Fr Tim Finigan has written an interesting blog about confessionals. He states that young teenagers he has known in the past “did not know that they were allowed to kneel down behind the grille”. They had arrived at a self-conscious age and no longer wanted to sit opposite the priest. He has built a new confessional at his church in Black Fen “in the traditional style” (although with a chair, for those who can’t kneel, and wheelchair access), explaining that the new structure “makes sure that the sacrament is not confused with some amateur psychotherapeutic encounter.”
Having grown up before the Second Vatican Council, which brought in an alternative manner of confessing while sitting face-to-face, I have never got used to this mode and always avoid it. Sometimes the priest knows me, sometimes he doesn’t. I can see the case for anonymity, but the main thing is to kneel in a darkened area and speak through a grille. It emphasises the awesome nature of the encounter, with the priest acting “in persona Christi”. Everything else is a distraction. God forbid, as Fr Finigan suggests, that some amateur psychotherapeutic encounter replaces the meeting of penitent and confessor. Such encounters should take place in a tastefully decorated office where you pay a (large) fee after exactly 50 minutes, so I have been told. Sacramental Confession is about sorrow for sin and a firm purpose of amendment – nothing more and nothing less.
I am not sure why the change was brought in at all. Was it to make Confession easier for modern people who don’t like to kneel, whether for Communion or at Confession? Was it because the traditional form was now seen as “old fashioned”? Or was it because the idea of sin itself had been downgraded, and a friendly chat would put everything right? If I were a priest I would simply refuse the new form. According to Canon Law and Fr Finigan, I would be within my rights. It seems you do not have the right to face-to-face Confession but “an authoritative interpretation also stipulates that the confessor may insist on there being a fixed grille.” Perhaps this is to avoid the possibility of scandal? A friend has pointed out to me that scandal could and did occur in the past too; but it is less likely.
I canvassed a few friends for their opinion on the matter. One said that she “would hate an open Confession as it could become too personal and I really don’t want the priest to know who I am. I get embarrassed and would rather be anonymous.” She added, “I think the open ones put people off and hence the shattering decline in this Sacrament – plus the loss of the sense of sin.”
Another friend was even more eloquent. A convert in the 1960s he welcomed the traditional structure “owing to the gravity of some of my sins” and adding that “a sense of anonymity is valuable in helping people to overcome an understandable reluctance to confess their sins to a priest who knows them.” He went on to say, “Using the box also helps to underline the fact that in Confession one is meeting, not the priest who is simply His instrument, but Jesus who is all love and all mercy, no matter how awful one’s sins nor how often they are committed. The whole focus should be on having one’s soul cleansed and healed by Jesus, the Good Shepherd.” He sees Confession as a “beautiful and comforting sacrament of the Lord’s mercy for fallen humanity whom He only desires to restore and raise up… just as the doctor’s skill is employed to restore our body to normal health.”
This friend also felt that one of the reasons people rarely go to Confession today is “because they are not aware that they are ill with sin, because there is so little instruction on this question, and if they are aware of it, they may not want to face up to it because the beauty of the sacrament as a healing medicine for their souls is hardly ever mentioned either.”
A further friend agreed with all the above and added that she thought general Confession has been brought in simply because private Confession had dwindled so hugely; she thinks it’s a “complete con.”
When I last visited Brompton Oratory I was struck by the number of the confessionals flanking the walls, each with a priest’s name above the central section. Both imposing and beautifully designed and carved, they reminded me of an earlier age when Confession was taken seriously and when people knew they were “ill with sin.” We need to return to it.