So how is it, some wonder, that Catholics willingly submit to regular encounters where we confront our hidden faults and admit them to another?
For a good few years now I have been a member of a small (all-male) book group. We are, I suppose, a pretty typical bunch of ageing, white, Oxford males; we are a lexicographer, an architect, an engineer, a social worker and a psychiatrist (all now retired, more or less) and every month or so (at least before the Great Pestilence) we gather for a beer, a gossip and even, sometimes, some chat about the book. And the talk has sometimes turned to Confession; why we Catholics do it, what’s it like and what we get out of it.
As the only Catholic in the group (but not the only Christian) I tend not to stress the spiritual aspects of the sacrament but its human appeal.
To someone who has never made a Confession I can see why the whole notion is intimidating (why would you admit all your awful faults to someone else even if they’re bound by solemn vow never to tell? I can see that looks like a big risk); so I concentrate on the positive psychological benefits of Confession and make the comparison with secular psychiatric practice.
After all the non-religious troubled-in-mind will, if they have the means, readily turn to a psychiatrist or counsellor to unburden themselves which is in some ways analogous to Confession stripped of its sacerdotal and spiritual elements. And, what’s more, I tell my friends, it’s free!
To someone who has never made a Confession I can see why the whole notion is intimidating.
There is also a warm human aspect to Catholic Confession which never makes it into the official accounts; it is sacramental, yes, but it is also an interaction embedded in the ordinariness of life. Confession can be liberating, deeply spiritual and comforting but it can also have its lighter moments. Once, many years ago when I was in my twenties and only an occasional visitor to the confessional, I went to the little church in the Somerset town where my parents lived. It was a quiet Saturday afternoon, about three o’clock, and I took my place in the short queue.
The priest – an old Irishman – tended to be a fairly workmanlike confessor and I didn’t have to wait long; I went into the cubicle knelt down and started the familiar formula only to be interrupted; “Just hold on a minute, son” came the rich Mayo brogue through the grille “I’m just going back into the presbytery. I want to see the 3.15”. And I was left cooling my heels until the outcome from Doncaster (or wherever) was known.
As I recall, I got a light-ish penance when service resumed. It might seem shocking to some that the old priest felt the horse race took precedence; it didn’t to me – rather it seemed to underline the way in which Confession is not some scary ordeal but ultimately a reassuring human activity but one which is imbued with a profound spiritual content. And I do wonder why it is that other denominations forego what seem to me the obvious attractions of regular Confession.
There is also a warm human aspect to Catholic Confession which never makes it into the official accounts; it is sacramental, yes, but it is also an interaction embedded in the ordinariness of life. Confession can be liberating, deeply spiritual and comforting.
In the Church of England a minority in the anglo-Catholic tradition do regularly confess but for the more orthodox Protestant, Confession is frowned upon. Luther decreed that there were only two sacraments – Baptism and the Eucharist – condemning the other five (Confirmation, Confession, Marriage, Orders and Extreme Unction) as accretions established by church practice but unauthorised by scripture. Most Church of England worshippers make do with the “general Confession” established as a normal part of the liturgy in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
I have witnessed this when, as I sometimes do, I attend college evensong (one of the joys of living in Oxford is that these beautiful services are open to all; a rare privilege) and it is a lovely prayer with solemn and beautiful words. But reciting it – along with the rest of the congregation – is nothing like making an individual Confession. One-to-one is the real deal because it makes us examine our lives and pass some kind of judgement on ourselves (the only person that we are entitled to judge) and vocalising our faults makes it more significant.
There is a substantial amount of academic literature about Confession most of it referring to what might be termed “secular confession” – the kind an individual might make to a policeman or other authority figure. And, unsurprisingly, the literature shows that after confessing there is a general sense of release and relief; the burden of guilt is removed. This must be to do with the psychological tension which is created by the effort of sustaining a deliberate untruth; by acknowledging wrongdoing on our own part we face up to a personal truth and feel the better for it. And – one might speculate – any society in which personal Confession is widely practised would be the better for it.
A senior Dublin policeman – a man coming toward the end of his career – recounted to me his experience of being a young rural gardai back in the 1960s. He said that the habit of Confession was so ingrained in the area that most miscreants needed hardly any prompting to own up. As soon as they were arrested most of them obligingly spilt the beans. Naturally it made his job much easier – and kept the crime rate low. But that was old Ireland, a vanished world; at the time we spoke – nearly 20 years ago – this same policeman was operating in a very different Ireland – a country which was in the process of jettisoning the Catholicity which was its distinguishing feature and which made it so refreshingly different.
By acknowledging wrongdoing on our own part we face up to a personal truth and feel the better for it. And – one might speculate – any society in which personal Confession is widely practised would be the better for it.
To some non-Catholics there will always be resistance to the idea of personal Confession. I have sometimes heard the argument that Confession makes it all too easy for us Catholics; we sin, we confess, we sin again and usually in exactly the same way. And this depressing, habitual failure raises the question what is the point of our “firm purpose of amendment” when , if we are honest, we know that in all likelihood we will go on sinning?
I think it comes down to this: as Catholics we are taught to believe in the infinite mercy of God, that our transgressions can always be forgiven because that is the prize that Christ’s sacrifice gained for us. All that is required of us is to admit our failing and keep on trying to improve. Because of that the Sacrament of Reconciliation becomes an inexhaustible resource which we can endlessly draw upon. And I, along with millions of others, give thanks for that.
Robin Aitken was a BBC reporter for 25 years and is now a freelance writer and journalist; his latest book The Noble Liar (Biteback) is now out, in a new edition.
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