Restoring Frequent Confession

Editorial FAITH Magazine March – April 2012

'He breathed on them, and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.'" John 20:22-23

One of the few fragments of genuine information about "The Princes in the Tower" - the sons of King Edward IV of England, widely supposed to have been murdered in the Tower of London in 1483 on the orders of their uncle who became Richard III - concerns the spiritual life of the older of the two boys, the 12-year-old King Edward V. A contemporary account quotes Edward's doctor as saying that, once it became clear that his life was under threat, "the young king, like a victim prepared for sacrifice, sought remission for his sins by daily confessions and penance".[1]

Some might say that a frightened child could well become neurotic in such circumstances. That may be so, but nonetheless, the very poignancy of the spiritual instinct that prompted a youngster to turn to God and to the sacraments so strongly under stress says a lot about the age of faith in which he lived and the spiritual formation he had received.

Many priests would no doubt regard daily confession as alarmingly excessive and a sign of scrupulosity, not to mention it being impractical. Nevertheless there are some among the saints who followed this practice, and frequent confession - weekly, bi-weekly, or at least monthly - is highly recommended by many if not most of the saints. One of the maxims of St. Philip Neri on the subject says: "Frequent confession is the cause of great good to the soul, because it purifies it, heals it, and confirms it in the service of God."

The Holy Father's Plea to Priests

During the 2010 Year for Priests, the Holy Father several times called on priests to make themselves available to hear confessions as generously as possible. Pointing to the example of St. Jean Vianney and his tireless, indeed heroic, commitment to the confessional, he urged priests to make this sacramental ministry a priority in their lives, even linking it to the gaining of a plenary indulgence for the priest himself during that year. Many times since, the Pope has repeated his call for all of us to rediscover the transforming power of frequenting the sacrament of mercy on a regular basis. Unfortunately, in many places his words have so far fallen on deaf ears. All the more welcome then is the initiative of the Bishop of Lancaster who has asked that confessions should be available foran hour every Wednesday evening in every parish of his diocese throughout Lent this year.

There can be no doubt that confessional practice has fallen off more sharply than any other indicator in the Church in the last 40 years. There are a number of reasons for this, but a very large contributing factor has been the conflicting messages and even, at times, direct discouragement from the clergy.

In 2008 another bishop gave an interview to The Catholic Herald during which he was asked: "Is it a good idea to go to Confession regularly?" The reported answer was:

"No, because my own experience ... was that regular penitents came back with exactly the same words week after week. So there you would say, actually, there is no conversion taking place." This and related thoughts in a pastoral letter on the subject caused controversy at the time. The good bishop did subsequently issue some clarifications about what he really meant, although it has to be said that such remarks are far from untypical of clerics of a certain generation.

The Value of Regular Confession

Discouraging regular confession because people confess "the same old sins" shows a lack of understanding of the workings both of human nature and of grace. Repeated sin may well be a sign of imperfect repentance, but that is no reason for less frequent confession. It is one of the reasons why a formidable confessor like St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio) could at times be stern and challenging in the confessional, even refusing absolution on a temporary basis in order to shock someone into true repentance. Of course it takes courage and spiritual wisdom to do that, and it should not be done lightly for fear of crushing the bruised reed or quenching the wavering flame. But habit, both good and bad, is a characteristic of human nature, and repentance can be a process, especially if there isan element of addiction in the fault in question. God does not wait for perfection to grant mercy.

Grace builds on nature. Most medicines need to be given in repeated doses before healing is achieved; dressings on wounds need to be changed frequently to prevent infection taking hold; and so it is with the life of the penitent spirit. Doctors do not complain that patients come back with the "same old diseases" week on week, year on year. We do not send the sick away untreated because they still have the same chronic arthritics or diabetes after many years.

Even what used to be called "devotional" or apparently routine confessions may be of great importance and value to the individual concerned. We know that we are only formally obliged to confess mortal sins, but venial sin also weakens the soul, and without regular confession our spirits can grow dull and our consciences corrode little by little, opening the way to graver lapses should temptation come. The enemy does not sleep and is very subtle, which is why we are also commanded to stay awake and arm ourselves with virtue.

Especially when it comes to the daily pitfalls of uncharity and struggles with laziness or pride in a fallen world, we can all expect to repeat much the same story in our confessions until the day we die. That is not necessarily a sign of lack of progress. As we grow in holiness, please God, we actually become more aware of our own sinfulness and the need of God's grace. We do not measure the "success" of the confessional by the number of people who can say "I have no sins today, Father. I am now perfect!"

The confession of a saint is marked not by the lack of awareness of sin, although grave sins would be absent, but by deep humility and a most sensitive awareness of even the slightest cloud to come between their conscience and the love of God.

In any case, how is spiritual progress encouraged by discouraging frequent confession? The confessional should be the very place where consciences are formed. Perhaps what we really need is better formation in the seminaries, and also during active ministry, in the discipline and wisdom of the confessional, as well as the art of spiritual direction.

The Penitential Life No Longer Understood

Friday abstinence has now been restored to England and Wales as a weekly obligation. That is all well and good, but in reality it is already a dead letter for the majority because the whole Catholic spirituality of penance and sacrifice is hardly understood, if at all, and the meaning of "obligation" in this regard has been presented in a very confused manner. Even as a public token of religious identity it is problematic when most people are unable to explain it properly even to themselves, let alone to others. With respect, it does seem to be getting the cart before the horse, to restore this minor sign of penitential living yet still to neglect the crying need for major re-catechesis on the sacrament of Penance and the penitential life.

We know of more than one case where confessions have actually been killed off completely in some parishes because priests have openly discouraged it, to the point of tacitly eliminating it altogether from the sacramental life of a parish. Sometimes an incoming parish priest will find a whole generation of teenagers who have never made their first confession. Far from being sharply rebuked by those in authority over them, the priests responsible for this situation have been allowed to continue and repeat this gross dereliction of duty in subsequent parishes.

Other, more widespread practices may not be as obviously scandalous, but they too have contributed to the erosion of confessional practice in recent years. Confessions "by appointment" only can be found on some parish newsletters. Needless to say this is a direct discouragement to all but the most committed or perhaps the most desperate. It immediately eliminates any possibility of anonymity, which is a penitent's right in Canon Law, turning the priest into a guru rather than the minister of God's healing grace. Private spiritual direction can be most valuable, it is true, and while this may also include confession and absolution, to make it the only means of coming to the sacrament will almost wholly exclude the majority of the faithful, especially the young. It sends out a message toeveryone that this sacrament is a relative rarity, not a regular and vital part of the path to sanctity.

Clerical Discouragement

A more common discouragement to regular confession is simply the absence of the priest even at the advertised times for confessions. Priests can themselves become discouraged when nobody comes during the lonely hour they sit in a cold confessional or "reconciliation room". They come to expect few or no penitents, so they go and get on with other things after a while. Maybe a few hardy regulars come immediately after the Saturday morning Mass, but when that trickle peters out the priest packs up and busies himself in the sacristy or the presbytery.

Meanwhile a penitent comes in only to find the Lord's minister of grace gone. Maybe this is the once-in-a-lifetime moment when they have plucked up the courage to confront some grave sin from the past, or perhaps they are returning to the Church after a long absence, or they are in some other spiritual need. If they do not simply go away crestfallen, the moment of grace fading in their hearts, they might pluck up the courage to enquire of the sacristan or at the presbytery door. Greeted with a quizzical look, they then overhear the priest summoned with the hardly soffo voce announcement, "Father, there's someone wants confession!", and after a short delay the good shepherd bustles in trying to project compassion and welcome, but actually exuding an air of being in a hurry, evenof being somewhat irritated at the interruption to his preparations for the wedding later in the day. The confession itself is therefore rather perfunctory, the absolution given with a slight sense of "was that all you bothered me for?" It isn't always like that, of course, but the scenario does come from experience.

Again, any hope of anonymity is impossible, but more importantly the message to the faithful is that confession is not a priority for the priest. It is tempting to regard it as a waste of time to wait in the confessional week after week with nobody coming, but the expectation of a lack of penitents becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. To stay and pray, offering penance to the Lord for all the souls in your parish would be a better strategy. At the very least it would be good time to catch up with the Divine Office.

Signs of Hope

To preach on the subject and on the sins of the day during the penitential seasons, even increasing the available times for confession as a witness to the value the Church places on it can have surprising effects. Above all in city centre parishes, cathedrals and student towns, where manpower allows - with an Oratory or religious order, for example -confessions really ought to be available as regularly and widely as possible. There are in fact a few such parishes, where individual confessions have dramatically increased in proportion to the generous availability of the priests. There is no reason why such examples of grace should remain a rarity.

But of course priests themselves must be convinced of the value of regular, individual, auricular confession for this to happen. There are still many conflicting and confusing opinions on the matter. Parish policies for celebrating the Sacrament of "Reconciliation", "Penance", "Pardon and Peace" or simply "Confession" can vary as much as the name. Most still have at least nominal times for hearing confessions sometime on a Saturday, but the greater emphasis is on Penance Services twice a year at Christmas and Easter.

The Pros and Cons of Penance Services

Penance Services were introduced in recent decades to emphasise the communal aspects of sin and the ecclesial dimension of the sacramental life, and also as a way to reintroduce large numbers of people to the practice of confession. They can also be useful in offering a variety of visiting confessors from across a deanery. They provide an opportunity to preach about repentance and give a guided examination of conscience; and they can help ensure that many parishioners fulfil their Easter duties. But there are downsides too.

Things can become unbalanced when the communal aspect begins to outweigh the needs of ministering to the individual conscience and the integrity of the sacrament. General Absolution is clearly forbidden in such ordinary circumstances. Yet the fact that it was quite widely misused for a number of years did much to undermine people's ability to examine their consciences. The idea that all sins, especially grave ones, need to be individually submitted to the judgment of the Church has been undermined by the practice of asking people to just confess a single sin or principal generic fault. In fact this is not a legitimate rite at all, as its sarcastic nickname, "Rite Two and a Half", suggests. Despite being forbidden it is still to be found in some places.

However, even when legitimately linked to individual, integral confessions, bi-annual Penance Services have created a culture where most parishioners only approach the sacrament twice a year. Some older people and priests argue that this is a liberation from their Jansenistic Irish upbringing, when they were that you could never approach Holy Communion without going to confession the day before. Hopefully one day we will find a healthy, mature balance between the extremes of rigorism and laxity.

Many people no longer know how to come quietly to confession when they are in need, often delaying the confession of grave sins for months on end, still coming to communion in the mean time. And there are many children who make their first confession and then hardly make another until they encounter a Penance Service at school or on a Youth Retreat, because there is no family practice or adult encouragement and example to teach them the habit.

In Search of the Lost Sheep

The other chief disadvantage of Penance Services is that they provide no opportunity of return for the lapsed and loosely attached, who will not know the dates and times of such celebrations, and may feel embarrassed by their very communal nature. It is not uncommon for all ordinary confession times to be cancelled during the week in which a Penance Service is held. This is disastrously unpastoral for many people, failing to respect the different needs and sensitivities of souls - above all, once again, the lost soul seeking to turn to God's mercy at the last minute.

Sadly the pernicious misinformation that hearing confessions is forbidden during the Triduum still persists in the minds of many Parish Priests. It simply isn't true. The rubrics in the missal specifically state that the Sacrament of Penance can be celebrated at any time. In fact the Triduum is the most fruitful and valuable time of grace for Reconciliation to be offered. After all, Our Blessed Lord personally reconciled the penitent thief while hanging on the cross, granting him a plenary indulgence too. Blessed John Paul II made a point of hearing confessions himself in St. Peter's on Good Friday. One can't help feeling that for some priests such a commitment would be seen as an inconvenience during the busy Easter liturgies and communion rounds, but isn't this to lose sight of thewhole point of those liturgies, and the whole point of being a priest?

The Call to Holiness

We need to rediscover the value of frequent confession as an invaluable aid to progress in the spiritual life. If, in the past, the sacrament came to be seen merely as legalistic box-ticking and "wiping the slate clean", it is not surprising that it became a chore and a bore in which sincerity and devotion were lacking, both for the people and for the priest. The answer should not have been to downplay regular confession, but to link it to priestly formation which imparts a clear awareness of the stages and struggles of the spiritual life. If, coupled with this formation, priests are committed to pray and do penance on behalf of their penitents - "saving souls" to use an old-fashioned term - they will be better equipped to give pertinent advice and appropriate penances. And if theSacrament of Penance is linked in the minds of the People of God to a concerted effort to become saints, then it will be seen as a true life-line and an essential part of the devout life.

Perhaps, then, this is the frame in which we should re-present the matter from the pulpit and in catechesis; that the world, and indeed the Church, urgently needs saints and a new age of holiness. Only in that regular and candid encounter between ourselves and Christ in the Sacrament of Reconciliation will we grasp two essential truths of the spiritual life: the depth to which sin has a hold over our fallen nature, and the far greater power of the grace of Christ ministered to us through his Church. Or to borrow the words of the Protestant John Newton, author of the hymn Amazing Grace: "That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour".

[1] From The Occupation of the Throne by Richard Ill by Dominic Mancini, who came to England in late 1482 to report back to the Archbishop of Vienne on English affairs.

Faith Magazine

March - April 2012