Confessionals are no longer ‘torture chambers’ and the Holy Father must know it

Pope Francis welcomes a young pilgrim before hearing confession in St. Peter's Square (CNS photo/Angelo Carconi, EPA)

Among the other excellent material put out by the CTS for this Year of Mercy, there is a booklet entitled The Beauty of Confession with Pope Francis: Discovering God’s Mercy, by Fr Donncha O hAodha.

Fr O hAodha quotes the Pope’s oft-quoted words of encouragement in this respect: “Do not be afraid! God is waiting for you! God is a father and he is always waiting for us! It is so wonderful to feel the merciful embrace of the Father in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to discover that the confessional is a place of mercy.”

Reading these words – and the many other occasions in which the Holy Father has reiterated in strong language the merciful nature of God – it is puzzling that in his Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetita, in footnote 351, quoting from his earlier Exhortation of 2013, Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope should “want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy.”

In his blog on the subject Fr George W Rutler, draws attention to this, writing “Any parish priest should wonder at the description of the confessional as a torture chamber.

“While it is only human when conflicted by guilt and uncertainty to approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation with trepidation, the radiance of the sacrament is inestimable in the life of the typical priest and penitent alike, and the agony of many souls and of the Church in our day can be traced in great measure to neglect of the gracious confessional.”

He adds that “speaking only of my own parish, in my confessional is a picture of the Prodigal Son and not the Grand Inquisitor.”

Fr Rutler thinks such a description is a straw man, “the rhetorical device of a weak argument.” It is hard to argue with this. Were confessionals a “torture chamber” when the Pope was growing up as a boy in Argentina?

His mention of the life-changing confession he made aged 17 to an unknown priest, belies this entirely. And further, even if it were the case 60 years ago, or during the popular Redemptorist missions of those days, when hell fire was a popular theme, it is certainly not the case today.

You only have to listen to the broadcasts of Michael Voris on to realise that Confession is a largely neglected sacrament today and the need to confess sins is barely mentioned in homilies.

The response of priests in this sacrament has always been, in my experience, compassionate. To do a quick survey of my contemporaries: a friend once told me that in her experience Opus Dei priests are more rigorous in Confession than the average priest, but she said this with approval, not fear.

Another friend told me that her parish priest sometimes dismissed her confessions as “not sins at all.” Someone else told me that he had once experienced a tough Confession but felt all the better for it afterwards.

The days of priests possibly abusing their power in the confessional to make penitents squirm are long gone – and the Holy Father must know it.

Incidentally, the CTS booklet also quotes St John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation of 1984, Reconciliation and Penance, his style characteristically different from our current Pope.

He warns priests that they too must frequent the sacrament: “The whole of his priestly existence suffers an inexorable decline if by negligence…he fails to receive the sacrament of penance at regular intervals and in a spirit of genuine faith and devotion…”

Perhaps we all need to hear more from priests about the need for confession, this extraordinary sacrament of God’s merciful love – theirs as well as ours?