I remember when I was a teacher that one of the motivational techniques the Jesuits employed was to cultivate a healthy rivalry. There were sports competitions between houses, coupons for good conduct which could earn you a house tea, and classes were divided into Romans and Carthaginians battling to termly victory or defeat. Come the athletics season and the notion of competing against yourself to achieve a personal best was stressed. One pupil even produced a history homework in which he imagined himself as a soldier in the Somme trenches which began: “07.00: Stood-to on sniper duty. Shot six Germans; a regimental record and a personal best.”
For some reason, all of this was churning in my mind as I waited in the queue for Confession (for some considerable time, it must be said). This is not as random as it might at first appear, for it occurs to me that one can be in danger of examining one’s conscience according to the notion of a personal best. Sorrow for sin, according to St Alphonsus in his Praxis confessari, consists of attrition or contrition. Attrition is sorrow for sin because I understand it merits the pains of hell and am in danger of ending up there. Contrition is that I understand that I have offended against the infinite love of God who has chosen to love me, and who so desires me to be saved by becoming like Him that he has given the gift of himself to make this possible.
The former is motivated by fear and enlightened self-interest, the latter by recognising the interests of another, but both express faith in realities greater than oneself. The concept of sorrow because I have failed to achieve a personal best is not one St Alphonsus would approve of, yet I am aware of a hidden tendency partly to confuse sorrow for sin with the fact that I feel bad about myself. And increasingly I have noticed among penitents, and particularly among children who have clearly been taught to avoid “negative” concepts around Confession, that confessing actual sin is being replaced with things like, ‘‘I haven’t been the best person I could”, or “I just want to be a better person’’. Such self-absorption could well be pride, not sorrow.
Reading St Alphonsus’s manual for confessors is salutary. I have no doubt it would be regarded as excessively rigid today because he suggests testing a penitent’s real desire to amend their lives. This would even include an undertaking to avoid any occasions of sin. Someone habitually confessing the same sin could not presume that it would be instantly absolved – he suggests delaying absolution to make the person aware of their peril. He speaks of the fourfold role of the confessor. The first, that of Father, urges gentleness, but in the other roles of Doctor, Teacher or Judge, he sometimes counsels challenging penitents in a way that today would be thought unpastoral.
Yet he reveals a contemporary wisdom. He urges priests to form bishops’ consciences by asking if they deal with scandals in their dioceses and whether they know their seminarians’ characters well enough to ordain them. He counsels challenging seminarians to delay ordination if they cannot keep the Sixth Commandment, and tells confessors to insist that any penitent who has been abused by a priest must report the sin. For St Alphonsus, accompaniment is in relation to an objective standard, and not just a personal or pastoral best.