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.