The last time I went to Confession the young priest spoke with a strong foreign accent and was clearly unfamiliar with the English language. For one wild moment I contemplated confessing every possible sin I could think of. In that way I would have achieved a free pass for all my future reprobate behaviour. My thinking was theologically flawed but it triggered some thoughts on what has happened to the confessional in the last 40 years or so. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but some I have encountered suggest that the 40% of Catholics who used to confess monthly has now fallen to less than 10%.
In Catholic terms, Confession makes excellent sense. The Church’s power to forgive sins on Christ’s behalf is admirably clear in Scripture. Why would we ignore this “get out of jail free” facility handed out on a plate – even for minor sins, let alone those which can precipitate us into Hell. And we are assured of Grace to support us against sin in the future.
While no doubt it is our habit to examine our consciences on a daily basis, is not the prospect of Confession going to help us to be more thorough? Given the rate at which we are likely to sin, ought we not to come to terms with our frailty at a major service interval of once a month? I realise that in the old days we might have been given to reading out from tick lists suggested in our prayer books. But we don’t need to do that: we can carry out a thorough examination of our wicked ways or concentrate on one area which seems to require special attention. Not only do we help ourselves, but we give the poor priest something more interesting to think about.
In addition we expose ourselves to the danger of discovering that our conceit is preserving us from noticing that we may be doing wrong in ways which have not yet been recognised by us. This is the sense of guilt which Cardinal Ratzinger spoke about.
And it gives a general pleasure, too. Do you have any other certain way at your disposal to give joy to the Angels in Heaven? I suspect, not. In fact I believe that God has a penchant for sinners. When Catherine the Great said “Dieu me pardonnera, c’est son métier”, she was right.
The sacrament also reminds us of the need for a firm purpose of amendment. Agreed that this may seem empty when we realise that we have fallen again and again, yet it cannot harm, and may do good, just to keep trying.
Penances are remarkably trivial; they only just hint at the need to pay satisfaction for our sins. We must be grateful that it is not seven years or seven quarantines in sackcloth and ashes by the church porch. It’s one thing to be fined from dropping litter; it’s another to be fined for being litter. Certainly we get off lightly. (I have only just discovered, after many years, that a quarantine is 40 days; obvious when I think about it.)
Of course some of us don’t care for it much. It may take screwing courage up to the sticking place to confess to another human being, even if it’s through a grill. And what does he know? After all he may be half my age and nothing like so experienced. Ho hum! Don’t think that matters so much because it’s God’s forgiveness we seek. We don’t always get good advice from the clergy – so, when we do, that’s a bonus.
Confessions are not nowadays held so frequently or so accessibly as they once were. And whose fault it that? If the habit of Confession became popular the facilities would grow commensurately. It’s just supply and demand, really.
So why have we lost habit of Confession? Write your reasons on a single piece of paper and post it on the Blog. No stamp needed.