‘Confessional Box now a relic of an old Ireland’ – Brendan Hoban’s weekly Western People column

Confessional Box now a relic of an old Ireland                 

Western People 20.10.2020

When I was appointed a curate in Keenagh in Crossmolina parish in 1973, I inherited from my predecessor, Fr Mark Diamond, a church-area and a people for whom the sacrament of Confession was central to their lives. Unusually Confessions were on Sundays – this was before vigil Masses were introduced – because Mark believed it was too much to expect the people to come out on Saturdays as well as Sundays, even though this meant that the combined rituals of Mass and Confessions could extend well beyond what some at least thought reasonable or appropriate.

On Saturday evenings, the four priests in the parish gathered for an hour’s Confessions in Crossmolina. Even though we weren’t kept going for the 60 minutes, usually it was quite busy. Then most people, I imagine, went to Confession once a month, some went once a week and almost everyone confessed at Christmas and Easter.

That experience of Confession in my first parish, I suspect, was fairly representative of most parishes at the time. And, I suspect too, my experience in my last parish, Moygownagh, reflects the wider experience today. When I started in Moygownagh, notices in the bulletin advertised Confessions before and after the Saturday evening vigil Mass. However, despite my encouragement, nobody came. Though I was in Moygownagh from 2011 to 2018, I suspect that, in all, I didn’t hear a total of 30 Confessions in over 300 Saturday evenings.

Most of those who went to Confessions in Moygownagh in my time went during two Sunday Masses, one before Easter and the other before Christmas, in a hybrid version of Confessions, current in the diocese of Killala. It facilitated a form of Confession that provided the penitent with the option of mentioning serious sins as well as more generally mentioning the usual peccadilloes. The formula used was ‘I’m sorry for all my sins (especially the sin of ______________) and I ask for God’s forgiveness ‘ – with the bit in brackets optional. Before or during Mass, the people came forward and confessed.

It was a form of Confession (with all the elements that go with Confession built-into the ritual) that was welcomed in the main by the people: it facilitated the need people felt to confess their sins; it respected the freedom of penitents to confess without fear of cross-examination or judgement; and it helped penitents to jettison the bad experiences that deterred so many in recent years from receiving the sacrament. (Those who preferred the old form of Confession were facilitated).

Those musings were prompted by The Confessors, a documentary produced by Atom Films for RTÉ television into the state of Confession, aired last week. From the trailers advertising the programme, it was difficult to know what to expect. However, a fear that it might be some version of Fr Ted and his accomplices discussing Confession was soon set aside.

It was unsurprising that the introduction to the programme comprised a number of priests taking the viewers on a tour of a traditional Confessional box. It was simply an acceptance that for many, what was for older people part of the very weather of their childhoods, is now for most people what the Latin scholars used to call terra incognita (unknown territory). To invert a modern slogan, for most Catholics now, Confessional boxes fit into the category, Never been there, never done that.

For a spate of different reasons – some understandable, others lamentable – confessional boxes have become surfeit to requirements in modern Ireland. Now, as the priests on the programme commented, confessionals are rarely if ever used and some have been reinvented as glorified closets for vacuum cleaners, cleaning utensils and in one instance as a handy home for a defibrillator.

Now most Irish Catholics don’t go to Confession as often as they used to, apart from Christmas and maybe Easter, and many have stopped going altogether. Some would say that the reason is that many Catholics today have lost their sense of sin; others would say that people have decided as adults that much of what passed for sinning in the oppressive past wasn’t really sin at all, a dispensation once memorably described by the late John O’Donohue in the comment that once ‘you could hardly stir at all without committing some kind of sin’.

The programme, which was delivered directly through the words of 15 priests, provided a useful insight into the reality of Confession in parishes today. There was no expectation that the confessional would make a come-back, no lectures about its importance, no one banging the equivalent of a pulpit. Just a sadness about the limitations of the past, a sharing of guilt about the inordinate and sometimes misplaced enthusiasm of confessors and the failures oftentimes to raise the burdens that people unnecessarily carried. It was a clear verdict that despite the limitations of the present time, the confessional and the aura of condemnation it often carried were well past their sell-by dates.

Usually after an hour-long programme devoted to listening to priests, social media would usually be on overdrive demanding that every trace of the Catholic Church be eradicated from Irish society. But this time the expected assault didn’t develop, a tribute to the sensitivity, sincerity, honesty and realism of the priests involved. There was no condescension, no arrogance, no judgement, just a recognition of where we were then, where we are now and an honest contrite acceptance of failures along the way.

Over the years RTÉ has received its share of criticism on this page. Credit to RTÉ and to Atom Films and all involved as credit is indeed due.

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  1. Eddie+Finnegan says:

    What better home for a defibrillator than a Confessional Box? Wasn’t Confession at its best the Church’s sacrament of defibrillation: an external high energy shock to the heart stuck in cardiac arrest?

  2. Pádraig+McCarthy says:

    Confession (the Sacrament of Reconciliation) as we have known it was profoundly influenced by the early Irish monastic movement. When the revised rite was introduced in Ireland on 19 March 1976, it was never properly implemented here – not even Rite 1, the individual rite – a lot more could be said about that.

    A major handicap was that many people lived with the impression that sin committed after Baptism cannot be forgiven except through sacramental Confession. It may never have been said or preached that this was the case, but the way the importance of Confession was promoted led to that impression. The broader picture of forgiveness and reconciliation faded into the background. When we can spread the load with which the sacrament, the priest, and the penitent may be unnecessarily burdened, we see the true picture.

    The Sacrament of Penance is not a single peak of forgiveness in a vast quagmire of sin, but a pinnacle in the range of the Father’s open hearted welcomes for his people on their growth in faith, which is a learning curve involving trial and error. If we need to recover a sense of sin, it must be with hope rather than hopelessness. It must be an awareness of sin committed, but even more of sin vanquished.

    Apart from the sacramental ways of living forgiven Baptism, Penance, Eucharist, Anointing of the Sick there are other traditional ways:
    • We can know God’s forgiveness as we confess our sins to God (Ps. 51);
    • by confessing our sins to one another (James 5:16);
    • by correcting a sinner (James5:20);
    • in loving one another (1 Peter4:8);
    • by forgiving one another (Luke 6:37);
    • by almsgiving (Luke 11:41);
    • by reading Scripture (2 Tim 3:15; “By the words of the Gospel may my sins be blotted out”);
    • respect for parents (Sirach 3:3);
    • fasting (Jonah!),
    • almsgiving (Acts 10:4),
    • and the baptism of martyrdom (!)

    This dimension is perhaps particularly important in the time of pandemic, when close encounters are discouraged. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a valuable part of our tradition, but it needs the wider context. We need to let it be clear that the sacrament can play a very helpful and healing and hopeful part in our lives as Christians who benefit from the mercy of our loving God, but that forgiveness is not restricted to the sacramental rite.

    A further dimension of the sacrament would be in an understanding that it is not just the “cleansing” of sin, but a re-orientation of our lives from the burden of sin to growing in appreciation of how we can then see ways to live more faithfully in the Way.

  3. Chris+McDonnell says:

    Might I ask if the Mark Diamond mentioned here served in the parish of St Bartholemew’s South London? I know he went back to Ireland. If so, I owe him my first bike which he persuaded my Dad to buy me. We had something in common, having sight in only one eye. A name of happy memory indeed.

  4. Brendan+Hoban says:

    Yes Chris the very man.
    Brendan Hoban

  5. Chris McDonnell says:

    Thanks for confirming my query regarding Mark Diamond.
    He was very caring of my family back in the 50s.
    Go well, Chris

  6. Sean+O'Conaill says:

    Why was ‘to covet’ (Decalogue 9 and 10) replaced by ‘avarice’ in the 1992 Catechism’s account of ‘mortal sin’ – when clearly from its context in the decalogue it is not the hoarding of wealth but arises from envy of ‘anything’ a neighbour may have – not just his ‘ox’ – e.g today his monstrous SUV – or his wife – but his status in whatever career pyramid one is climbing? [Notice – two commandments against ‘coveting’ – but only one regarding ‘adultery’!]

    And what is it that drives the unseemly ‘better’ diocese-hunting that Cardinal Gantin complained bitterly about in 1999 but that very same thing – wanting what your neighbour has – or could have, if you don’t get it first?

    As covetousness is quite obviously the root of the rivalry that currently paralyses the Vatican bureaucracy and leads to daft accusatory letters from curial disappointees re a reigning pope, why has no papal document that I know of gotten around to this yet?

    A one-volume history of Catholic moral theology that I read once lamented the obvious lopsidedness of that attention to the sixth commandment. When the balance has been restored – i.e. we have a doubly-weighted deprecation of all covetousness, including clerical careerism – I’ll believe that the magisterium does indeed see, at all levels, the beam in its own eye – and the root of the environmental crisis also.

    Wake me up, someone, when that happens – and a ‘general confession’ along those lines has been scheduled. I might even covet one of the tickets to get in!

  7. Paddy+Ferry says:

    Pádraig@2, that is a particularly excellent contribution. I am sure most priests would be aware of the essence of what you described from their years of training but for the unordained with untrained theological minds, like me, it certainly is revelationary.

    You have been such an important “voice” on this site. Your first act of education for me was when you shared Pius X’s Vehementer Nos — I hope I have the correct spelling — and there have been many such occasions over the years.

    Like I said recently to Joe, if you have kept an achieve of your posts to this site what a wonderful compilation, properly categorised, in book form that would be. I would certainly buy a copy.

    I hope you all have a productive AGM today. I will be working. I am not sure if it should be open to all and sundry but if I was free I daresay I would want to see and hear what was going on.

    God bless the ACP.

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