Where are the penitents? Trends in Confession: John Cornwell

The announcement last week by the Diocese of Lancaster that it is to encourage people to return to confession as part of the Year of Faith is an admission that many of the faithful are staying away from the confessional. The author of a forthcoming book on the sacrament set out to discover why

Fr Mychal Judge is a remarkable hero. He was chaplain to the New York firefighters at the World Trade Center on 9/11, where he heard confessions of the conscious injured, and gave the last rites and general absolution to the dying. Then he was killed by falling masonry. His story ennobled the role of the Catholic priest as confessor, a role which has been in decline for quite some time. For the impression that the faithful have abandoned confession – the Sacrament of Reconciliation – throughout the world is overwhelming.  

Researching a book on confession these past two years, I have found it difficult to ascertain reliable figures. Questionnaires on religious practice in the UK and Europe no longer even itemise the rate of attendance. In the United States, the 2008 census by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (Cara), revealed that only 2 per cent of Catholics confess regularly. Anecdotal evidence for Ireland and the UK suggests a massive decline since the 1960s, and yet a mixed current picture is emerging.

One priest told me that in his rural parish in Oxfordshire, no one has come to confession for 10 years. Another in a Midlands industrial district reports that he never gets more than two penitents on a Saturday evening. In a straw poll survey of my friends, who lived through Vatican II, one in three have not been to confession for 30 years. For the rest, “every year or so”, or “once or twice a year”. According to most pastors I speak to, children nowadays rarely return to the sacrament after their first Communion unless part of an impetus once a term from the local Catholic school. And yet, there are inner-city parishes and cathedral churches where the sacrament is popular among every age group, including young adults. Many, seeking anonymity, are from distant parishes. A 26-year-old woman who converted to Catholicism aged 16, speaks of “queues” for confession at the Brompton Oratory and St James’s, Spanish Place in London. She likes to go to confession at least once month, but does not confess in her home parish in north London, because, she says, the sacrament is only available there “on application”. 

The understanding of sin and confession today appears to pull in different directions, reflecting wider tensions in the Church. A recent convert informant, instructed in a trad­itionalist mode, has been taught that missing Mass is a serious sin requiring absolution before receiving the Eucharist. In contrast, a pastor of a large East End of London parish tells me that he never speaks of sin. “We have encouraged teenagers in our local Catholic school to see Reconciliation as an opportunity to talk about their experience of life, and their difficulties.”

The popularity of confession among groups of teenagers is clearly visible at World Youth Days, where the young queue in their hundreds to receive one-to-one absolution. The Penitential Service, or Rite Two (featuring several priests, available for auricular confession), is popular during Lent, with its stress on community contrition. And there is an ethnic dimension to the revival in traditional practice. A priest in an East Anglian market town tells me that when his Polish parishioners receive a visit from an itinerant compatriot priest, they all queue for confession in the old-style box which usually stands empty. Services of General Absolution (Rite Three) were banned by John Paul II, yet they persist in some parishes, and a priest in Buckinghamshire tells me of an unusual experiment where three or four children will come to confess together – admitting, for example, how they behaved badly towards each other, or were guilty as a group of bullying other children.  

Yet attendance today bears no relation to what it once was, either in numbers or in character. In the East End of London parish of my childhood, confessions were heard for two-hour sessions on Thursday evenings, and Saturday mornings, afternoons and evenings. Most families went weekly: the nuns would check on our attendance every Monday morning. We brought to the confessional box our numbered, categorised sins: discrete offences, odious to God; blemishes upon the garment of one’s soul. There was not much focus on the consequences for others.

Today, the old dark box has been widely replaced by two armchairs, with a screen and kneeler as an option. Confessors speak of “real confessions” – a penitent’s discussion of the problems and failings in the whole of their lives. Not all moral theologians approve of the trend, seeing it too close to talk therapy.

But what of the millions of practising Catholics who have ceased to go confession altogether? The late moral theologian Bernard Häring wrote in 1978 that adult Catholics ceased to confess because so many of them were using artificial contraception, and saw nothing wrong with it. He might have added other stumbling blocks: sex before marriage; gay relationships; what Häring calls “self-stimulation”; being divorced and remarried (and yet being able to find an “understanding” confessor). These have caused people to either leave the Church, or simply ignore the teaching on “serious” or mortal sin and the need to confess before receiving the Eucharist. The circumstance has created, in consequence, a remarkable, historic split between teaching and practice. 

Conversations with priests and people in different parts of the country raise diverse questions. Does confession reconcile us to the Church, or to God? Can “mortal” sin be forgiven with an act of contrition? For many people aged 50 and over, the experience of confession before Vatican II remains a troubled memory. The frequent confessions practised by my generation, and that of my parents and grandparents, was, as it turns out, an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of the Church. In 1905, St Pius X (1903-14) advocated that the age of first confession be lowered from the widespread norm of 13 or 14 down to seven and even younger. His aim was, in fact, to lower the age at which children made their first Communion.

He advocated, moreover, that confession, and Communion, should be made weekly if possible, and certainly more frequently than monthly; whereas the norm had been annually. Pius X’s initiative heralded a beneficial transformation in eucharistic devotion; but early and frequent recourse to confession brought unintended consequences for children at a formative age of development. A girl I once knew inadvertently broke the fast on the morning of her first Communion by taking a sip of water (in those days the fast began at midnight). Realising her lapse on approaching the altar rail, she was plunged into a waking nightmare, convinced that she had committed a sacrilege. It took five years of mental agony before she managed to broach her aggravated “wickedness” to an understanding priest.

Strong and widespread evidence has emerged of a link between early confession and clerical sexual abuse. The lowered age of confession from 13 to seven coincides, according to meta-analyses (see Marie Keenan’s Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church, Oxford University Press, 2011), with the age group of most affected victims. Pius X’s initiative resulted in the frequent exposure of Catholic children to priests untrained in child psychology and pedagogy, in circumstances of unsupervised intimacy. It is perhaps significant that the rise in sexual attacks, which started in the late 1950s through to the 1980s, coincides with not only the explosion of sexual permissiveness of that era, but the tendency for priests to hear confessions outside of the confessional box – in sacristies, parlours and priests’ quarters.

The Murphy and Ferns reports in Ireland, moreover, reveal not only the abuse of the confessional for the grooming of minors, but the regular exploitation of the confessional by priest offenders to square the circle of their pastoral and offending lives. A priest in Australia admitted in court recently that he had confessed sexual abuse of children more than 1,500 times to 32 priests. Priests in Ireland, meanwhile, have admitted that they would seek out a priest to whom they could confess “an impure act” without the confessor probing for further details: for example, the age of the “sexual partner”.

While childhood anxiety, consciousness of clerical sexual abuse and folk-memories of psychological oppression form significant aspects of disillusionment with confession, these considerations are hardly a sufficient, systemic explanation for the decline of the practice. The explanations are clearly wide-ranging and multifaceted, meriting a pluralist approach to enquiry. In association with The Tablet, and as part of the research for my book on confession, I accordingly invite readers, lay, Religious and clerical, and anonymously if they so wish, to email me (jc224@cam.ac.uk), or write (John Cornwell, Jesus College, Cambridge CB5 8BL) expressing opinions, memories and experiences of confession, perhaps adding how long since the informant’s last confession, or how regular, and when (for example, before Easter or Christmas, or on other occasions).


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  1. I had to google this person. Came across a line in one of his books, epigraph,

    “The wounding is the wounded heart.”

    I think a reference to other work. Sounds fascinating. I would like to read that.

    I don’t know about ‘confession’. I do very much believe in ‘reconciliation’ though.

    So much about our perception of words, ideas – concepts, experience as having been, being negative and destructive, or positive and healing.

    I’d love to have someone to go to. From my earliest years I felt that. Preferably trained and with a depth of true spirituality about him/her.

    There has to be introspection and understanding. ‘Confession’ before ‘reconciling’. Laundry lists are just that.

    The goal being – re integration, reconciliation – healing, strive to wholeness, holiness in the individual. Not self love – but the love of self and the other.

    Well that’s partly what I think anyway.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    It’s a pity Sean Fagan’s book was suppressed, as we do need to understand how sin and morality have “changed”. I think people have a deeper sense of sin today than in the past, especially as regards sins of omission. The confession-format does not match this, as it is predicated on objectified sin lists. I think “moral relativism” is another inadequate diagnosis — people’s morality is more complex, reflective, adult, and again the confession culture sits poorly with this. The Vatican has played down general absolution as if it were a lesser form of the sacrament (despite being common practice in the past, on the occasion of boat journeys for example), but general absolution could save the sacrament for contemporary use.

  3. I don’t know any of these good people.

    Could I get the name of the book you are speaking about, Joe ?

    Going away for a week next week and might check out, get and have a read.

    Thank you.

  4. Mary O Vallely says:

    I am so glad this topic is being aired at last. I think too many people of my generation and older (I made my First Confession in 1957/8)still confess as they were taught to do so as children. We lack understanding of how to approach confession as mature adults.It is an area the official church has badly neglected.
    Mind you, the format of old style confession box doesn’t help at my age. It is relatively easy to sink to one’s knees in penitence but getting up again often requires superhuman strength and the old hearing, not being as acute as it once was, a penance often has to be asked to be repeated. “Eh, 3 Rosaries or 3 Hail Marys, Father, eh??” The knowledge that several elderly penitents are waiting for you to emerge from the box within the allotted 3 minutes is added pressure.
    I would appeal to the priestly confessor to remember that he is an alter Christus and as such should try to exude some warmth and at least a modicum of compassion.
    My last experience a few months ago was not a positive one. Perhaps my antennae are hypersensitively attuned to seeking out insincerity of tone and manner but I knew that the priest was not really listening, that he was tired and fed-up. I wanted to shout, “Well, at least pretend you are interested! I’m only here for 3 minutes!” I didn’t and I should have written him a wee note afterwards but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, I suppose. He is a good priest and under a lot of pressure. I just decided I wouldn’t go back to him again.
    Fr Tony Butler in @24 comment on the Rastrelli article tells a lovely story of a true alter Christus in confession. I found it really heartwarming. Would that he lived closer to the ecclesiastical capital!
    BTW John Cornwall states that “not all moral theologians approve of the trend ( for “real confession”) seeing it too close to talk therapy.”
    What is wrong with talk therapy???
    It is good to see this topic of confession being opened up on the forum and I look forward to reading more comments.
    Mary V

  5. I can’t help feeling that the phrase ‘intrinsically evil’ has a lot to do with the virtual demise of the Saturday night confession queue.

    My understanding is that St Thomas Aquinas held that ‘God is not offended by us except by what we do against our own good’. In this framework, every divine ‘do not’ is governed by God’s determination to ensure our happiness and well-being. This in turn reinforces an understanding of God as never arbitrary or whimsical but dedicated always to our happiness and spiritual growth: God is love.

    On the other hand, the insistence that some human acts are ‘intrinsically evil’ suggests a very different God: one who arbitrarily decides that certain acts are out of bounds irrespective of any argument as to their necessarily harmful human consequences. This God is more like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland: something is punishable by death simply “because I say so”.

    That such ‘intrinsically evil’ acts should so often fall within the realm of sexuality has another harmful theological effect: it suggests a God who designed us to be sexual in order to punish us for being just that. This is a ‘Gotcha’ God – not a God who is love.

    I can’t help feeling that this is a major source of the huge ‘switch off’ from ‘Confession’. We simply cannot square the God we fear we may meet there with a God who is always, obviously, love.

    Adherence to the concept of ‘intrinsic evil’ seems also to me to have been a barrier to the growth in spiritual wisdom of many Catholic clergy. Unable to explain why a loving God would ever want to play ‘Gotcha’, too many priests become intellectually stuck in neutral, unable even to make up their own minds.

    What happens to those priests who do conclusively reject an arbitrary ‘Queen of Hearts’ God? We Irish found out earlier this year: they get censored and told to learn to ‘think with the church’!

  6. Mary Wood says:

    When a priest to whom I was making a “duty” annual confession told me that the routine was no longer obligatory for those not conscious of grave sin, I researched and found this piece among forum comments on the website of the Society of St Gregory. I submit it for general consideration.

    When is a person required to celebrate Reconciliation?
    by FrGareth » Thu Feb 04, 2010 1:39 pm

    In another thread,
    Southern Comfort wrote:
    No other person, whether being initiated or not, has to receive the sacrament of reconciliation before receiving Communion unless it is definitively known that they are in a state of grave sin.

    But in the catechism we find:
    CCC 1457 wrote:
    According to the Church’s command, “after having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year.” Anyone who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion… Children must go to the sacrament of Penance before receiving Holy Communion for the first time.

    So children are explicitly required to make first confession before first communion – see http://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/CCLSANCT.htm – but nothing is stated here about an adult becoming Catholic.

    RCIA 395 states:
    395 If the … reception take place within Mass, the candidate, according to his or her own conscience, should make a confession of sins beforehand, first informing the confessor that he or she is about to be received into full communion. Any confessor who is lawfully approved may hear the candidate’s confession.

    The mention of conscience is ambiguous. Is the matter of conscience WHICH sins to confess, or the bigger matter of WHETHER making confession is necessary?

    This leads us to a point which turns on the distinction of serious sins and mortal sins. Today, we understand a mortal sin to concern grave matter, committed with full knowledge and free consent. Externally, we can only judge whether or not an action was grave; the extent of knowledge and consent can only be judged by the individual who has sinned.

    The way Catechism para 1457 is set out seems to distinguish “serious” from “mortal” sins. Mortal sins, because of full knowledge and consent, must be confessed by their very nature. The catechism seems to apply here an additional requirement to confess annually any SERIOUS sin even though knowledge or consent may have been partial.

    But the catechism here cites canon 988, which distinguishes “grave” sins from “venial” sins. A quick check of the Latin text of the Catechism reveals that “grave” would be the proper trnslation in para 1457 also, which in the context of the canon law clearly implies “mortal”. So the Catechism in fact does not indicate an annual obligation to confess non-mortal sins.

    We can get too caught up in law. This isn’t about law – it’s about our relationship with Christ, who spent a good part of his ministry on earth pronouncing forgiveness of sins. He entrusted this ministry to the apostles, who therefore had the right to decide the shape it should take as the Church evolved. This means that Jesus Christ, respecting the decisions made by his bishops on earth, is inviting his followers to receive His forgiveness through confession as we now practice it.

    > It therefore seems that a child MUST make first confession before first communion, even if the child has never committed a mortal sin;

    > It is arguable that the precedent set by the children’s case requires an adult seeking full communion also to make confession – the matter of conscience is the selection of material, not whether to go;

    > But a person morally certain that they have committed no mortal sins (grave matter + knowledge + consent) during the last 12 months is not strictly obliged to make annual confession.

    On the other hand… as a disciple of Christ, beliving that it is very pleasing to Christ to confess our sins to those ministers empowered to forgive them, why pass up on the opportunity?
    Revd Dr Gareth Leyshon – Priest of the Archdiocese of Cardiff (views are my own)

  7. Sean (Derry) says:

    ” .. a pastor of a large East End of London parish tells me that he never speaks of sin.” Sounds a little bit like most priests I know and this sums up the cause of the problem: there is no sin, there is no hell, God loves everyone and we all get to go to heaven regardless.
    ” One priest told me that in his rural parish in Oxfordshire, no one has come to confession for 10 years.” That priest needs to take a hard look at himself and should seek guidance from the priests at the Brompton Oratory and St James’s, Spanish Place in London where they have ‘queues’.
    I can’t remember the last time I heard a priest talk about sin and the need for confession. I hear almost weekly homilies that sound more like a script from Barney the Dinosaur show than they do about Catholicism. It seems that the question has now changed from, “What must I do to be saved?” to “What must I do to be damned?”
    BTW it is still a mortal sin to miss mass on Sunday or days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason.
    My advice, for what it is worth, is for priests to get off the golf courses and go out into their parishes and look for the lost sheep and bring them back into the fold.

  8. “St Thomas Aquinas held that ‘God is not offended by us except by what we do against our own good’.

    This I understand and would think it good that people are reminded of what might not be ‘good’ for them. Holding on to anger, resentment; poisoning the ‘Temple of the Holy Spirit’ – the body, your own and other, all kinds of relationships with too much of anything – drink, drugs of whatever choice, sex etc – toxins.

    I’d been having tests lately for a potential internal bleed somewhere. Blood was getting low. Readings two weeks ago were below par. Last two weeks I could not take iron supps till a latter batch of tests were done, two weeks later – last Friday. No red meat of any kind was taken and no greens. I’d have grown feathers if eaten any more chicken. So, if anything, I’d have expected a certain element in the blood – haemoglobin, to have remained much the same, possibly fallen, or at most, raised minimally. I am waiting the results of other tests but got the blood tests done Friday back today. It’s shot way up again. I’d been really tired for so long, breathless at times, heart strain – usual things that can come with that. Had three young children all day and seemed far more energy than had for quite some time. Veins in feet are fuller. Don’t have that palor they had.

    How this happened in such a short time, when if anything, I’d expected to be getting hawked in and cameras shoved everywhere.

    Did asking forgiveness at Mass last week, choosing to let go of my anger, resentment, even it was not in a formal ‘confession’ – and subsequent sharing of the ‘Body and Blood’ of Jesus Eucharistically give me some ‘new’ life ? All the chat about that here of late too.

    Beam me up Scotty !! None as spooked by this as I am right now. I did feel something at that Mass last week but was more in my heart, spirit. It felt good to be ABLE, ready to choose to let go of the anger, the resentment – to not allow that to have me not love my self or the other person. It was toxic.

    Unless I get a call in the AM and they say I have been given the wrong results. 🙂

    What is it really all about – ‘confession’ – ‘reconiliation’ – if not reintegration in love – healing.

    Sorry to digress but it’s just quite bizare. And I DO wonder there might be a link.

    I will be making more of an effort to look into my own heart and soul and ask what barriers to love of self and other might be there – and seek healing in all ways available – even Eucharistically.

  9. Ann Lardeur says:

    Sean – I hope the clergy do not take your advice! They need recreation (re-creation); unlike most people they work 6 days a week, get called out at night, deal with life and death issues i.e. PEOPLE and all our problems. It can be utterly draining to be a good priest to all people regardless of self. A killer too. Is that what you want – exhausted, burnt out clergy unable to be Christ to others.

    Well done clergy who preach about love, not sin. Sin is fundamentally failure in love. If people receive Jesus’ revelation of God’s deep love delivered from the heart then the sense of sin grows. Why do you think the great saints felt themselves to be great sinners? Not because they preached sin, and were preached to about sin, but because they experienced God’s generous love which revealed to them their own faults. Emphasis is rightly on RECONCILIATION of the sinner rather than the sins.

    On queues or lack of them. City churches always do well because many prefer to take their dirty laundry to someone unknown. Also their catchment area is greater. People working in London nip to Mass at lunchtime and Sacrament of Reconciliation rather that make a special trip to their own church of a Saturday, often at an inconvenient time

  10. Joe O'Leary says:

    Talking about legal obligation to confess only if you are conscious of mortal sin is not very helpful — it keeps intact the entire mentality surrounding the confessional — learning the tricks of the tribunal as in a court of secular law.

  11. Joe O'Leary says:

    “BTW it is still a mortal sin to miss mass on Sunday or days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason.”

    No, custom is an interpreter of law.

    In any case, was it wise to label as mortally sinful breaches of church law or mere omissions? This is a medieval mentality, not an evangelical one.

  12. Confession in my day was an abomination and a penitential act in itself. It was always a case of guilty until “forgiven” and attendance was kept up by scaring the bejaysus out of young and old alike.
    In this context, falling attendance is a welcome sign, and a wake up call that a totally new approach is required if the thing is to retain any meaning for people.
    It was abused by power. It was totally negative. It was administered in a way that actually enouraged re-offending.
    Time for a new beginning
    “I come to make all things new”
    You’d better believe it.

  13. Ann Lardeur says:

    “BTW … unless excused for a serious reason”. It is the case now, and always was, that the judgement lies with the person. Only they know how ill they were feeling, whether it was safe to leave sick child in bed with a book, even whether the urgent phone call from a friend in deep trouble needed priority, (remember the priest and levi who passed by) etc. etc. It was that evil ‘scruples’ which led to telling the priest just in case. “Please, Father, I did not get to the only Mass because the car would not start and it was too late by time the AA fixed it. Can I be excused”

    No wonder the usage of the Sacrament is declining when we act as infants and are treated as infants too. A friend in her 70s admitted to me it was still hard not to start confession with disobedience to parents since that was the way she had been taught at primary school, and then taught successive generations the same thing.

  14. Ann Lardeur says:

    Kevin – Especially Eucharistically. It is only at Council of Lateral in 1215 that Penance is named as an official Sacrament of the Church. Baptism was always the primary Sacrament for the forgiveness of sins. In the early church there were only 3 sins for which absolution and (public) penance were required; murder, apostasy, and adultery. These were because they all harmed the community. Otherwise sins are forgiven by acknowledgement of sinfulness and reception of the Eucharist. Private confession and (tariff) penances grew out of the practice of monks giving spiritual advice to one another; revealing their faults and temptations because part of the encounter.
    It was also repeatable. This led it to being condemned at the Council of Toledo in 589 A.D.

  15. Sean (Derry) says:

    Ann, the sacrament of confession was not ‘invented’ at Council of Lateral in 1215. This is a handy stick used to attack the sacrament by many anti-Catholics and is based on the writings of the protestant Loraine Boettner in his book Roman Catholicism (which attacks just about everything Catholic, including making the sign of the cross). The Fourth Lateran Council did discuss confession, but only to regulate the use of the sacrament. The ruling was that Catholics should confess any mortal sins at least once a year. This is simply the Church mandating how often (as a minimum) a sacrament must be celebrated. To claim that the sacrament only came in to being in 1215 is a bit like saying that the Trinity only came into being at The Nicene Council in the early fourth century. There are in fact many references to confession in the writings of the Church Fathers which make clear that a Christian should only confess to a priest.
    I would however agree that apostasy has always been considered a serious sin.

  16. Ann Lardeur says:

    Sean of Derry – You cannot read my lips, but you could read my text. How did you come to get CONFESSION instead of PENANCE and ‘invented’ when I wrote “NAMED AS AN OFFICIAL SACRAMENT” Also how did you miss the information on EARLY CHURCH practice and TOLEDO 589. 1215 is not Early Church but mediaeval. My posting is not based on Boettner but study of Early Church at degree level. Apology would be welcome please.
    BTW does “confess sins to one another” (no mention of priest) ring any bells. You are obviously interested in Church History – do you have qualifications too or are you autodidact?

  17. Ann Lardeur says:

    p.s. In Early Church Monks were not ordained priests.

  18. Jim McCrea says:

    There is an equally persuasive theological argument for the Eucharist being a primary sacrament for the forgiveness of sins.

    In the Mass we frequently ask for forgiveness: in the Penitential Rite, the Gloria, the Lord’s Prayer, the Lamb of God. At the very heart of the Eucharist, Jesus is quoted as saying at the Last Supper: “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 20:28).

    Eminent theologians have argued these words from Matthew’s Gospel were included in the Eucharistic Prayer by the early Church to remind us that when we celebrate the Eucharist with sincerity, our sins are forgiven.

    For Matthew, “the forgiveness of sins” was a primary purpose of the Eucharist. (Eugene LaVerdiere SSS, “The Eucharist in the New Testament and the Early Church,” The Liturgical Press, 1996, p.66)

    The doctrine of the remission of sins conferred by the Eucharist has had a long and varied history of use and neglect in the Church. Granted that the forgiveness of sins is not the chief object of the Eucharist — Christ made the forgiveness of sins an essential dimension of it. (John Quinn, SJ, Worship, Vol. 42, No.5 1968).

    The Council of Trent (1545-1563) made the following statement, which sounds very foreign to today’s Catholic ears: “The holy Council teaches that this [Mass] is truly propitiatory and has this effect that if, contrite and penitent, with sincere heart and upright faith, with fear and reverence, we draw nigh to God, ‘we obtain mercy and find grace in seasonable aid’ (Heb 4:16). For, appeased by this sacrifice, the Lord grants the grace and gift of penitence and pardons even the gravest crimes and sins.” (Cited in W. Bausch, “A New Look at the Sacraments,” Twenty-Third Publications 1977, p.157.)

    Catholicism has a rich history of Eucharistic theology that supports a different approach to the necessity of confessing to a priest for one’s sins to be forgiven.

  19. Very interesting thoughts here. Why don’t we all know these things ? 🙂 Is it necessary to study theology. Bit of rhetoric there – no answer being sought.

    I was speaking to a woman the other day who has become completely disillusioned. All she can see is rot and corruption and it’s blinding her to the beauty of faith she once had – in her heart.

    And that is a very beautiful – innocent thing – faith.

    It’s not just people being sexually abused. It’s spiritual abuse on a mass scale. It’s sick.

    Abuse does this – blinds us to beauty, and all we are left able to see is ‘rot and filth’. I am not talking about abuses in the ‘Church’ only.

    How to help someone, help her, remember what she once knew, had, maybe still has in her soul that is not about, and does not belong to that ‘church’ that has sought to, almost destroyed it.

    I don’t know. It’s something I am only starting to learn again myself. And if she needs to leave and go elsewhere I won’t try to stop her. I recommend it even at this time.

    A return to innocence. The ‘Eden’ of real faith.

    All these challenges are what teach us what faith really is, is all about, and that faith is in God – the self, shown to, through our interaction in loving ways with the other. Not a body of bricks and mortar – a tomb.

    “Let the dead bury their dead.”

    Though it’s nolonger a ‘tomb’. For me anyway. I saw, have seen the beginnings of something there. Only starting, and a ways to go, and might run out the door again and never look back. Either way does not really bother me anymore. My God does not live in little boxes. But I remember and it’s not all bad.

    Hearing some things here help.

    Like my asking to be rid of anger etc last week and continue with daily in every encounter and I’ve wanted to tear bags on a few occasions. 🙂 Receiving the Eucharist, not sure what’s it’s really supposed to be, if I believe what I’d been told – but that it is a Life giving encounter through, with and in Christ – or can, should be.

    Yet there was still a twinge in me – ‘confession’ ? I was not worthy. But I always say, “Lord I am not worthy that you come under my roof…. ” and try to mean it. I still won’t always go cause I don’t feel ‘worthy’. That’s what they told me. And we believed it. We are the image of God, COMMANDED to, “LOVE YOUR…… SELF!” yet never worthy. Mixed messages or what. Or abuse and control ?

    It seemed a heartfelt plea was more than enough for God at that Mass. My sorrow was, is sincere for my ‘sins’ – but I do not want to degrade my self before an ‘Abuser’ which I’d believed that’s all it was for so long – God – through, because of the ‘rot and filth and corruption’ in the hierarchical ‘church.

    And evil will persist – God blasphemed, though never mocked, if the “good men, and women do nothing, say nothing.”

    “”these words from Matthew’s Gospel were included in the Eucharistic Prayer by the early Church to remind us that when we celebrate the Eucharist with sincerity, our sins are forgiven.
    For Matthew, “the forgiveness of sins” was a primary purpose of the Eucharist.””

    Thanks for ALL the thoughts. Learned a lot here.

  20. Sean (Derry) says:

    Ann, you ask how I confused your mention of CONFESSION instead of PENANCE. Are they not the same sacrament?
    As you studied ‘Early Church’ at degree level you will be aware that the Catholic Church was founded by Christ and continued through the line from Peter.
    Council of Trent declared:
    “Before the coming of Christ, penance was not a sacrament, …. But the Lord then principally instituted the Sacrament of Penance, when, being raised from the dead, he breathed upon His disciples saying: ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained’ (John 20:22-23). By which action so signal and words so clear the consent of all the Fathers has ever understood that the power of forgiving and retaining sins was communicated to the Apostles and to their lawful successors, for the reconciling of the faithful who have fallen after Baptism. (Sess. XIV, c. i)

    Early Church doesn’t get much earlier than the period when Our Lord walked the earth and ‘instituted the Sacrament of Penance’.

    Farther on the council expressly states that Christ left priests, His own vicars, as judges (praesides et judices), unto whom all the mortal crimes into which the faithful may have fallen should be revealed in order that, in accordance with the power of the keys, they may pronounce the sentence of forgiveness or retention of sins” (Sess. XIV, c. v)

    Ann you also ask, “does “confess sins to one another” (no mention of priest) ring any bells”.
    Only Our Lord can forgive sins (through his priests) so I can confess all I like, until the cows come home, but unfortunately none of my friends or neighbours can offer me absolution.
    BTW I don’t have a degree in this area, (you might tell from my spelling and grammar), so you trump me there, but if degree level study of Catholicism is anything like primary and secondary school Cathechism, I rather give it a miss.

  21. Confession is a meeting with Christ through the Priest. In St. Faustina’s diary (1602) Jesus said “Daughter, when you go to confession, to this fountain of My mercy, the Blood and Water which came forth from My Heart always flow down upon your soul and ennobles it. Every time you go to confession, immerse yourself entirely in My mercy, with great trust, so that I may pour the bounty of My grace upon your soul. When you approach the confessional, know this, that I myself am waiting there for you. I am only hidden by the priest, but I myself act in your soul. Here the misery of the soul meets the God of mercy. Tell souls that from this fount of mercy souls draw graces solely with the vessel of trust. If their trust is great, there is no limit to My generosity. The torrents of grace inundate humble souls. The proud remain always in poverty and misery, because My grace turns away from them to humble souls”.

    Just on the availability of Confession, this is not as good as it used to be, where some Parishes only have Confessions on request, which is unfortunate.

  22. Since the earlier post I spoke to this woman again. Asked her if anything specific had troubled her. She spoke of a ‘confessional’ experience in Rome while there on a trip. Said he, the priest, was like something ‘out of the dark ages’ and made her feel like the scum of the earth.

    Obviously that’s not all of it – but was noteworthy that this ‘sacrament’ left her feeling degraded and ready to abandon ‘faith’.

    Not like the encounters of women with Jesus in Scriptures.

    I’ve long felt women should not be ‘confess’ing to men anyway. Certainly not on certain matters.

    But that’s another minefield.


  23. PS Just want to add that I let this person read some of the thoughts here from you good people, and it’s helped she and I markedly on various matters – ‘Confession’al and ‘Eucharistic’. So thank you again.

  24. Ann Lardeur says:

    I have looked at the ‘new’ catechism. (Abolute bargain, hardback, unused and bought at my Surrey village fete for 50p!)

    #1393 “Holy Communion separates us from sin. The body of Christ we receive in Holy Communion is “given up for us”, and the blood we drink “shed for the many for the forgiveness of sins”. For this reason the Eucharist cannot unite us with Christ without at the same time cleansing us from past sins and preserving us from future sins: ………”

    The theme is expanded in 1394 and 5.

    Sean – my complaint was not that there was a difference between confession and penance, but you, in refering to my piece, were misusing the words I wrote. That is the academic side kicking in. Interesting how the words we use have changed over time – partly showing how we perceive it – emphasis differing between penance, confession and reconciliation.

    Apparently confessing sins to one another did not ring a loud enough bell. It is from James 5:16. “Confess you sins to one another and pray for each other that you may be healed.”

    At the time of the introduction of the new rites, Fr. Edward Matthews, a Westminster priest, published and excellent little book “The forgiveness of sins”. “Today we are well accustomed to regard the priest as the only minister of the sacrament of penance. There is almost a mystique surrounding his power. It has not always been so. For 500 years from 8th to 13th centuries, plenty of writers left evidence of confession heard by lay people. Even such a man as St. Thomas Aquinas was of the opinion that this was a valid sacrament though imperfect. The one condition demanded by all writers was non-availability of a priest” Will not continue to quote but it was same situation as anyone can baptise someone in danger of death. Fr. Matthews points out this was of special importance for those going into battle.

    On studying. It is far removed from catechism but I think you should have a go at it. Like you I read all sorts of stuff – whatever came to hand. Yonks ago we had a highly educated newly ordained curate (as they were then called) who discovered I had all sort of obscure knowledge squirrelled away in my brain. He asked where I studied for my degree. I laughed at him. He said “you should do one, it would at least mean you read systematically”. I applied and got in despite being older than some of my fellow student’s mothers. I had to learn greek, which I did on the train, worked office hours with lectures and library, then came home to look after husband and family. I ended up with B.D. and then M.Th. The young curate – well after teaching at Oscott he went to America as Secretary of ICEL and is now Mgr. – his name is Bruce Harbert.

    We cannot judge ability by spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Mine goes all over the place when writing on line.

  25. What if I go directly to the person whom I have offended in thought, word, action or omission; does that make the ‘confession’ any less valid – really necessary ? Indeed I’d imagine it better to that and truly reconcile with the offended than go to a priest and have absolution. I don’t mean to knock ‘confession’. Just aspects of it, or my understandings.

    A man or woman admits to abuse of alcohol, and the children are suffering, neglect. Do you speak to them about their drinking and see to it they are are sincere in battling the addiction or trying to, before giving ‘communion’. Or do you give Communion with the intent of Christ’s Life giving them grace of perseverance – persistence in changing for new life for themselves and the children ?

    Interesting meanderings. Gonna meandre to a swimming pool now. For prayer. Heard yesterday about process theology which is vastly interesting. Telling a friend how an experience of swimming alone in a quiet pool is like praying.

    I see in it much of What I’d known in the Catholic tradition amongst other

    G’nite and God bless you all

  26. Fr. Kieren says:

    Just to add my thoughts to be discussion:
    1. Can I suggest that fellow priests refrain from using examples of confessions in their posts, I am aware that in Ireland there has been some discussion regarding the seal of confession, I was taught never to speak of what one hears. I don’t want anybody accused of breaking the seal.
    2. I recently led a pilgrimage to Rome, I encouraged my pilgrims to approach the sacrament, unfortunately the English speaking priest was awful, reducing many to tears, I was tempted to do what the late Herbert McCabe is meant to have done, wait until the fellows shift was over, and tell him that he was a disgrace!
    3. I wonder if the problem with the sacrament today is more to do with invitation, how do we invite people to encounter Christ in the sacrament, do we focus on guilt or love. Likewise, how do we see God, if he is judgemental and vengeful, why would we ever approach him? But if he is God revealed in Jesus, what is to fear? Surely he is the one we are eager to approach, he is one we are willing and able to bring our weaknesses to.
    4. in Lourdes two weeks ago, I was surprised by the number of young people who approached the sacrament, as a Diocese about twenty priests joined the pilgrimage and for well over an hour, during our reconciliation service, we constantly heard confession.

  27. Kevin Walters says:

    Anne Post 21.

    A pamphlet was made available in the Leeds Diocese and distributed over a two year period from 1996 -98. The title was Divine Mercy Blessed Sister M.Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938)
    Below the title was a beautiful picture of Our Lord with the inscription “Jesus I trust in you”.
    But the reality was her superiors had no trust in the original message given by Our Lord to Sister Faustina. They sold their spiritually for an image of worldly beauty and in so doing committed blasphemy. Anything concerning this revelation after the first vision has to be considered suspect.
    From the very start her superiors had no trust in her vision. If her superiors had been spiritual they would have accepted her attempt (painting) no matter how poor her picture might have been. Sister Kowalska was very poorly educated and it is fair to assume that if her superiors had accepted her painting as they should have done (they would have known that Gods Word (Will) is Inviolate) she would have also. But it did not fit their earthly concept of (beauty, goodness) so they portrayed God in their own image.
    Earthly hands violated Gods word to fit their own earthly vision of goodness their actions were blasphemous. The whole emphasis of this revelation is about trust in Gods infinite mercy their actions show that they did not trust in His mercy and were only concerned with a worldly image of goodness the very same problem which has led to the cover up of the child abuse scandal.
    On this site see my post May 13th (Scottish Perspective on the ACP’ agenda) posts number 9&12
    Or preferable a more comprehensive Article that I posted 4th August 2012 on
    A way forward, venerate the image of broken man.

    In Christ

  28. “A way forward, venerate the image of broken man.
    In Christ

    I will catch the links you posted later. Long day and shattered.

    By the “image of the broken man,” do you mean the man on the street – the junkie, hooker, the one dying of AIDS, cancer etc ? “Christ Crucified’ ? If that is what you might be referring to – that I understand, and try that, have done in life. Our breaking, brokeness, suffering at all – can often and only seem to make ‘sense’ in the idea of God making good of all – even the ‘bad’ – with, through and in the Broken Man – Crucified, who is raised up – calls the entire race and creation to Himself and redeems.

    Thank you Kevin

    Fr Kieran suggested that priests don’t reference specific confessions. I don’t know who are priests here and who are not.

    I have referenced specific confessional experiences but not given specifics. Not ‘broken the seal’ as I understand it. Though if the experience is less than I believe it should be, I will sing like a canary from the rooftops – ‘seal’ or no seal.

    I am not priest however.

    Anyway – you’ve all managed to give interesting insights to at least two highly disillusioned people ‘out here’ today – so thank you again.

    God night and God bless

    I don’t know if it’s possible to start a conversation of what ‘obedience’ means in the Church.

    Christ is obedient to death – death on a Cross – resignation of His whole will. I believe this to be something important in the life of one seeking to follow Christ. To Whom are we to be wholly obedient ? To God yes. But through the ‘Church’ how ? What if I wholly disagree with something they teach ? How do I show obedience ? Can I ? Am I a heretic then ? Someone who should be silenced, shunned, anathametised ?

    For some time now I have really wanted to understand Obedience in the life of a Christian.

    Thoughts ? On anther thread perhaps ? I’d like to understand how obedience can be lived in someone seeking to truly follow Jesus.

    When I know, I might want to try to live that. TRY being the operative word. 🙂

  29. Ann Lardeur says:

    Kevin – you asked @ 21 whether it was necessary to study theology. Answer is “Of course not” It is the way we live that counts, not what we know. Study may help or hinder us. St. Augustine (Hippo)said “Believe so you may understand” not the other way round. FYI He is the most quoted authority in the Documents of VAT II after scripture.

    For me Early Church History (first 500 years) is fascinating because it is what comes next after the New Testament. It was when so many of the major doctrines were thrashed out amid much controvsy.

    Had our friend Sean of Derry followed the same course as myself he would know that some communities, particularly those of the Johannine epistles, were led by elders not presbyters. No priests to confess to.

    He would also know there was something of a power stuggle over penance and absolution following the Decian persecution in North Africa in 250. In addition to the many martyrs there were ‘confessors of the faith’ who suffered imprisonment, and weaker christians who had outwardly conformed to various degrees (lapsi). How were they to be re-admitted to the church, if at all? Confessors of the faith felt they should have a say in the matter since they were the ones who had suffered. They gave out libelli (certificates of recommendation) to those they thought deserved them. The bishop was expected to take into account whether the lapsi had libelli or not. Cyprian of Carthage took exception to this practice – his letter on the subject is a classic.

    Study can add breadth, depth, and understanding to knowledge. Book knowledge is not everything – experience through grace, through others, through life, bring their own gifts and blessings.

    We all contribute to these discussions for various and complex reasons. One of my motives is to share my knowledge with others in the hope of adding greater understanding of how we have got to where we are in the church today. My posts are bound to reflect my particularly interests. If they are useful to you, Kevin, or anyone else I am delighted. I just hope I have not confused people even further.

  30. Mary Wood says:

    Arising from Kevin # 22

    I wondered what other folks’ experience has been of visiting Rome, with or without Confession? Does the place and all its ‘operations’ really bolster Faith, Hope and Charity?

    Except of course it may reduce one to a desperate plea for God’s help to hold on and survive, everything to the contrary notwithstanding . . .

  31. Fr. Kieren says:

    Hi Kevin,
    Just to clarify my point, you are not bound by the seal.
    I am struck by your comments on obedience, as I am reflecting on the Gospel reading for Sunday. I wonder if another thread – as you suggest – might develop from such reflection.
    God Bless

  32. Fr. Kieren says:

    I love going to Rome, it is my second favourite city. However, I will not go to confession there. My highlight is offering Mass under St. Peter’s, close to the tombs of the popes.

  33. Sean (Derry) says:

    Ann @ 24, your bell did ring loud enough for me to understand your reference to James 5:16. “Confess therefore your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be saved.” A quote often used by Protestants to dismiss the need for confessing to a priest. However, before reading James 5:16, it is best to first read James:14-15 which sets the context for 5:16 by clearly referring to the healing and forgiving ministry of the “presbyters” (priests) of the Church. This is the meaning and understanding of the Catholic Church, the only true interpreter of the Holy Scripture under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

    Ann @ 29, you say to Kevin, that if I had done the same course as you I would know that some communities, “were led by elders not presbyters. No priests to confess to”.

    I didn’t do the same course but I know that the apostolic churches were led by a number of elders, who were also known as bishops. It has been concluded that “elders” and “bishops” are the same people, and the two terms are used interchangeably.

    In Acts 20 Paul’s farewell speech to the “elders” of the church in Ephesus. “From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church” (verse 17). He said to these elders, “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God” (verse 28). The word “overseers” is the familiar word for bishop, episkopos. The same verse is in the Catholic (Douay-Rheims) Bible: “Take heed to yourselves and to the whole flock, wherein the Holy Ghost hath placed you bishops, to rule the Church of God which he hath purchased with his own blood.”

    There are quite a few other examples of the term ‘elder’ being used to refer to a bishop, again this is not my personal interpretation of sripture but it is, to the best of my understanding, what the Church teaches on this matter. I hope this helps.

  34. Thanks again to all. A moment of ‘black humour’.

    The priest was on his way to the dying man – coming up the stairs. Little table ready and the man told the priest was on his way as he’d been told earlier he would be, at his request.

    “What the ‘f’ do I want with an ‘f’n’ priest ? Tell him to get the f’ out. F off !”

    35 seconds to act quickly. Call the vet ? Horse sedation ? Pull the plug ?

    The priest reminded me to switch off the oxygen before lighting the candle and blowing us all to hell before anyone had a ‘last confession’.

    I think maybe was a little oxygen deprivation on a few counts.

    Honest to God was like something you’d have read in a book. Always the way. The man did have his ‘confession’ and I have to admit he was very peaceful afterwards till he breathed his last. It wasn’t only the morphine. He didn’t need that much.

    Ann, Sean, Fr Kieren and anyone else. I am certainly not confused on what you are saying, sharing – so panic not.

    These days I am just accepting more that by its fruit it is known. Peace.

    I would love to understand ‘obedience’. Jesus was obedient to death – death on a Cross. I wish to understand obedience to Christ – to God.

    I am though, confused, on what that means when it comes to the ‘teaching’s of the ‘Church’ at times.

    Maybe that too leads to peace – should do – ‘obedience’. I believe so. “Not my will but Your will…… ” And God’s will is love – so that must lead to peace.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It has helped me for sure. And another person.

    What we all want at the end of the day – peace.

    Prince of Peace – give us the gift of peace. 🙂

  35. Ann Lardeur says:

    Re Fr. Keiren @ 26; I have been reflecting on #3

    I think ‘remarketing’ or ‘rebranding’ could help a great many. Focussing on Sacrament of Healing for a start. Talking therapies are being used nowadays before resorting to drugs. I encountered CBT on doctor’s referral because stress was making me feel very ill. However, celebrating the Sacrament with a priest who was prepared to give me time, his very perceptive insight, and share his experience, is a thousand times better. We need healing as whole people; the spiritual counts as much as the corporal. Hence I refuse to say “that my soul shall be healed”; I still mutter “I shall be healed” under by breath.

    Secondly as a Sacrament of Light. For may it still carries the image of dark deeds, recounted in a dark place, with both human agents pretending they are strangers to one another. Why the contrast with the Eucharist? At Mass we briefly review our faults at the Penitential Rite (given a moment or two with luck) and again own our unworthiness before Communion where we meet our Risen Lord. In Confession we name our sins and are forgiven by the same Risen Lord. What Joy. We should go out singing just as we do at the end of Mass.

    For me the breakthrough happened 40 odd years ago, in the days of the deep dark box, when the priest took the initiative to talk to me as a person whom he knew – my parish involvement and my domestic circumstances too.

    BTW visiting priests can put their foot in it too. A chap (now long dead) used to get up early to serve Mass before going to work. T’was in the days of fasting from midnight. He confessed to now saying his morning prayers and got told off.

  36. Sacrament of Light. That is good. Sacraments of Love.

    Healing – Life Giving.

    Where two or more are gathered in My Name I am with you. I am sure many experiences are like this.

    I am learning much here. Maybe, God willing, might meet one or two of you some day.

    Because of what some of you have shared here – enlightening me on some matters, I approach the Eucharist with far greater understanding, desire and love as in itself something forgiving, healing, life giving – leading us to integration, wholeness, holiness in our life.

    God’s will – love – and this brings God’s peace.

    Hope no one was offended with my sharing part of the earlier story in Arabic. Such a romantic, gutteral language. It was funny. My father could be crabbid at times. He trusted me implicitly and knew when I came to him to say the priest had arrived, the reality of his imminent departure through the door to Life Eternal was registering, and scared him. We go back to that state of infant like vulnerability. All should be held as such at those moments – guided out in love as they were brought into the world – held in loving arms.

    But he settled again. He really was very peaceful afterwards. Slept so deeply that night a bro and sister thought he would not come out of it. But he did, we threw open the curtains, let him see’s ‘God’s light’ and we were all given moments to make our ‘last confession’s with him. Was very blessed indeed.

    Sacraments as sacred, shared encounters of two or more in Christ. They bring healing and life or cannot be ‘sacramental’.

  37. Ann Lardeur says:

    I came across this today in Thomas O’Loughlin’s “The Didache” (reading it to take my mind of minor medical procedure!) “Christians have had a practice of only thinking about the Last Supper in the Synoptics as having relevance to the Eucharist, but if we want to understand the significance of the meal of Christians (rather than one interpretation of it that later became dominant), then we need to recall just how often we see Jesus involved in dining with his disciples.” Tom then goes through just those in Luke; the elements of each of them and who was welcomed. He explains all these would have contributed to the greater understanding of the eucharistic meal of members of this very early church community. Significant to earlier posts when he mentions that where the woman, a known sinner comes in (I here quote Tom) “anointed his feet and wept – breaking even more boundaries while Jesus sitting there amid his followers, forgave her sins. (Luke 7.36-50). The meal of memories was not only a place of open welcome; it was a place of forgiveness and reconciliation.”

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