Many confession boxes in Irish churches now serve as ad hoc storage spaces rather than being used to dispense the sacrament of reconciliation, according to documentary that aired on RTE television this week.
In The Confessors, priests from across Ireland spoke about the decline of confession and also provided a snapshot of priesthood in Ireland in 2020.
Benedictine Fr Luke MacNamara of Glenstal Abbey, Co Limerick, spoke about the history of confession and explained how Irish monks, built on the practice of private confession of St John Cassian, spreading it to the wider church from the seventh century onwards.
While some priests felt fulfilment in their role as confessors, Augustinian friar, Fr Iggy O’Donovan in Fethard, Co Tipperary criticised the Church’s “inordinate emphasis on sexuality” as a sin in the past. “Roman rules mixed with Victorian morality was a lethal cocktail,” he said.
The down side of being a priest was revealed by Fr Con Cronin in Passage West, Cork, who admitted, “I wouldn’t wear a collar publicly” because “you don’t know who you’re going to meet.” He said one priest friend of his had been shouted at on the street by a crowd who told him, “Get off the street you dirty paedophile.”
In Co Kerry, Fr Maurice Brick spoke about the hidden moments of priesthood which kept him anchored, including performing the last rites after an accident.
Mercy was the touchstone for Fr Kevin McNamara of Moyvane, Co Kerry who revealed he has had his own “brushes with authority” in the church.
He always carries two crosses in his top pocket. One for the prodigal sons and one for the prodigal daughters. “I feel a great sadness towards the prodigal daughters,” he said and observed that unlike the prodigal sons, they never got the welcome home parties. In Ireland, he said, they had not been greeted in a Christian way but were gossiped about and ended up in institutions.
Fr McNamara said he felt most fulfilled as a priest through confession. “That is why I have a tremendous passion for it – I call it the forgotten sacrament.”
He said these hidden moments included being approached by someone, who might have struggled around faith for years, and who asked him for confession. When told that they were forgiven, they might cry; or when he anointed somebody who then told the priest, ‘I am at peace now’ and Fr McNamara said he could see that peace radiated in their faces and their hearts.