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Many Catholics in Britain do not grasp how important and rewarding regular Confession can be

Why has the practice dropped off so dramatically here, but not in Italy, say, or Kenya?

By on Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Confessions are heard at World Youth Day in Madrid (Photo: CNS)

Confessions are heard at World Youth Day in Madrid (Photo: CNS)

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?

  • Cathypyx

    Our service is this evening and I can guarantee the majority will be elderly or very young.  Those inbetweeners have totally lost the plot with regard to what constitutes sin.  A discussion in the parish office, of all places, was considering whether missing Mass on a Sunday was still a mortal sin.  Is taking the contraceptive pill a mortal sin?  If a person is either separated or divorced and they form another relationship can they continue to receive Communion?  Is sex out of marriage still a mortal sin?  In my experience the Catholic clergy in this country have sat of the fence for far too long and are frightened of alienating the current dwindling mass attenders by giving answers to the above.  People are confused and to attend the Sacrament of Reconcilliation and be told that living with the person you love is against the Catholic church will only stop more people from receiving this beautiful Sacrament

  • October671

    It would be good if priests actually mentioned it from time to time!

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    I do.

  • Bob Hayes

    A timely article Fr Alexander. Like you, I suspect the principal reasons for the decline (in England and Wales at least) are a combination of your first and third suggestions. 

    In regard to the first proposition, over recent decades many people have become adept at ducking responsibility for their own conduct and/or adopting a hedonistic approach to ‘choice’. With such a frame of reference it is easy to see how ‘confession’ might appear irrelevant. Choice is enshrined in secular ‘rights’; therefore why confess to exercising a right? Similarly, even when wrongdoing is recognised by the wrongdoer culpability is often believed to be diminished owing to the alleged failure of others (e.g. teachers, parents, the State, clergy etc.); therefore why confess when culpability is ‘outsourced’?

    In regard to your third proposition, I suspect perceptions of what the Sacrament of Reconciliation entails may be significantly shaped by a sort of urban mythology. Catechesis will need to overcome these myths in addition to setting-out the purpose and great joy of the sacrament.

    On a personal note, in early May this year I partook of the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time in about forty years. (I was totally lapsed.) As I waited (there was a reassuringly lengthy queue of people of all ages at Westminster Cathedral on a Sunday afternoon) I became increasingly anxious. As is the case in these circumstances, my ‘turn’ came ever so quickly! With a crackling voice I made a start: I had a lot to tell. In what seemed a very short space of time, the anxiety evaporated and I experienced a very real sense of liberation as I confessed my sins. The priest was reassuring and supportive, urging me to find my local parish and start attending Mass. This I did. The next two or three confessions were still preceded by a degree of anxiety – the urban mythology again? As before anxiety evaporated once I began to participate in the sacrament. Now I find it an entirely liberating experience, which gives me the opportunity to confess and confront my sins and endeavour not to repeat them. 

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Thanks, Bob. I hope your experience encourages others.

  • Tiddles the Cat

    My fiance returned to the Church after several years away from the practise of his Faith after he went to confession. We both attend penitential services which include opportunities for individual confession, which is a brilliant idea as well as being well attended.

  • Julian Green

    I blame semi- and full blown Pelagianism which are rife in the Catholic Church in this country.

  • The Moz

    I agree the benefits if only psychological are incredible – you feel as if a boulder has been lifter from you….but it just takes so much courage to face your own sins and to admit to them to another person…well what could be harder for us spoiled westerners to do?

  • AB

    It helps a lot if priests mention it regularly, in a matter-of-fact way (absolutely without scolding) as if regular confession were a natural part of the Catholic life – which it is. Also, I have to say I would find it harder to go if the only option were face-to-face as in the picture above. To me the relative formality of the traditional confessional is a help, not a hindrance. One is more conscious of the sacramental nature of what one is doing. I think for us northern Europeans especially it’s important to underline the fact that sacramental confession is an encounter with God, not just a private unburdening of oneself to a priest. I for one feel no inclination at all to confess just for the sake of confessing.

  • JMunro

    I have just said ‘semi-blown Pelagianism’ for the first time and felt a sudden, sinful frisson…

  • Hglowe

    Nothing greater than a priest sitting in the confessional. Or a priest who will gladly ‘confess you’ when you knock on his door. Christ longs not only to forgive but to heal and  good frequent confession  is the means ‘par excellence’ for this.  Within the Church in Britain we undervalue  the joy of  God’ s mercy  in this  sacrament and  are too stingy administering it.  We say they will sin again and there is no point. God is far more merciful and patient. People have up-rooted habits of venial sin of the years through this sacrament and their lives are testament to its power. Not making genuine  resolutions  is the exception to the rule.  The Gospel norm  - lived out by the  saints – is daily conversion and that may  imply  weekly confession. We  should not be scandalized at this: more shocking is  the indifference  or under-appreciation surrounding the sacrament. In Spain there are usually confessions before every daily Mass, and  before and during  every  Sunday Mass. You  don’t  have to say when  you last went to confession because the priest knows it was  recently.   The  Church in  the UK  needs to be less  rigid about making the sacrament accessible.  And then  we will all have a greater devotion to Christ Crucified who is the One waiting for us. 

  • Jason Clifford

    We often celebrate the Sacrament in the context of a penitential liturgy in my parish. This means the Word of God is proclaimed and a homily which really opens the door to the Sacrament for me and many others.

    One thing that helped me more than I will ever be able to explain was when our parish priest, Fr Alan Fudge who the Lord called to his reward this year, stated that God always gives the priest a word specifically for each penitent. Knowing that I receive not only absolution but a word from God as a key to being able to “go and sin no more” is a great blessing.

  • Anonymous

    It would help if those in authority in the Church aligned her practice with our belief. If the Sacrament of Penance is a matter of (spiritual) life and death, as the Church teaches, it would seem prudent to offer it before every Mass, is the case in some Oratorian churches. The available times need to be greater in number and more accessible for us, today’s feverish lay faithful. If gyms can open at 5.00 or 6.00am so that people can go before work, for the sake of their natural health, why should the Sacrament of Penance not also be available at such times, for the sake of supernatural well-being? The celebration of the Sacrament is very variable. Only the Bishops can really remedy this. My advice would be to learn from the Orthodox, as in other matters liturgical. Have priest and penitent face an icon instead of each other or a grille. It is Christ who heals and restores. One of the best priests I have ever confessed to gave each penitent a specially selected Scripture verse to pray over- a word to live by, a spiritual prescription to restore one to health. I plan to go tomorrow!

  • Anonymous
  • whytheworldisending

    They may think they simply do not need to go, because nobody talks about sin any more. The politically correct way places the emphasis on superficiality, on tolerance and being nice, which on its own is nonsense, since it is not nice to leave people in their sins by pretending they don’t exist. No loving parent would bring their child up without teaching them their kerb drill. Why? Because it protects them from harm. The commandments and the Gospels are there for the same reason, but I cannot remember hearing a priest give a sermon reminding people of sin or its consequences. The same applies to secular politicians, who fail to teach the young about the consequences of permissiveness, and instead promote the very evil they claim to be trying to prevent. Broken Britain is made up of broken families – broken by adultery, abortion and fornication, and the world has 34 million people living with AIDS but we pretend that nobody thinks sodomy is wrong. Even Cameron today says Christians should not be afraid to speak out – if religious leaders spoke out against sin more maybe more people will remember what they should be confessing.

  • Bob Hayes

    I agree with your sentiments about secular society. However, in my own parish our priest certainly does preach sermons that remind us of sin, of the need for – and joy of – the Sacrament of Reconciliation and of the consequences of sin.

  • maryp

    Very good article. The church I attend in rural Illinois, St Peter’s Volo, has Confessions before each Sunday Mass. The queues are long but what a wonderful witness! I never mind the wait.

  • A@B bod

    Our A @ B  Bishop is reported as saying, in response to the question,
    Is it a good idea to go
    to Confession regularly?

    “No, because my own experience when we had Confession every day at St
    Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham was that regular penitents came back with
    exactly the same words week after week. So there you would say,
    actually, there is no conversion taking place”
    Something wrong somewhere…!!

  • Bob Hayes

    And at this morning’s Mass again urged the faithful to participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

  • William A. Vanson

    Dear Father; thank you for this thought provoking article. i must say, though,  the Church itself is somewhat to blame. Here, in the states, it is common to have only 45 minutes perr week set aside in each parish for confession. If you have made a good examination and have reached the conclusion, that, yes, what I did or thought about doing was sinful you cannot possibly have the time to discuss and confess in the confessional. Especially if there are people waiting on line. The real answer is more priests. Lots more. and perhaps some religious education from the pulpit on what confession is really meant to be.Many catholics don’t really know. Sadly, i think some of our local priests don’t either.
                                                                      Thank you
                                                                       bill V.
                                                                       NYC. USA