Reconciliation: Penance: Confession: A disappearing Sacrament?

I’m revisiting the subject of Confession. For three reasons. One, a reader
takes me to task on my column some weeks back, telling me that I don’t know
what I’m talking about. (Nothing new in that, I hear you say). Two, another
reader is fascinated that Pope Francis recently and very publicly went to
Confession during a ceremony in St Peter’s, Rome. And three, I’ve just
finished reading John Cornwell’s extraordinary book, The Dark Box, A Secret
History of Confession ­ not for the faint-hearted or the pious.
First, a potted history of Confession.
In the early centuries, people just confessed once in a lifetime. It
happened like this. Barefoot penitents, dressed in sackcloth, heads shaven,
faces covered with dirt approached the altar at the beginning of Lent,
confessed their sins publicly and received absolution. The focus was not on
the individual but on the community.
Then in the Middle Ages, as a result of a decision of the Fourth Lateran
Council in 1215, Christians were obliged to tell their sins to a priest once
a year. This practice of what’s called ‘auricular Confession’ developed in
monasteries and was gradually introduced into the wider Church. It was only
in the mid-sixteenth century, when Confession became more widespread and
when abuses occurred, that the Confessional Box was invented. In the early
twentieth century, through the intervention of Pope Pius X, frequent
Confession was encouraged.
With the Second Vatican Council, an effort was made to recover the communal
dimension of Confession. Confession, the Pope and bishops of the Catholic
world declared, was a ‘reconciliation’ between God and the individual and
between the individual and the community. In other words, Confession was not
a purely private or devotional experience but a communal exercise. So the
Council recommended that the social nature (or communal dimension) of
Confession in the early Church should be recaptured, because sin wasn’t just
personal, it was social and communal.
After the Council three alternative rituals were offered (i) traditional,
auricular Confession (in the Confessional Box); (ii) individual Confession
in a communal setting; (iii) general absolution. A period of debate and
experiment followed, as possibilities were explored.
However, even though the issue of general absolution was raised time and
again at the Council and became a clear focus of the deliberations, the
Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (Cardinal
Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI) insisted that absolution must be
administered individually and not to a group and this was followed up by an
official quashing of general absolution by Pope John Paul.
Effectively the reform of Confession was rolled back by these decisions and
the result was that an opportunity to devise an acceptable ritual that would
engage people at a respectful level was lost.
So where are we now?
Auricular Confession has practically disappeared. In America a survey has
revealed that just 2% of Catholics now go to Confession and there is an
abundance of anecdotal evidence that suggests that the rest of the world,
not least Ireland, is not very different from America.
Another question is: why has Confession virtually disappeared?
It seems to me that there are a number of reasons for this. One is that
people say that they find the experience of individual Confession,
unnerving, embarrassing, difficult, sometimes traumatic ­ in other words, a
discomforting, even sometimes a disrespectful engagement.
This may be due partly to memories of Confessions in the past when priests’
attitudes were often hard-line and judgemental and sexual sin was an
obsession ­ for both penitent and confessor. Part of it too is that people
react against what’s perceived as encouraging a power complex in clergy and
infantilism in people. The French novelist, Georges Bernanos, wrote that
‘Confession made us children to the end of our lives’.
What has evolved and what works is a hybrid of (ii) and (iii) above ­ a
communal experience with individual absolution, a ritual that finds a Third
Way between what’s recommended and what’s needed. People respond very
positively to this experience because it allows for a due acknowledgement of
sin as both personal and communal and it underlines an acceptance of the
need for forgiveness as an individual and communal level ­ effectively a
respectful ritual that does justice to ‘the Sacrament of Reconciliation’.
While Pope Francis underlined the importance of Confession by publicly going
to a priest in St Peter’s, I have no doubt but that a tsunami of advice from
around the world will encourage him in making available a full-blown ritual
of general absolution. He will hardly refuse to countenance the collegial
authority of the world’s bishops. And he will know, of course, (with St
Augustine) that authentic Christianity depends on the people accepting
Church beliefs and practices.
Some believe that this isn’t possible, that Catholic teaching and practice
doesn’t change and can’t change. They can and they do. How many people now
believe that the earth is flat? Or that evolution has nothing to say to the
‘story’ of Adam and Eve? Or that usury is a sin?
In religion as in life, increased knowledge leads to a deeper understanding
and a new approach. In simple terms, Confession will have to change if it is
to survive in the lived experience of Catholic lives today. Older priests
(and younger priests) who cling to a version of Catholicism that most
Catholics have abandoned do no service to the survival of Confession.
The main reason Confession will have to change is that most Catholics no
longer believe in a vengeful and wrathful God, no longer believe that God’s
love is conditional on our behaviour; no longer countenance a structure that
allowed for psychological and emotional abuse; no longer accept the neurotic
scrupulosity inflicted on so many generations of Catholics; no longer
respect the myriad (and often daft) distinctions developed by theologians;
and are no longer happy to be treated like errant children because their
Church does not shape a format acceptable to adult Catholics.
We need to tell Pope Francis what we know.

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  1. Soline Humbert says:

    Receiving the sacrament of reconciliation(Rite 1-auricular confession) is a compulsory requirement for the young children preparing for their first Holy Communion. In my experience first confession is almost never followed by a second one in the following years….What is it telling us?

  2. Kathleen Faley says:

    Brendan, the very same subject has been exercising my mind recently but from a different perspective. Due to Parish Clustering and the increased busyness of the Priest who has to celebrate multiple Vigil Masses on Saturday evenings and also on Sunday mornings-noon Confession as the Sacrament of Penance and Re-Conciliation can be sidelined and very little time can be actually given to hearing Confessions expecially as you described above as “auricular Confession” in a Confession Box.
    I would suggest that the Communal Celebrations of Confession and Re-Conciliation take place maybe before the Vigil Mass so that the many who are present can avail of the Sacrament of Confession and the Grace it signifies instead of the usual few regulars who wait on after Mass to have their Confessions heard.
    There should be more effort made to have Communal Celebrations of Re-Conciliation four times a year instead of the usual two at the end of Advent in Preparation for the Christmas Season and during Holy Week in Preparation for Easter Ceremonies and the Easter Season and Easter Duty. The Church should consider the Christian Parishioners and the prospective Penitents who would avail of Confession in that format if it was available more often than the present twice a year only.
    It should not be beyond the possibility of any Parish/Cluster to arrange a Re-Conciliation Weekend Triduum when the importance of the Sacrament of Confession and Re-Conciliation can be brought to the forefront of the Christian Parishioner’s consciousness.
    Invited speakers could speak about the different aspects of the Sacrament of Confession and Re-Conciliation so that the Christian Parishioners are educated in a more “Adult Formation” way on the meaning and the depth of the Grace that the Sacrament of Confession and Re-Conciliation Signifies.
    One result of such a Weekend Triduum would be a more meaningful Celebration of Confession and Re-Conciliation by the Christian Parishioners due to they being more awakened, enlightened and reminded to Remember the meaning of the Sacrament of Confession and Re-Conciliation.
    This is more greatly and more urgently needed than is realised by the Clerical Church as it bewails the non attention given to the Sacrament of Confession and Re-Conciliation by the Christian parishioners here at home and indeed worldwide.

  3. Brendan, thank you for that excellent short history of Confession, much of which — infact nearly all of which — I never knew before. This is definitely another one for the archives.

  4. For a long time, I have been very uncomfortable with the current practice of introducing children to the Sacrament of Penance at such a young age. I get the distinct impression that it is something the parents are content to have their children experience but are totally divorced from the reality of what is being celebrated. But really, what benefit is it to a 7 year old, who we are told has just attained the power of reason, that he or she go through this ritual which, to be honest, is quite anachronistic in the context of the Church as it is today.

  5. Brendan Cafferty says:

    @Soline above,I often wonder if it is a good thing that children are made go to confession at very tender ages. What do they have to tell-sort of mantra that they did not always obey parents or said a naughty word maybe! Thats the way it used to be anyway at about age seven.
    On the broader issue I think the present system at Christmas, Easter etc is quite good where parishes put on confession away from the normal confession box with visiting priests present-individual confession in a communal setting-it is a mixture of general confession and the auricular. I see many people availing of this when it is offered, surely that is a good thing seeing that the hinges on the confession boxes have become rusty due to non use and what wonderful museum pieces they make. I have seen those boxes in France many years ago and in Canada last year as useful storage places for the hoover and cleaning materials.
    People who are good Catholics see things in a different light now,they live their lives as best they can in difficult and trying times. They will not,as Brendan Hoban said, be ground down or accept the neurotic scrupulosity inflicted on so many generations before them.
    The writer Hugh Leonard once said that in his youth “bad thoughts” was the big sin of the times for young lads like him who rarely had bad thoughts out of their mind! I think there are exciting times ahead and a more realistic church emerging with Pope Francis at the helm. But time is of the essence for both Francis himself and the Church in general.

  6. I grew up in the 80s and have fond memories of confession at Christmas and Easter. It was something I looked forward to with my brother. Confession doesn’t have to be and should not be torture. A few sermons every year on Confession and the mercy of God would solve most misunderstandings. But… how often do our priests talk about confession? Can we say the people have lost interest when the bishops and priests don’t mention it? As the priests go, so go the people.

  7. Soline Humbert says:

    @4 Andrew,”For a very long time I have been very uncomfortable with the current practice of introducing children to the sacrament of Penance at very tender ages”.Andrew, I share your sentiment. In fact the older I have got the more uncomfortable I am with it. For pastoral, spiritual, theological and pedagogical reasons….as well as personal experience of observing what actually happens.
    @5 Brendan ” I often wonder if it is a good thing that children are made go to confession at very tender ages .”
    I too do wonder…and very seriously. “Children are MADE TO GO”: That seems to me to be the crux of the matter. Is it really about meeting children’s genuine pastoral needs? If it is , why is it that very few children ever express the desire/need to receive the sacrament again? Or is it really about something else, meeting other people’s needs…..

  8. Cornelius Martin says:

    I stayed away from confession for many years. Individual experience is never a comprehensive answer to a complex problem and I abstract from my experience on that understanding.
    Why is it that one can believe in the sacrament and still ignore it? For some reason a prolonged time of absence from confession develops. I listen most weeks to stories of converts or reverts to Catholicism. A factor common to all is a moment when God, in varied ways, offers a rethink, a moment of special awareness, a moment of questioning. This is an opportunity for conversion to which a person can respond. One experiences a sense of finding something one doesn’t want to lose.
    After that experiences differ but in one case the person started to pray more, read spiritual books and was feeling great for a few months until one day came the realisation that a visit to the confession box was necessary. This is a troubling challenge requiring a lot of intent and willpower to overcome among other things recourse to rationalisation. Satan becomes very active.
    Experience here can suggest that confession has to be regarded a part of something bigger. Getting in the box is a special grace and of course a function of time and place. (e.g., Knock) As one resumes the habit of regular confession conscience becomes more sensitive to the nature of sin. Going is still a challenge but now easier. It has to be supported by faith derived from prayer, Mass, reading etc.
    There are many things priests can do to aid but not guarantee greater uptake of the sacrament. A few suggestions: Efforts can be made to create awareness of opportunities for conversion. Adorers who form The Apostolate of Eucharistic Adoration are asked to pray for the conversion of the parish.
    Sin has to be preached. In his impromptu press conference, on his flight back from Brazil the Pope said. “This is what is important, a theology of sin.” He says plenty at: http://en.radiovaticana.va/storico/2013/04/29/pope_shame_is_a_true_christian_virtue/en1-687330
    The Confiteor at Mass can create a group awareness of repentance and a sense of people praying for each other’s forgiveness by God. The Confiteor – Ite missa est – next Confiteor form a continuum. It links the Mass to the entire penitential process.
    People need advice on how to approach and open their “entre” in the box. I remember the priest asking me “is that the lot,” with the words “are you sure” implied. The sense of relief after confessing “the lot” is great. Thus evading the word sin at Mass is counterproductive. Truth, mercy and love go together. And so on.

  9. Brendan, thank you for such an enlightened and much appreciated article. I certainly agree that the communal celebration of the sacrament is the most effective and appropriate approach.
    Further to points made by Soline and Andrew, I think it is wrong and psychologically unsound to continue the practice of requiring young children to “go to confession” with all the possible negative implications for their young minds and hearts.
    Finally, I believe that the practice of first communion for young children sorely needs to be re-evaluated. As we know, communion only makes sense in the context of a clear understanding of the whole Paschal Mystery. And this is challenging enough even for adults! So to take it in isolation and pretend that it makes sense to a 7-year-old is the height of folly and theologically questionable. So we shouldn’t be at all surprised when these little children are far more impressed with all the accompanying materialism–their pretty dresses, bouncy castles, parties etc. and the amount of money they get on their “big day!” To me at least, it is a very depressing scenario that we seem to be willing to perpetuate without question.

  10. Mary Cunningham says:

    Earlier this year my granddaughter, just turned eight, made her First Confession.
    There was no going into ‘the box’. Instead, accompanied by a parent the children were presented one by one, to the priest near the altar. As the parent stood back, the child proceeded to tell their sins to a kindly, welcoming and gentle priest.
    That afternoon my granddaughter came to visit. I enquired how she got on that morning. ‘It is private, I can’t tell,’ I was told with a confident knowing air. That is fine, no problem said I and changed the subject, happy that the ‘seal’ was safe.
    But she was smiling and obviously bursting to reveal the truth.
    ‘Granny, actually I made up my sins. I told the priest I pulled my sister’s hair and I have no sister’.
    This was said with hilarity and an absolute lack of remorse.
    I confess that I joined in the laughter at the innocence of it all.

  11. Might I suggest that people are not availing of the Sacrament of Reconciliation because they are not aware of what sin actually is and are ignorant of the effect it has on the soul.
    I think our pastors should make a greater effort in informing people of the devastating effects sin has on our spiritual life. Only when people are taught about sin and realise the damage it has done to their relationship with God will they avail of this most beautiful sacrament of God’s infinite Love and Mercy. A man doesn’t visit the doctor if he doesn’t know that he is ill, similarly he won’t go to confession if he doesn’t realise he is in a state of sin.
    As for ‘general absolution services’ I don’t think these are a good idea; to confess one’s sins to another (who is acting in the very person of Christ) is to relieve oneself of a tremendous burden. Communal services aren’t as personal and meaningful, and in my experience they don’t work (on a psychological level). The Church in Her Wisdom has developed private auricular confessions because that is what works best for the individual sinner. In my experience telling someone of the most shameful episodes in my life helps me to get over them; in today’s society we are told to confess everything, talk about our problems and have someone else to listen; well, in the confessional we have the perfect opportunity, to speak, in complete confidence, and be listened to by none other than Christ Himself, acting through His priest. Like a good parent, God already knows the wrong we have done, but he asks us to admit to it, not for His benefit, but rather so that we may be healed.
    Anyway, all this reminds me I better go to confession…if I can find a priest in the box!

  12. Teresa Mee says:

    I read Cornwell’s book and I wish I could deny/disagree with the history and analysis he presents.
    I suppose the brighter side is that we’re coming awake.

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