Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Dont be resigned to empty confessionals (2)

Sandro Magister says the Pope and Cardinal Martini both feel Confession needs to be revitalised. I think the same problem of participatio actuoso exists in the Confessional as it does in the Mass. When I was at the seminary we were occasionally admonished not to make "shopping list confessions" or worst told to discourage people from doing it.

I make shopping list confessions.
Worst, unfortunately the confessions I make today are the same, more or less, as I made twenty years ago. One priest I used to go to confession to used to say, "Same old sinner, same old sins, same old God, same old forgiveness." Most peoples confessions are the same year in year out, hopefully we learn to love God more and hate sin more, rarely do we find new sins to commit.

Confession should lead to conversion but there are two types of confession, those which are about grave sins, often after years of inner struggle and being absent from the sacraments, involving the direct breaking of the commandments: killing often in the form of abortion, adultery, serious theft etc. However most practicing Catholics hopefully make regularly and frequent confessions, JPII recommended monthly, the Code of Canon Law says priest and religious should go at least fortnightly, which tends to mean there is very little that is exciting, it is the slow grind of lifelong conversion, the slow drip drip of the Holy Spirit.

Some priests find this type of confession tedious, and yes, it can be like being pecked to death by ducks. Not everyone comes to confession with tears and trembling, and even if they do it is quite likely they will be back the next week or month with the same sins, and with or without the same tears and trembling. Whats wrong with that? That is what I do as a penitent, sometimes I manage to overcome a sinful habit for a while, then it comes back. The important thing is I renew my sorrow for sin and my love for Christ and allow him to deal with my cold hard perverse heart.

St Theresa of Avila says , "God judges our hearts, not our actions", the more willing we are to confess the more likely it is our heart is placed at Christ's feet, even if in reality we behave like naughty toddlers, hiding at the end of the garden for a while, the important thing is we come back to the pulsating love of the Heart of Christ.

The confessions I have problems with are, "Last Easter/Christmas was the last time I was at confession, I have missed Mass twice and I might have been uncharitable a few times, for these and all my sins I am truly sorry....". This is where there seems to be a lack of participatio actuoso, an engagement of the heart, but apart from encouraging more frequent confession and perhaps gently running through the commandments, I am not sure what one can do, except preach about how much God loves us and emphasise the importance of species and number. What no priest has a right to do is to discourage anyone seeking God's mercy.


Joe of St. Thérèse said...


Mark said...

Two or three months ago you posted up a video of an American priest telling people how to make their confession, and explaining the slightly idiosyncratic way he went about hearing confessions. He was very funny, but also very inspiring, and I'd be prepared to bet that in his parish a lot of people go to confession on a regular basis.

Bernadette said...

"I am not sure what one can do"

I have a few ideas:

1. Withhold absolution. If I were to go down the gym twice a year and expect my body to be forgiving and fit and healthy I would expect a good fitness trainer to tell me straight that I need to get into a much more regular habit of coming down the gym, or forget it.

If I ran a business and only banked my cheques twice a year I'd expect the bank manager to give me a bit of advice.

Why is it we think that checking in with God once or twice a year is fine for our spiritual health ? It isn't. That's not being unkind or uncharitable, it is a brutal fact. It's about forming healthy habits.

2. Unless we ask for the GRACE to go to confession and then to make a good confession, we are fooling ourselves and worse, fooling God. I take the view that we can do nothing in our own strength, especially not confession. We need Grace. Far be it from me to dole out advice, but how about before the confession routine starts, praying with the person for the Grace that he or she will make a good confession. Remind them that like the father of the Prodigal son, God is waiting to run out to meet us, so we have absolutely nothing to fear from Him - he is all mercy and kindness, waiting for us to return. Add that he/she should ignore you and understand that you are here to represent Christ's forgiveness and healing. Ask them to wait for one minute in silence to really search their hearts and ask why God has called the three of you here right now and to then begin their confession. What is it that has prompted them to come here today ? What has happened ? Where are they in their faith ? is it string, is it weak ? what is troubling them ?

That, I would suggest is how to move away from the shopping list.

I am not an expert, but you know... we have to revive this sacrament somehow Fr Ray.

Fr Ray Blake said...

I am sure that is exactly what not to do!

I would hate to have a reputation as being mean with God's mercy.

We can't play with the Rites of the Church.

berenike said...

Father, do you say the "May the Lord be in your heart ..." prayer at the beginning? I used to go to a priest who used the old wotsit, and then to a religious whose order had more or less the same as the old version of confession in the Roman rite, and I rather miss it now :-(

Maybe something like the list that is in that nice prayer book produced by Opus Dei/Scepter, or on the internet: quite long lists of things that make you go "oh, I never thought of that!" - or a selection from them. You could leave copies in the pews. Or mock examples: invent Ian, Kerry and Lisa and what they confess. It's quite hard to get into at first, especially if you don't read much pious literature or suchlike. People just don't know what to look for - it's not as though from the telly or the papers one gets an idea of what sins might look like in the boring everyday. The other thing is that some people may have been mocked for "piety", or heard priests mocking "piety" - and thus think "well, that would just be being morbidly and ostentatiously pious, to say this or that is a sin" - the smallness seems pathetic.

I was rather stuck on how to do the whole everyday boring confession thing for a long time - this book explained everything to me and made it concrete and applicable and and and:

Frequent Confession: Its Place in the Spiritual Life, Dom Benedict Baur

Hugely recommended.

Prayers for inspiration in the box, Father!

Anonymous said...

It's sort of sad where I live (U.S.A.). I remember going to a priest once with a very heavy heart. He told me to make a "shopping list" so I wouldn't waste his time. That was so many years ago, but I never forgot, and my confessions haven't been the same since. I go to confession for forgiveness, and if I need spiritual guidance, I pray for God to show me how and where to get it. I don't like to bother the priests when they are so busy.

Years later I moved across town. Here we have limited confession times. But every Advent and Lent there are communal penance services. The people gather in droves at parishes throughout the city, recite the Act of Contrition together, and line up like cattle to all the priests who showed up in one place.

I prayed last Easter about this, and spoke up to a priest I know. God must have heard me because at least 2 parishes in our city actually offered confession during Holy Week this year, even on Holy Saturday. It was a special gift, because God never withholds His mercy!

Amanda said...

Thank you Fr Ray!! I can't tell you how happy these posts (especially pt2) have made me!! As a convert I have always found Confession very difficult. I only began going regularly 2yrs ago, then stopped and ran and hid for 9mths. I went back last Christmas & have been going regularly (monthly) since then but it really didn't get any easier untill Easter, when something clicked into place. Your description of the shopping list of the same sins (and the crying - please would someone put a box of tissues in there?!) is so like me.... I always felt so bad about that & yet I knew I wanted to change. Then a little while ago I read an article where a Church leader was saying that there was no point to frequent confession because you get the same pennitents with the same sins & no conversion taking place. This really troubled me & did not ring true in my own heart. Your words feel like the final piece of the puzzle for me!

Adulio said...

I am sure that is exactly what not to do!

I would hate to have a reputation as being mean with God's mercy.

We can't play with the Rites of the Church.

Would you say that St. Philip Neri, St. John Vianney and St. Pio were mean too?

(They all withheld absolution to those who were unrepentant - mind you they also have the gift of discernment too!)

GOR said...

Very true, Father. Yes it can be tedious for the confessor and the penitent that the ‘list’ is repetitive week in and week out. Kind of like St. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”, that he asked God to remove repeatedly. But as one wise priest noted “Better that it be the same sins, rather than a new batch each time…”

While number and kind are essential, I think there is an expectation on the part of some confessors that if the time between confessions is long, the list should be correspondingly long. Case in point: I used to go weekly until about two years ago when my regular confessor relocated. Recently I went to a different confessor. My ‘list’ wasn’t any longer than when I confessed weekly – same old sins. The confessor said: “Welcome back! Now I want you to come back in two weeks and first make a good examination of conscience…”

My impression was that he assumed I hadn’t made a good examination of conscience and - given the timeframe - should have had a longer ‘list’…

I had - and I didn’t. Same old sins…

One of the things I think we forget about Confession – apart from the absolution – is the fact of increased grace imparted through the Sacrament. People tend to assume that confession is for the Mortal sins – and it is too – but it is also to help us to increase in virtue and reduce the Venial sins.

When I make my Act of Contrition and promise “not to sin again”, I am conscious of the fact that I most likely will sin again and it will probably be the same sins I always struggle with! But there is always the hope that this time maybe, with God’s grace, I will be able to overcome one or more of them. “My grace is sufficient for thee” is never far from the surface.

The other factor which I believe keeps people from confession - and especially from regular confession – is the realization, derived from the act of confessing, that I should be doing more about my sinfulness (God’s grace at work…). It may start with just a ‘human respect’ aspect of being embarrassed to confess the same failings week after week. But, again with God’s grace, it may develop into a true realization that my sinfulness offends God, ‘crucifies Christ again’ and shows little remorse for my unfaithfulness.

Perfection is a goal to strive for - but for most of us it will hardly be achieved this side of Heaven. St. Teresa of Avila we’re not - and we’ll probably spend our lives in the Purgative State, not in the Illuminative or Unitive. But God’s grace is all-powerful - and nothing is impossible for Him.

gemoftheocean said...

A while back I had occasion to visit a church I was unfamiliar with San Diego. It had fairly unremarkable features BUT there was this delightful collection fellows just outside the confession box. Nice reminders!!

Not exactly the Pep Boys or the 7 Dwarves!

gemoftheocean said...

[And Bernadette? Withhold confession? Are you mad? Do that on that one, and some people would never darken the confessional door again. EVER.]

Fr Ray Blake said...

Obviously absolution should be witheld if there is absolutely no sign of repentence but that is very difficult to discern but some people have a deep seated difficult in disclosing sin.

Some confessors can gently say hard things which encourage and inflame hearts, whilst others will say the same thing and snuff out the smouldering ember.
Always, one should give the penitent the benefit of the doubt, its God's mercy not the priests.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Maybe the Holy Father could start with Rome. In his own diocese, there are more than nine hundred churches, and these have large numbers of empty, dusty confessionals. I have yet to go into any Roman church, other than St. Peter's or Mary Major, at any time of the day or night that has had more than one confessional going. And that one is usually a rare sight. Confession times are not posted in most cases and in the few places where there is a posted schedule, the confessionals are often unmanned during those times.

Charity begins at home, your holiness.

Jason Gennaro said...

Excellent post Fr. Ray.

I am a frequent penitent, availing myself of God's great mercy about once a week. I can truly say that participating in this sacrament has changed my life!

I do agree with you that confession needs to be revitalized. And I think you are correct in noting that priests could be "encouraging more frequent confession and perhaps gently running through the commandments".

Although I would go a step further in each case.

In order to practice more frequent confession, confession must be available. In many parishes in Canada, confessions are offered only for 1/2 to 1 hour before the Vigil Mass Saturday afternoon. For many (maybe most?), this is prohibitive. Is it possible to offer confessions one or more evenings during the week? In a parish with more than one priest, could confessions be heard before most Masses? I know that parish duties are increasing and a priest's time is constrained, but I wonder if more opportunities would allow for more people to participate. Deo gratias, I am blessed to work close to several busy downtown parishes that offer confession with their daily morning and noon Masses.

Also, I think that lay persons need to be taught about sin, its forms, and the gravity of abiding in sin. It is impossible to come to a full understanding of God's abundant love without knowing intimately the disease of sin. Hence the problem with those confessions you dislike. Those people do not understand sin. Rather than "gently running through" the Ten Commandments, I think people need to be catechized. Most importantly, they need to be taught how to make an examination of conscience. Fr. Robert Altier has posted an excellent examination: (warning: this is a pdf)

Thank you Fr. for your thoughts and your wonderful gift of the priesthood... without which I would have no confession! Happy Year for Priests!

Volpius Leonius said...

Thank you for that Father.

And thank you for not withholding absolution from us poor sinners, what Bernadette fails to realise is that it is the absolution received through confession that restores us sinners back to the life of grace that will make it possible for us to become better Catholics.

The Saints who on very few occasions denied absolution had the gift of been able to read hearts and knowing without doubt that it was right for that particular penitent, such a gift is not common among priests and those who do not have it are stuck with prudently giving people the benefit of the doubt with concerns to whether they are serious about their confession or not.

The Church only commands we confess serious sins once a year, is Father Blake to make a new rule just for Catholics in his parish, one far more demanding than the Church has ever in her whole history ever had?

You cannot force people to be holy.

Bernadette said...

With the greatest of respect, Fr Ray, you have personally been given the authority and power through the ministry of the Church to absolve those sins you absolve and to retain those sins you retain. I am fairly certain I understood Jesus' words, however harsh they kight seem. They are beautifully simple. He gave the power and authiority TO absolve and NOT to absolve sins. IT is not loving to absolve someone of their sins if you feel the person is wearing a mask or not making a genuine confession.

Jesus always challenged people. Think of the woman at the well. Once He had dealt with the hypocrites, he then challenged her. He did not condone her sin - he asked her to go away and sin no more. He did not say "It's fine. That lot are just a bit over-dramatic. Forget it, you've done nothing wrong, love."

It is a bit like taking for granted something that is free.
Our naturally selfish human nature has a tendency to abuse and misunderstand that gift. (ask any NHS dentist at the moment. The number of no-show appointments is staggering) We need direction, help and guidance about HOW to confess.

We must never take God's mercy for granted, and that authority is in your hands, Fr. Ray.

YOU have the God-given, Biblical right and protection of The Church to refuse absolution. It is an Act of Love.

One short story: A woman I knew went to confession and came out crying. The priest had refused her absolution. Long story short: her husband had committed adultery and left and she could not forgive him. Her "confession" was all about telling how she hated her husband and couldn't ever forgive him. she had said and done trible things and WAS sorry but could never ever ever forgive him. The priest had listened. He had weighed it up. He saw the mortal peril this woman's soul was in. He witheld absolution. The woman's grief was palable. I sat and talked with her for a few hours that evening and the next day. She returned to confession the next day and received absolution.

Fr Ray - What state would her faith and her soul be in today had that priest not acted in the love and kindness that he did ?

Do you see my point ?

Bernadette said...

"what Bernadette fails to realise is that it is the absolution received through confession that restores us sinners back to the life of grace that will make it possible for us to become better Catholics."

What Bernadette realises, as a sinner herself, VL, is that God's mercy must never be presumed: Presumed to the extent that that we stop seeking the sacrament; presumed to the extent that we start being unable to recognise our own sin; presumed to the extent that we eventually believe we are the architects of our own salvation...

I sin like I breath, VL. This is why I know what I am talking about. Human beings need sheperding.

The Absolutuiojn received through confession is an aloejh concpet to most Catholics. Why ? They have experienced it being witheld.

It's like turning on the tap for water. It will always be there, right??


Fr Ray Blake said...

In that situation Bernardette, if there was no confession, I might consider delaying absolution, but I would search some contrition first.
I would certainly ask why she had come to confession.

berenike said...

(I made those suggestions by thinking of what would have helped me when I started going to confession more than once every eighteen months, what I wished I had, and what did help me - I didn't mean to sound as though 'people' meant 'those folk over there, not me')

Fr Ray Blake said...

Bernardette, calm down! I have just rejected your last 3 comments!
They are insulting!

Bernadette said...

Sorry Fr Ray, I just believe in the Sacrsment of confession.

But I do realise it sometimes touches a nerve.

I should stop talking about it !

"I'm OK, You're Ok " - have you read it ? Lots of people say it's really really good. I suspect they might be right.

Volpius Leonius said...

"What Bernadette realises, as a sinner herself, VL, is that God's mercy must never be presumed"

A person seeking absolution from the priest is not been presumptuous though Bernadette, on the contrary they are acknowledging that they need absolution by the fact that they are asking for it.

Christ never turned away a sinner who approached Him for aid, the old priests used to go out into the community and cajole the reluctant to make their confessions the complete opposite of turning away people who actually come to the priest for absolution.

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