Pope Francis likes to remind us that the confessional is not supposed to be “a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy”. Who would disagree? Who has known different? It’s very rare nowadays for priests to turn into the Spanish Inquisition. In my experience, the biggest problem is a confessor who insists that you’ve done nothing wrong.
The Pope’s words betray a generational divide. He grew up in an era when the practice was more widespread and, probably, more intimidating. Catholics of a certain age tell stories of priests who would interrogate them over the smallest of things and demand outsized penances: 30 Hail Marys for hiccupping at Mass.
But since the 1960s, the culture of the Church has been subtly influenced by political correctness, psychiatry and a rising level of emotional intelligence. Penalties have probably become more lenient. A priest once told me that my penance for a week of sin was to attend Mass. Now, I know they can be rather long and involved – but aren’t Masses an obligation already?
The most galling aspect of the modern confessional is usually the queues. At Christmas it’s like trying to get into the Harrods sale. Queue-watching is fun: who will be quick and who’ll take forever? An overweight gentleman doing a crossword will take no more than three minutes. For people like that, confessions are about as torturous as dropping dirty laundry off at the dry cleaners. But the old lady on sticks, arthritically shuffling towards the confessional, is going to take upwards of half an hour.
I once sat next to an Irish drunk – he hummed like a rubbish tip – who lost his patience with a slow-talking pensioner, got up and banged on the door shouting: “There’s no need to give him your life story!”
Priests can make mistakes, too. God forgive me, but they can. Bad confessions, although entirely valid, usually fall into two categories: too long and too short.
We had a priest who liked them long at a church near where I worked in London. I’d pop in for Mass at midday and once made the mistake of thinking I could quickly relieve myself of my sins before going back to work. Half an hour later and we were still discussing my failure to pray before bedtime – in heavily accented English, sprinkled with what I think was Portuguese.
Some of these clerics are just disciplinarians; some approach the subject as if they were Columbo trying to get to the bottom of the case. Some might be lonely. I have been asked in a cathedral confessional if I was a spy. I said no and then we had a chat through the grille about spies. Lot of them about, apparently.
The very short confession, however, can be the most upsetting. Scandalous, even. A few months ago I was about five minutes into a confession when the priest decided he’d heard enough. “You’re going on too long,” he snapped. “It’s supposed to be an act of reconciliation, not your life story. I will forgive you now.” He did, and I left. I walked away feeling hurt. It takes some people a lot of courage to unburden themselves. It should surely be treated as a very serious matter, worthy of the priest’s time.
I write all this with tremendous affection and respect. The vast majority of priests do not torture or upset their flock. If anything, it’s probably the other way around. How many times does the priest encounter a bore? How many times does he meet a traddie pedant who insists that something’s a serious crime when even St Peter would regard it as a minor infraction? Or, conversely, a liberal who comes to offer up his sins only to declare that they’re not really sins and the priest needs to “move with the times”? I think there’s a lot that priests don’t admit to about how hard their job is. I wonder sometimes if being admonished so much by society, and even parts of the clerical hierarchy, doesn’t make things all the harder.
The Pope is right to say that we all need to do a better job of presenting confession to the outside world as an embrace between laity and Church.
The sinners bring their sins, the Church opens its arms. Far from a torture, it’s one of the greatest gifts that God gives us. A good confession is like a bracing shower. Afterwards, I feel clean. It lasts about 30 minutes. It’s life, with its myriad temptations, that’s the torture. Not the grace of the confessional.
Tim Stanley is a Daily Telegraph columnist, historian and contributing editor of the Catholic Herald