Good confessors are like thorough doctors. By treating sins firmly they save lives

An open-air Mass in Zagreb, Croatia. 'I need patience and humility to return to the dark, private box and admit that I've slipped up again' (Photo: CNS)

I made my first Confession when I was eight. My most glaring sins were that I’d pinched perfumed notepaper from another girl, I’d wished ill on one of my teachers for belittling my schoolwork as “atrocious” and I was jealous to the point of spitefulness of kids who won competitions. I persisted in these sins for a few years but thankfully I grew out of them, and am no longer tempted by pink notepaper with rose scent.

At the dawn of 2016, a mere two weeks ago, I made a list of resolutions-to-combat-sin that I’ve been struggling to keep. To be fair, I’ve kept off the gin. I have gone from enjoying a regular G&T with my friends to having one as a special treat. But I’ve not quite cut out rudely interrupting others in company or my other peccadilloes. So I’m faced with going back to Confession and asking the Lord to forgive the same sins that I had made a firm resolution not to do again. And with God’s grace I’ll grow out of them and overcome my bad tendencies in time. It comforts me that we have different sets of temptations and different sins at different stages in our lives.

But in the meantime I need the patience and humility to return to the dark, private box and admit that I’ve slipped up again. To look forward to the clean slate, the newly cleaned soul and, after the priest gives me absolution, the lightness and sweet joy that fills one as though helium lifted our feet.

In my lifetime, I’ve noticed a sharp change in the attitudes of confessors. When I was growing up, ‘the father trendies’ who were formed and ordained in the 1970s were quick to tell you that something listed in the Catechism as being a sin was no longer considered such. Nowadays, the young priests are more likely to be ‘conservative’ and labelled as ‘throwbacks’ by their more liberal fellow priests, and they are stricter. They ask how often you have committed a certain sin and what measures you are taking to prevent a relapse. These bright-white collared men of the cloth are like thorough doctors. They press until it hurts and they find the wound that needs treating.

There needs, of course, to be a balance. I think this new breed of priest, so eager for their penitents to stop sinning, may want to be gentle and not come down overly hard on smaller sins (for fear they put the person on the other side of the grille off returning to Confession).

I do, however, support these zealous priests in taking serious sins seriously, in particular sins that may be fatal. This was made real for me when I read what my colleague John Carmichael wrote about the dangers of alcoholics relapsing: “Since it is so often deadly, it is deathly important for the alcoholic or addict to avoid relapse, whether ‘relapse’ is understood in purely medical or spiritual terms. All of us who are now sober know of a person who relapsed and died. If we help other alcoholics, we often end up attending some funerals.”

To the modern mind, it may seem like manipulation if a priest reminds an addicted person of the people who rely on them and to take into consideration their loved ones and what would become of those who are dependent on them if they drown in the sauce.

A priest who does their utmost to help a person not relapse into addiction or another type of fatal sin may be saving many lives. The renewal in preaching the rosary is a great accompaniment to regular Confession. The rosary is perhaps the greatest prayer in strengthening one to become strong enough to tackle our weaknesses and failings that lead us to wrong ourselves and wrong others.

There are occasions when the penitent is hard on the priest. I remember one time when a fellow Latin Mass-goer went to Confession with a priest who had been trained to offer the Novus Ordo. At the beginning the penitent asked to see the priest’s certificate of ordination. As penance they got a whole rosary.