Catholics have accepted with resignation that their churches are shut for the duration of the lockdown. (As I write this I am aware that my own village Catholic church has such a small congregation on Sundays that we could all still attend Mass and keep the regulation distance from others by having a pew to ourselves.) And many have taken to watching Mass live-streamed from different places. Technology has its uses; my sister tells me that it now makes her sitting room seem a holy space on Sunday. But it is not possible to do likewise with the Sacrament of Confession.
In the US I read that one enterprising priest was organising “drive-in” Confessions, whereby he sat in his car near his church and penitents drove past, one by one, and wound down their windows. This ensured privacy and a personal encounter, both essential elements of the Sacrament. I rather wish that parish priests would consider doing this over here in the UK. What is to stop them? Fear of infection or fear of the bishops? I suspect the reason might simply be that Catholics don’t regard regular Confession as important anymore; certainly priests don’t preach about it and don’t make it clear that the Sacrament is available out of hours.
I write this having just read the chapters on Divine Mercy (the Feast celebrated on the Sunday after Easter) in Grace in Season: The Riches of the Gospel in Seventy Sermons, by Archbishop J. Augustine di Noia, OP (Cluny Media Publications.) Sermons 26-31 deal exclusively with different aspects of the meaning of divine mercy, reminding me forcibly of the Sacrament’s current unavailability.
Di Noia writes that “patiently waits for us in the Sacrament of Penance, a sacrament that might well and truly be called the “Sacrament of Divine Mercy”. He also points out that St John Paul II has spoken of “man’s right to a more personal encounter with the crucified forgiving Christ”; also “a right on Christ’s part with regard to every human being redeemed by him: his right to meet each one of us in that key moment in a soul’s life constituted by the moment of conversion and forgiveness.”
Di Noia emphasises that this “right” to a personal encounter with Christ “cannot be compromised” by reducing it to the “occasions of communal penance services” at Advent and Lent. To fully experience divine mercy in its sacramental form “demands a discipline of frequent and regular confession.” Reading the memoirs of the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s niece recently, I was struck by her memory as a child, of watching him go to Confession every Saturday to a fellow priest; he taught her its importance, she says, simply by his example, not by preaching.
Archbishop di Noia comments that “Sometimes, though, rather than seek out the grace of the Sacrament of Mercy, we may prefer to remain behind locked doors.” Published last year, before the pandemic has caused a worldwide lockdown, nonetheless, the author was more prescient than he could have known. We are forced, more or less, to live behind “locked doors” at present; and our churches, where we usually attend Mass and go to Confession, are also locked. Yet we still need to unburden our consciences in person, to Christ in the person of a priest. Bishops and priests should find a way to make this possible. This Sacrament cannot be live-streamed into our sitting rooms; we need to kneel down, and to hear those infinitely consoling words “I absolve you of your sins…”
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