience. Maybe it is time that the Church listened to the people and gave us a choice in the way that we repent of our sins. The psychiatrist Jack Dominian argued that in its insistence on individual reconciliation, Rome is attempting to impose a spiritual form which no longer reflects the people?s experience. As the people of God had matured, he wrote, the paternalistic stance of parent to child in the confessional has come to seem unacceptable. Fr John Arnold, of Enfield, north London, has written a book about the Sacrament of Reconciliation called The Quality of Mercy. It was hoped that general absolution might bring people back to the Sacrament of Reconciliation but that does not seem to have happened in any significant way, and Fr Arnold thinks that these services are no substitute for individual confession. I think the sacrament requires an articulation of sins, he told me. He agreed that that could be embarrassing and uncomfortable. But there are so many things which we are prepared to do which are uncomfortable and exacting. We are prepared to work out at a gym, go on diets and accept self-discipline in order to improve our health. And athletes submit themselves to real pain in order to get to peak fitness. There should be no difference between that attitude to our physical health and recognising that ?spiritual fitness? may need times of real effort and even some discomfort. He finds it so sad that people talk about Catholic guilt. He points out that Catholics are the one group of people who don?t need to carry guilt around with us because we have the specific sacrament which takes it away. To regard confession as a way of qualifying for Holy Communion is, he said, an awful way of seeing the relationship with God. Rather, confession is an opportunity to review one?s relationship with God with the aim of spiritual growth. But what form should an adult confession take? Fr Arnold believes that most of the work should be done in the preparation. The main focus should not be on listing incidents of sin, but the attitudes which caused the sin. Then it is a question of choosing which occasions of sin to place in the sacrament as a representation of continuing problems. God knows us thoroughly before we even come to confession, Fr Arnold reminded me. He is not a fan of the old, dark confessional boxes because for him that is to do with secrets, shadows and darkness rather than the love of God. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the returning son begins his apology to his father, who cuts him short and says: ?I don?t care about that, I am just delighted you are back. I thought you were dead and gone. Let?s have a party.? That seems to me the spirit in which we should celebrate the sacrament. He believes, however, that people have a right to anonymity if they want it. In his parish, penitents make their confession in a room where they can sit behind a curtain if they wish. It is important, he says, to have specific times set aside when priests will be available for the sacrament ? it is far too daunting to ask people to knock on the presbytery door when they feel they need a confessor. If individual confession were offered in this spirit and this style, could there be a revival in the parishes? Perhaps ? and some modern, adult catechesis on the subject would be welcome to post-Vatican II Catholics like myself who want to confront their dark side as well as sing happy hymns about potters and clay. As Sr Gemma Simmonds at Heythrop College puts it: A profound sense of sin is one of the most liberating things imaginable. We cannot encounter the radical mercy of God until we encounter our radical sinfulness. But any revival of individual confession will have to take account of the fact that among post-Vatican II Catholics, there is a new spirit of independence about their moral choices. They want guidance, but at the same time expect priests to respect them and their consciences, and not to treat them like children. In my experience, many priests do manage, brilliantly, to both guide and respect. That will need to become the norm, and known to be the norm, if individual confession is to have any chance of revival.