Thinking outside the Confessional Box

I have a memory of being in the ‘box’ shortly after my First Holy Communion. I must have picked up that bad thoughts were sexual thoughts and that even one such thought deliberately consented to, was a mortal sin. If not confessed and absolved, one could end up in hell for all eternity. In this precarious state I went to confession and told the priest I had bad thoughts. His question was ‘did you take pleasure in them?’ I panicked and said ‘no, I didn’t’. At that he lost interest but the ordeal was not over for me. I had made a bad confession. My last state was worse than my first. How I extricated myself from this morass I don’t now recall.
Maybe it sounds a bit dramatic but it did happen. Worse, as a confessor myself, for years I acted as a rigid judge and on one occasion withheld absolution. May God forgive me! The whole structure and practice engendered anxiety, fear and scruple in penitent and priest. All mortal sins, the number of times and any changing circumstance that added to the gravity of the sin. Real purpose of amendment, sincere act of perfect contrition and penance to be performed! This God was a hard taskmaster; grudgingly would forgive but all the conditions had to be met. What a travesty of the Gospel! What an abuse of Church authority!
Historically. I understand, that practice was born out of the fact that the Reformers in the 16th century denied any need for ‘auricular’ confession. To counteract that ‘error’ Trent with a vengeance reacted with a suspect practice that has stayed with us for 400 years. How many of our ‘separated brethren’ have merrily lived out their Christian lives confessing sin directly to God and are now at the right hand of the Father! Of course their practice missed out on the social dimension of sin. Our sins really hurt each other and must truly disappoint our God who loves all of us and has ambitions for all of us.
Has any century or any church got it right! How are we to celebrate the mystery and miracle of our forgiveness? We can be noble, big-hearted, generous, compassionate and forgiving. Sadly we can be broken, maladjusted, mean, petty, cruel, abusive and guilty of all the sins that flesh is heir to. What liturgy, what ceremony, will begin to do justice to the good news, to the fact that the words of Jesus ‘your sins are forgiven you, go in peace’ bring relief and peace, that burden of failure and sin are taken away and we can get on with the mission of serving our brothers and sisters making the world a better place.
Theologically we are already forgiven. That abundant grace – that mysterious gift – has been won for us in the Life, Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. It’s done. It’s all over. It’s free and for all. How access it? How celebrate it? How experience something of the joy of receiving forgiveness from our Father who is gracious and full of mercy? In the creed we say we believe in the forgiveness of sins. At Mass we rejoice to say ‘Lamb of God you take away the sins of the world – all the obscenity of violence and war, all the hatred and abuse, all the injustice and exploitation.
How might we respond to the call of Pope Francis to celebrate “24 Hours for the Lord”  on 04 – 05 March? I wish I had the imagination to find a new way – new skins for new wine!
Any hope that the faithful and the unfaithful will once again wait in queue to whisper their ‘sins’ in a box, behind a curtain or in a private encounter, is, I think, remote. The need for forgiveness is as great as ever, maybe more so. How many of our brothers and sisters feel depressed and burdened with failure, inadequacy and sin! The recipe and remedy is at hand. We have been given a treasure of great price – the lavish, abundant even foolish love and forgiveness of the God and Father in Christ Jesus.
Surely the time has come for Church authorities to acknowledge and ask pardon for its sins of the past; for its abuse of power, laying unnecessary and unjust burdens on the people of God. That would be a great start and the surprise of the entire sinful church honestly expressing need of redemption, would begin to plough a new furrow.
Why hesitate to celebrate forgiveness for congregations in one liturgical celebration? A general absolution freeing from sin of all present after evoking, with prayer and song, the faith and good will that the event warrants.
Other situations will call for initiative and action. Recently at a wake house in preparation for the funeral Mass on the morrow I had to think on my feet. After we had prepared readings and prayers of the faithful the daughter of the deceased rounded up her four brothers with herself, called me into the back kitchen and said. ‘Father we all want to receive communion tomorrow at the funeral Mass. Would you give us absolution.” I did.
“The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven… It is twice blest. It blesses him that gives and him that takes.”
Did Shakespeare get it right!

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  1. Padraig McCarthy says:

    We are called to live a forgiven life each day. “He chose us in Christ before the world was made to be holy and blameless before him in love.” (Ephesians 1:4) This forgiveness is much wider that the Rite of Penance. How many of our people have grown up with the impression that sin committed after Baptism cannot be forgiven except through sacramental Confession?
    To broaden the picture does not devalue the Sacrament of Penance; rather, it can help us see how special a gift we have in the sacramental celebration. At the same time it can spread the load with which the sacrament, the priest, and the penitent may be unnecessarily burdened. 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 wandering children. If we need to recover a sense of sin, it must be with hope rather than hopelessness. I googled “Catholic guilt” as an expression (with the quotes), and it came up with 162,000 hits. This seems like a caricature and perversion of reality: we examine our consciences not in order to experience guilt, but rather to know sin forgiven, vanquished.
    Martin Luther valued Confession. His Large Catechism IV, 74-75: “Here you see that Baptism, both in its power and signification, comprehends also the third Sacrament, which has been called repentance, as it is really nothing else than Baptism.”
    Apart from the sacramental ways of living forgiven Baptism, Penance, Eucharist, Anointing of the Sick there are other established 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!
    If we preach this, are we telling our people that they don’t need to come to Confession; or are we simply putting the Sacrament in its natural setting so that its beauty may be better seen?
    The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the one which has seen the least renewal. I imagine the vast majority of those of us who “hear confessions” can remember at some occasions when, for the “penitent”, it was an experience of immense healing and liberation and joy. The one-to-one celebration of the limitless mercy and healing of our loving God is a great gift.

  2. Con Devree says:

    We individually confess the forgiveness sins in the Creed even if some may at times have the apprehension of the returning Prodigal Son and his life-enhancing fear of the Lord. So the knowing about Divine forgiveness is not the issue; accepting it is.
    The real issue is sin and its negative effects. If there is a diluted sense of sin there is a diluted perceived need for forgiveness.
    Growth in character and virtue and in sensitivity of conscience derive from a wish to do good and avoid evil behaviour (sin). Some who go regularly to confession do so to avail of the grace of greater sensitivity to sin in the areas of thought, word and deed and an increased sense of serenity and wellbeing. The latter benefits from the counselling of a priest who, following the example of Christ, encourages to “sin no more.” There is a heightened sense sins not just as sins but as acts of betrayal of the Lord similar to those of Peter. One’s notion of Divine love deepens bit by bit. There is also a greater awareness of temptation and of how to seek to cope with it.
    Those who have experienced conversion know that they were eventually confronted by God with the need to repent and go to confession. A quick fix? Probably not.
    Why did Christ talk so clearly about “whose sins you shall retain?” The “you” being those who administer the sacrament. We are always reminded that in confession we confess to God. It follows that God may have something to say to us through the priest.
    Then there is the question of the Confiteor at Mass and the recurring prayers for salvation that pervade the Mass.

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    Padraig, thanks for those very helpful remarks.

  4. Kevin Walters says:

    How do we receive the treasure of Great price? With TRUST in His Divine Mercy, it is all about sincerity of heart, you cannot love God with the whole essence of your being without showing Him warts and all and to do this we have to hold the bright lamp of Truth above our intellect as the Holy Spirit searchers out the sins that we hide from while also showing us those we are unaware of (We only have to ask and they will be shown to us) hidden within in the dry crevices of the our hearts.
    The Church has put great emphasis on the sin of sexual immorality but the reality is that all sin has a drying (Hardening) effect upon our hearts but our Pride conceals this from us, we cannot truly love our neighbour as ourselves unless we bow down before the light of Christ in humility and abase ourselves before God in heaven. To do this we need to see ourselves as we truly are and this comes about when we see ourselves as He see us, as he hangs on the cross and cry’s out to us “Father forgive them they know not what they do” The true Divine Mercy Image also demonstrates this seeing of us, as in His sight, we are ALL broken with distorted hearts, as in a badly broken mirror reflecting different aspects of ourselves before God and mankind, to accompany this Image we have been given the words “Jesus I TRUST in thee”
    We have all been forgiven for original sin at Baptism and our sins are continually been forgiven as the thief on the cross was forgiven at that moment in time, as we all are, when we acknowledge our need for His mercy but the fruit of His Mercy must be seen in context with the symbolic mustard seed growing within the heart. We have to realize that our Core nature has to be transformed and this can only be done by accepting “Living water” (The inviolate Word of God) the transforming water that wells up into eternal life within the heart. The Churches fundamental teaching that God’s Word is Inviolate should ensure that the hearts of her children cannot dilute the sense of sin and need for repentance and forgiveness; sadly this sacred teaching has been breached by those who sit at the top table (Rome) and in doing so they have committed blasphemy, which if left unchecked will lead eventually to the dissipation of the established Church.
    Divine mercy “the grace that transforms all” can only be received by standing before God in humility and the path that leads to this humility is the absolute Truth, the inviolate living Word of God as defined by Jesus Christ living within the heart.
    The greater our capacity to walk in TRUST and continually accept forgiveness moment to moment of our fallen human nature before God, the more our hearts are transfigured into His likeness and this continual walking of “The Way” our journey through this earthly life, is always a personal humbling transforming encounter with God Himself as our hearts are gradually refined into pure gold (Compassion)
    To know that you need God’s mercy is to acknowledge your dependence on Him and Him alone and when fully ACCEPTED in TRUST within the heart forms a bond of (Friendship/Love) with God. It becomes the greatest gift we can possess as it incorporates Faith, Hope and Charity “Unites us to God” and in this friendship based on our humility before God we cannot help but feel compassion for our neighbour, because in him we see our own fallen self.
    “Father” we only have to turn to you and always you give the morning dew
    Your heart is nailed to a tree so we dance free when we bend our knee
    “Jesus I TRUST in thee”
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  5. Rick Watson says:

    My ? Is explain; “Did Shakspeare get it right !” Thank you
    Rick Watson,KF4FNZ

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