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The Church could soon have only six sacraments

Fr Paddy Keaveny, who was a curate in Ballycastle when I was growing up, was the gentlest of gentlemen. I never heard him raise his voice. And as he moved around the parish in his Volkswagen Beetle, as children we delighted in returning his characteristic wave – a slight raising of his index finger as he held grimly on to the steering wheel.
When it came to First Confession it was reassuring to know that he would be the Confessor who would assess our menu of big sins. Dean Dodd, whom we thought at the time was impossibly old (around my own age now) was deaf and borderline cantankerous so we tended to give him a wide berth.
Despite the fact that older, more experienced boys tantalised us with stories of what might happen to us in the dark confessional, we were reassured by Fr Keaveny’s benign presence. I remember holding a conference before our Saturday Confessions once a month with my friends, when we went through our sins and prepared our ritual of X number of lies and Y number of curses. It was the most innocent of times, when Confessions and the confessional were part of the weather of our lives.
Now of course all is changed. Confession is no longer central to the lives of our people, apart from Christmas and Easter – and sometimes not even
that. The line of penitents outside the confessional box on a Saturday evening has disappeared. Even ‘the box’ itself is, in places, no more than a
strange symbol of an almost forgotten past, an heirloom representing part of the way we were. Confession, like the Confessional box, is disappearing. Or for storing the Hoover.
I wrote about this some years ago in the Furrow journal, suggesting that one of the seven sacraments was in danger of disappearing and that we needed new forms of Confession to respond to the changing needs of our time. I suggested that one possibility was to introduce general absolution, already accepted as one of the official rituals of Confession, its use encouraged by Pope Paul VI and others, but not in use then (or now).

It was the pontificate of John Paul II and he wouldn’t hear of what was called ‘Rite Three’ (general absolution) and didn’t want it even discussed. (The Irish and English bishops pleaded with Rome to have just one public general Confession for the Jubilee Year 2000 but it was turned down. Two cardinals even made a special trip to Rome to intercede but to no avail.)

In church terms, of course, it’s the great elephant in the living-room. As we watched Confessions virtually disappear, we couldn’t mention part of the solution (Rite Three) already available if John Paul gave the nod. And not only did he not give permission but the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) kept a close eye on anyone suggesting that it might help. As I discovered.
My then bishop, Thomas Finnegan, God rest him, called me in when he got a letter from the CDF about my putative heresy. We had a nice chat about it and he produced a formulaic kind of letter that, if I was prepared to sign, he assured me would satisfy some civil servant in the Vatican who,
apparently, was trawling for heresy in the journals of the English-speaking worlds. (Whether the Western People was included in his bedtime reading, I’m not so sure.)
I had no problem signing it at all. It was effectively a general statement that I accepted the magisterium (teaching authority) of the Church. (This
was before a more recent policy of adding on a series of individual codicils to corner people like my colleague, Tony Flannery.) Bishop Finnegan was very relieved that the problem could be solved so easily. To tell the truth I couldn’t understand how suggesting something that was already part of the teaching of the Church, though not its practice, could necessitate such a declaration. But, as I discovered, they have their own little ways in Rome.
I mention this bit of personal history because the Furrow article in question received a very positive reaction, including a personal letter from a Cardinal who agreed with everything I wrote but felt he couldn’t go public on it. It is an indication of the way the atmosphere in the Church has changed with ‘the Francis effect’ that a few weeks ago, another Cardinal, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, formerly of Westminster, announced that the time had come to reform Confession and that there should be a special synod called to discuss it. Despite, he said, declining numbers of Catholics going to Confession there was no ‘serious reflection by authoritative people within the Church’ on possible reform.

A spokeswoman for the Cardinal later confirmed that he wanted ‘further reflection’ on the use of the sacrament ‘given the fact that so many Catholics are not going to Confession at all’. The problem with Confession – why people are not going and how they might be attracted back to a different form of ‘the sacrament of reconciliation’ – is an elephant in the living-room who needs to be named and shamed. Of course, not everyone will agree.
The late Cardinal Carlo Martini, the greatest pope we never had, once adverted to the fact that not all Catholics were contemporaries in the
biographical sense. Some Catholics, he said, are still in the 1960s and some are in the 1940s and some are in the 19th century. Some want change and others can’t handle it. Some can’t imagine life without private, individual Confession in the Confessional box and no doubt any change will
protect their wishes, as with those who have a special fondness for the Latin Mass. But the dogs in the street know that change there will have to
be if we are not to end up with six instead of seven sacraments.
Fr Paddy Keaveny might not agree and I suspect Dean Dodd would certainly not agree but the world and the Church they lived in bears little resemblance to where we are now. The notion that we can’t change the format of Confession flies in the face of reason. I suspect that Pope Francis will just get on with it.

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  1. When sin has been reframed as self-harm; when confessors have been trained in basic counselling wisdom, and when the sacrament of reconciliation has been re-explained as the renewal of relationship with a God who is offended only when we harm ourselves (Aquinas)- and bent not only on our healing but our growth – this problem will solve itself.
    To me there is a serious lack of up-skilling among clergy, and enormous potential in that – e.g. in getting a real grip of what Richard Rohr OFM has to say about the two stages of life and the false, shadow and true selves. At present there is among us lay people a general lack of confidence in the ability of most clergy to know what is really wrong with us: especially the instability of our self-esteem in the first half of life, the root of all ego-driven self-harm. As a church we’re not connecting the dots or even reading our own wisest spiritual guides – and that’s why so many people find more benefit in e.g. 12-step mutual support groups or secular counselling.
    It boils down to connecting the best spiritual wisdom with the best psychology, and knowing God as the loving source of both. So clerical up-skilling is the answer. People would queue up again for the one-to-one sacrament if they could be sure the confessor was truly expert in the problems of the human soul, and the classical pattern of human growth-through-suffering.
    I personally would go some distance to a confessor who was on Richard Rohr’s wavelength, but where would I find one in Ireland?

  2. Some interesting and very valid points Sean. The best Confessions I’ve ever had are with priests who truly have a heart formed in the image of the Good Shepherd. I feel as if I have encountered Christ in His priest, or at the very least, a man who must be like this Christ that I’ve heard so much about. I’ve also had occasional bad experiences in Confession. I sometimes dread it but am always glad I went. The consolation of the words of absolution are worth it. I’d like to see more privacy in Confessions. I have participated happily in both face-to-face and behind a screen. I’d like to continue to have this choice, as is the right of the faithful for these two options. I would also like priests to talk more about the beautiful Sacrament of Penance. And as sad as it is that fewer people participate, there is something special about being on your own in a church on a fine autumn morning, just you and the candles and the saints statues, and the Blessed Sacrament, the sun streaming through the stained glass, and the priest alone in his box, waiting for you. You quietly give thanks and say your penance in the church. Then you step out into the sunshine and go for a nice walk. ”Behold, I make all things new.”

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    General absolution was used for crowds setting off on a sea journey and was a thoroughly respected form of the sacrament. It has been downgraded in the current Code of Canon Law, at the very time when the Church should have been promoting it to the fore.

  4. Mary Wood says:

    I had a joyous surprise when I last went to Confession – some years ago now. Declaring that I’d not “been” for about a year and I’d come to fulfil my Easter duties with my annual confession, the priest interrupted and said there was now no obligation to confess at least once per year.
    I was overjoyed, though sceptical. Made that confession and escaped. I’d never found it helpful, usually felt it was phony, manufactured. On a few occasions when I’d tried, with a trusted priest who knew me well, to accuse myself of something he responded “That’s not a sin!” So I had to fallback on my laziness, occasional hurtful words and stuff . . .
    I won’t go back until I know I need to and want to. Perhaps I may point out in passing that a woman already may only experience 6 sacraments.

  5. Joe, as regards General Absolution, I find that it just doesn’t satisfy in principal. Now, you might ask, did I ever receive it? No. I’ve never been on a sinking ship or about to enter battle. There is something very satisfying about the personal encounter between a priest and a penitent. It’s a personal experience. Contrast this with the generalised, anonymous, General Absolution, only ever a stop-gap solution in desperate times. Are we there yet? I don’t think so. When a priest has to travel to mission territory and has only a limited time to give absolution because there will be no priest for the next 2 years, then that would be another situation where it would be ok. But pastorally speaking, General Absolution is never an ideal, it’s always a last resort because it is not personal, it is not sensitive to the individual needs of people. I don’t want to be anonymous. I want to be known and loved. Christ knows and loves us in the moments especially when we receive the Sacraments. People are starved of affection, love, and care, and now it seems some would propose to take away the personal consolations and spiritual benefits of the Sacraments. When Christ had His intimate encounters with people, it was always one-n-one, and so too with Confession. And one final point: just because some people might appreciate General Absolution (it’s easier but, as I said, much less satisfying), there is the pastoral need and right of people to the Sacrament as it is intended, on a personal basis, not some mass exercise. Well we already have a form of General Absolution from venial sin at Mass. But that’s by the by.

  6. General Absolution won’t solve the problem of people not realising what a great gift the Sacrament actually is. Having a face to face encounter with Chirst’s minister of Mercy or a decree from afar? Give me the personal encounter with God’s mercy any time.

  7. cathy swift says:

    The Old and Middle Irish evidence for the anamchara (soul-friend) slides in and out of general Church practice of the sacrament I think – the picture is not entirely coherent because the texts range in date over some 400 years and things evolved during that time. I find it difficult to work out what is normal Church practice of the day and what is uniquely Irish if anything is beyond the term anamchara itself. The fundamentals that come across (at least to me) though is of someone who was both confessor and also spiritual guide and that (again to me) is a very attractive and heart-warming one – somebody with whom you could talk over your efforts as well as your sins.

    But thinking about it recently, that model can put a huge strain on the person hearing the confession/giving guidance particularly if the people involved meet in other contexts as well. For me Sean O Conaill’s remarks represent an ideal but maybe part of the sacrament is the realisation on the part of the person making the confession that human ears and hearts can only do so much, regardless of how much goodwill they might be bringing to bear and however much the whole activity might bring peace to the person who’s made the confession. (Ouch – not that ears have goodwill in themselves but anyway). To me, as a laywoman, I would find priests who are willing to hear confession heroic; I’m not sure I’d have either the courage or the stamina to take on anything remotely like that for more than a very few close friends and even then, I’m not at all sure I’d do it well. I’m not sure I believe in the concept of experts in the human soul – it sounds a little like one size fits all?

  8. Joe O'Leary says:

    Diffal, General Absolution need not exclude the other forms of the Sacrament, and could actually revive them.

  9. Con Devree says:

    After Cardinal Dolan transferred Father George W. Rutler from his assignment as Pastor of the Church of Our Savior on Fifth Avenue in New York City, the priest wrote the following in a farewell letter to his parishioners:

    “While I am the only priest in this parish, the visiting priests who assist in various ways have been a great support. I have heard in these twelve years possibly around 45 or 50 thousand confessions, and my fellow priests may have doubled that. No one save the angels in Heaven will know the wonderful graces that have been given in our confessionals, and that has been a chief joy to me…”

    That makes around 160 confessions per week on average. It is not clear whether the New Yorkers are greater sinners than the Irish, have a greater sense of sin, know more about the sacrament than the Irish, or whether the priest in question has some approach that increased the number. In normal life, practitioners usually seek to learn from those who are successful. Is there something to be learned from Fr Rutler?

    Pope Francis goes once a week. How many priests tell him he has no sins and indirectly reprimand him for wasting their time?

  10. Joe, realistically, in pastoral circumstances, general absolution would ‘relieve’ priests of the perceived need to offer the Sacrament personally. It’s already 15 minutes on a Saturday in many places. I can only expect that widespread general ab would lead to a further reduction in availability of Confession and this could only be to the detriment of souls. Remember, the good of souls is the first thing. I can’t see how general ab could revive personal Confession. It’s actually not a soul-focussed thing at all, rather it’s about offering a minimalist sacramental ‘service’ not dissimilar to the ‘west-doc’ idea of flying priests saying quick Mass in different far-flung places and offering Last Rites to the sick and dying (which is invaluable in any case), which has been criticised on this site in the past.

  11. Treasa Healy says:

    Apart from the Eucharistic Congress and the Divine Mercy Sunday, both which attract huge numbers for Reconciliation with the Lord, I would have understood those who prophesied the demise of Confession as we experience it today. In recent years the message seemed to be ‘in and out – name your sins’ ‘get’ absolution. Anything else is ‘Counselling’ – not the stuff for Confession. The sacrament has become cold, efficient and impersonal…and maybe that is what suited some of us. Or is it the result of men overworked in diocesan churches where there is little or no other church activity apart from Mass? However, the Orders maintain a constant trickle, especially at weekends of First Fridays and First Saturdays.

    Two weeks ago,our parish had an amazingly successful Parish Mission. The St. Patrick’s Community,(three lay English men and one Irish lady, based in Ireland, and devoted to Evangelizing,) under the leadership of John Pridmore, “From Gangland to Promised Land” fame, filled our church to overflowing. The word got out and I never saw so many queued for Confession. Six priests were busy non-stop until after 10pm , and for the following two nights a visiting priest was in the box at the back of the church during the ceremonies. It wasn’t so much the testimony of John’s serious crimes repented, and the ‘AH’ moments of grace which hit the heart, but his understanding of what was required in ‘follow up’, both for himself
    and those whom he wronged and who wronged him …all in the context
    of God’s patient waiting and the action of the Holy Spirit in helping him discover the necessary next steps. He stayed only two nights and the team continued their programme flawlessly.
    The Blessed Sacrament was exposed all through the 5 nights, setting a specially prayerful atmosphere. Nowhere on the week’s printed agenda did the word ‘Confession’ appear but the second night’s topic was God’s Mercy,and no encouragement was needed – people just queued while s team member spoke, prayed, and appropriate songs and hymns played.
    I have not witnessed this in a local church ever, even in old days when there were big queues for the two missioners. This time the atmosphere was so different. The focus was on our brokenness – the hurts received and the ones we inflicted on others and a healing process available through Confession. It was an opportunity of being ‘real’ before the Lord. It was more like the tenderness of the Jesus we discovered in the Charismatic Renewal, and the high privilege of praying with one another in those days.
    What surprised me was the great variety in age groups who took advantage of this type of sacrament – from the 30s to the over 70’s. It seems to me individual Confession will be welcomed by many when seen in the light of Healing Life’s Hurts and Memories.

  12. Sean, I just re-read your post (#1). It’s really wonderful when you wrote:

    ”…when the sacrament of reconciliation has been re-explained as the renewal of relationship with a God who is offended only when we harm ourselves (Aquinas)- and bent not only on our healing but our growth…”


  13. Very good account Treasa. I met John twice; once in Germany about 8 years ago, and more recently in Ireland. He remembered me! Nice guy.

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