It is easy to forget that Advent is a penitential season, especially if you are invited to numerous Christmas parties before the Christmas season begins, or if you are subjected to Christmas carols (rather than proper advent hymns) in pubs, shops and clubs in the lead up to December 25. But one welcome and counter-cultural development is the Advent penitential service that seems to be a fixture now in many parishes. I have been to several this year already. Almost all parishes seem to have them, and I certainly consider them worthwhile.
The best penitential service is, to my mind, the simplest of all: perhaps an introductory hymn, a prayer, a brief reflection, and then the chance for individual confessions. If there are lots of priests there, the individual penitent does not have to worry that he or she is holding up the queue, but can spend as long as required talking to the priest. And then, having received individual penance and absolution, the people are free to go. I don’t think one really needs anything else.
The guided examination of conscience is rather important; it can help a great deal if it is sensitively done. And here we get to the nub of the question. We all know that in recent decades the number of people going to confession in our churches in England and Wales (and I can’t imagine Scotland is much different) has fallen off dramatically. Why is this? It hasn’t happened, strangely enough, in Italy, where people still go to confession in considerable numbers. Or in Kenya, where I often used to hear confessions during days of recollection for young people.
Is there something in our national character which stops us going to confession as often as we might?
Or is it that we simply do not need to go?
Or is it that we have not been properly catechised, and that we do not know just how rewarding regular and frequent confession can be, and indeed how essential for progress in the spiritual life?
I think the answer might be a combination of the first and third options, not the second. I wonder what other people think? And if they have any suggestions that, if put into practice, might lead to a revival of this essential Catholic practice?