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.