Rediscovering the Sacrament of Reconciliation

One day, a couple of years ago I had two appointments to keep in London. I was going to have a little time to spare, so I asked myself how I might best fill the time. Some people would probably say that I should have gone shopping; but my itinerary didn’t really allow long enough for a decent shopping spree, and anyway I’m a Yorkshireman, so I didn’t want to spend any money!
It occurred to me that I was due to make a confession. What better place to do it than London? With so many famous Anglo-Catholic churches, there was bound to be somewhere with a set time for hearing confessions where I could slip in and out anonymously.

Just for interest, I picked up my copy of ‘The Church Travellers Directory 1973’ – which some of my readers will doubtless remember with great affection. It listed the churches in which at that time there was a Daily Mass, indicated by a letter D, where the main Sunday Service was always a Mass indicated by an S, where Confessions were heard regularly at fixed times, indicated by a C and where the Blessed Sacrament was perpetually reserved indicated by the letter R. Not surprisingly, when I turned to the section marked ‘London Postal District, I was greeted by page after page of churches all with ‘DSCR’ emblazoned proudly against them.

Of course I needed some more up-to-date information, so I got onto the internet and started scouring the websites of likely churches. To my dismay, I discovered that  with the honourable and predictable exception of All Saints, Margaret Street, none of the well-known ‘shrines’ were advertising regular confession times. Some said, ‘Confession available by appointment’ with a telephone number, whilst others, including to its shame, St Alban's Holborn, made no mention at-all of the sacrament.

In terms of both time and location, Margaret Street wasn’t going to work for me on this occasion, so I decided to grasp the nettle, choose a parish church and phone the priest to make an appointment. I had never met the priest to whom I spoke, although I had heard him give an address once. He was very open and welcoming and positively effusive when he heard the reason for my call. “How wonderful that you want to make a confession. It will be a joy and a privilege”.  At the end of our conversation, he made a quip about needing to dust-off the confessional before I arrived.  

All of this confirmed what I already knew – that sacramental confession is in serious decline within the Church of England. It’s always been a bit of a niche market within Anglicanism, but the picture isn’t much different in the Roman Catholic Church. Some surveys indicate that in the United Kingdom and USA as few as twelve percent of practising Roman Catholics ever make a confession, and in many of those cases they do so only once a year.

For me, this raises three questions:
  • ·        Why has it happened?
  • ·        Does it matter?
  • ·        If it does matter, what can be done about it?

I suspect there are several closely inter-connected reasons for the decline in the hearing of confessions:

1.   Confession is obviously linked to the concept of sin. Talking about sin isn’t ‘fashionable’ in today’s church. Most of us prefer to talk about the love and grace of God, (although I would argue that you can’t talk about one without talking about the other). 

2.   Patterns of individual piety have changed considerably over the last few decades. Even in the most Catholic of parishes, there are few people who are now inclined and able to attend Mass every day, and I’m told that even the great Anglo-Catholic shrines of London find it difficult to attract sufficient worshippers to make an evening sung mass on a Saint’s Day viable. The modern lifestyle militates against this, and church-based activity has become more and more focussed on the main Sunday service alone.

3.   We live in an age in which independence is highly valued and encouraged. Those involved in any kind of caring work seek to empower their service users to live as independently as possible, and rightly so. Whether consciously or subconsciously, our tendency to independence may prompt us to say that we don’t need to make our confession sacramentally to a priest; we can do it on our own at home or as we say the prayer of penitence with our fellow worshippers at the beginning of Mass. That’s all true of course; but is it equally true of all of us? I shall return to this shortly.

4.   The sordid history of abuse in both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches has undermined the trust that people place in their clergy. The confessional is perceived as a place where the penitent makes himself or herself vulnerable, and priestly authority might be abused. I’m not talking about sexual abuse here, but I’m acknowledging the common perception that ‘Catholic Guilt’ can be used manipulatively. (Actually, I think the same is true of  Protestant guilt, but I won’t go into that now.) 

5.   Finally, I think we clergy have unconsciously colluded with this trend, giving up on set times for hearing confessions thus making their decline a self-fulfilling prophecy. Again, I shall come back to this.

So, does it matter?

Well, it certainly matters to me; not so much as a priest but as a regular penitent. 

Some of my readers will already know that despite my current churchmanship, I was evangelically ‘converted’ to Christianity in my late teens.  There was a definite moment when I realised how much God loved me and when I recognised that I needed God’s love and forgiveness and offered him my life. It brought about seismic changes in my life, and throughout my subsequent Christian journey, I’ve needed to regularly reconnect with that moment. Sometimes this happens in the Mass; often it happens during the rites and ceremonies of Holy Week; but the place where it happens most dramatically and consistently is in the confessional.

No matter how awkward or embarrassed I may feel as I await my confession, afterwards I invariably feel a sense of renewal, healing and joy that is almost impossible to describe. That’s why I welcome the recent change from the name ‘Confession’ or even worse, ‘Penance’ to ‘Reconciliation’. It’s a reminder that the sacrament doesn’t focus on sin and shame, but rather on the love and grace of God and on the great rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner who repents.

I was first introduced to sacramental confession by the priest who prepared me for Confirmation, following my conversion. He explained the traditional Anglican view of making a confession that ‘All may, some should, none must.’  I quickly realised that I was probably in the ‘some should’ category – not, I hasten to add, because my sins were particularly heinous – but rather because I’d never been very good at forgiving myself or ‘letting-go’ of past mistakes. (I’m still not!) That priest also said that he thought everyone should know about the sacrament and should ideally make at least one confession so that they would know what to do, how it would feel and so on if they ever needed the confessional in the future. I remember him saying, “If you ever feel totally lost and have abandoned God and left the church and are in need of a way back, the confessional is a really good way back in.” 

So because some should, and because it is a good way back in, I think it’s important that the church should rediscover the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
So, what can we do to enable this to happen?

First, we should lead by example. Archbishop Justin Welby - who’s hardly a dyed- in-the-wool Anglo-Catholic - has made it known that he regularly makes his confession and wants to encourage others to do so. Good for him; and we should be doing likewise.

Second, we should give clear and confident teaching about confession.

A few months ago I ran an Adult Confirmation Course and opened it up to some of the ‘old-hands’ in our congregation who wanted some sort of ‘refresher’. One of the ladies in the group is an avowed protestant, fiercely opposed to anything that she perceives as being ‘high church’. (She makes no secret of the fact that I drive her mad much of the time!) As you can imagine, there was much tut-tutting and heaving of bosoms when I started talking about Confession. She wasn’t at-all swayed by the ‘some should’ argument and insisted that confession should only ever be made to God. So I explained to her that although we often carelessly (and unhelpfully) use the shorthand, ‘Confessing to a priest’, the reality is that we confess to God, in the presence of a priest. I went on to describe the traditional set-up of the confessional in Anglican circles – with the penitent facing a crucifix and looking directly at the crucified Christ as he or she confesses, and with the priest sitting sideways on, ‘listening in’, not in a voyeuristic way, but rather in order to help and to advise. To my amazement, when my protestant lady heard this she said, “Oh well that’s alright. I don’t have a problem with that at-all.”  So, we need to get the teaching right and to dispel the many myths that surround the subject.

Third, we need to make people’s experience of confession as positive, and grace-filled and joyful as possible. How do we do this?
First of all, we must obviously set the penitent at ease. If they don’t seem to know what they’re doing or if they say it’s their first time, it’s the job of the confessor to guide them gently through the experience and to be as reassuring as possible.  

Then we need to listen carefully to what the penitent says. The confessor may well be presented with a rather stark list of sins, but he or she should be listening for clues as to where God’s healing and grace is most needed in this person’s life. I’ll give an example in a few moments.
It’s also important that the confessor doesn’t express any sense of shock or outrage.

Our tutor at Chichester Theological College who led sessions on confession told us how he had been trained to hear confessions many decades earlier at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. There they had apparently created a mock-up confessional and did a role-play, usually with a tutor playing the penitent and some poor student being the confessor, while the rest of the tutorial group observed critically. On one famous occasion the pretend penitent said, “Bless me father for I have sinned; I’ve had sex with an elephant.” As the students observing fell about laughing, the student playing the priest blushed visibly, broke into a sweat and was dumbstruck. As the awkward silence went on, the tutor became more and more exasperated until he eventually exploded, “Oh for God’s sake man aren’t you at least going to ask me what sex the elephant was?”  

It’s not unusual for confessors to worry about what advice they’re going to give to a penitent. I used to worry endlessly that I wouldn’t be able to think of something wise and helpful to say, until my Spiritual Director said to me, “Hey, the penitent is baring his or her soul in your presence and all you can do is worry about what you’re going to say; and in any case, where’s your faith in the Holy Spirit?” He was right of course. God does supply the words.

I remember one priest – with whom I didn’t get on particularly well – who would sometimes say something that sounded really wise and sensible, then he would completely undermine it by saying something totally crass immediately afterwards. I remember him talking about confession and saying, “The confessional isn’t a counselling room; it’s a dustbin. People don’t come to contemplate their navel and talk for hours; they come to dump the rubbish of their lives.” I thought that made a lot of sense; but then he said, “……so I don’t ever say anything in the confessional. I let them spill the beans, then I give them their penance, declare absolution and send them on their way.”

But to do that is not only to risk making the penitent feel very uncared for, but it’s also to fail to provide what the penitent asks for in the traditional rite, ‘penance, advice and absolution’.  Part of caring for the penitent is ensuring that they’re truly sorry; that they’ve made amends wherever possible and then giving them advice and encouragement so that they can hopefully avoid repeating some besetting sin. There needs to be some interaction, however minimal.

I do have to say that the worst confessors I’ve ever had were the out-and-out liberals. They tried desperately to persuade me that every one of the sins to which I confessed wasn’t really a sin at-all, or if it was, it was a very understandable one and therefore nothing to bother about. Casuistry might have ruled okay in their minds – but it didn’t bring any comfort to my troubled soul. 

That said, of course there are times when it may be helpful to explain to a penitent that something they’ve confessed to isn’t really a sin. Some penitents get very hung up about some of the temptations they battle with.  But unless they’ve deliberately wallowed in or fed the temptation, if they’ve overcome it, it’s probably appropriate to say, “This isn’t a failure that you need to confess; this is a success that you should be celebrating”. People sometimes need reminding that although Jesus was without sin, he certainly knew (and knows) what it is to be tempted!

One of the things I quickly noticed as a penitent was that some confessors appeared to count my sins on their fingers as I went along. This is actually a handy aide-memoir so the confessor remembers what he or she needs to come back to when giving advice; but it can look as if they’re keeping score, and at one time I did think that I must never confess to more than ten sins per confession otherwise I’d confuse the poor priest.

In any event, I don’t think it’s necessary - or even helpful - to talk about every single sin; it’s better to look for any underlying pattern that needs addressing. For example, you’re hearing the confession of a man in his early thirties. His confession includes the following:
·        He’s slightly ‘massaged’ some sales figures in a report to make his work performance look better.
·        He’s ‘walked on’ some of his colleagues at work in an attempt to get promotion before them.
·        He’s not spent enough time with his wife and kids and they’re feeling neglected.
·        He’s had a few outbursts of temper recently and his driving has been aggressive and fast.
·        He’s drinking too much and not eating healthily.

Now clearly this is a classic case of someone whose work/life balance is out of kilter. He’s being driven by the need for earthly status and material success and in doing so he’s damaging relationships with his colleagues, with his family and even with himself because he’s putting himself under stress and neglecting self-care. I believe that’s the theme that would need exploring in the confessional, and I would suggest that this man needs to be helped to rediscover the love of God, whose love is total and unconditional and doesn’t need to be earned.

That brings me to the question of the giving of a penance. When someone has reflected on their life, repented of their sins, made amends wherever possible, resolved to try to do better in the future, the giving of a penance often seems to me to be a strange, almost backward step in the process. I think there’s a danger that it can imply that God hasn’t done His stuff, and it can undermine the belief that forgiveness and healing has been given. So I always try to make the ‘penance’ an ongoing part of the reconciliation and healing process; so rather than saying “Go and say three Our Fathers and five Hail Mary’s” (the point of which I’ve never really understood) I’ll suggest instead that the penitent should read a certain psalm or hymn that highlights how God’s grace operates – and hopefully something with which they can connect in relation to the underlying ‘themes’ of their confession; so it’s essential  to have a repertoire of biblical passages, hymns and psalms on which you can draw for this purpose. 

When I talk with priests who haven’t yet heard confessions, I always suggest that the best way to learn to be a good confessor is by having lots of practice at being a penitent. In any event I’m a firm believer in the principle that no priest should ever hear a confession unless he or she regularly makes a confession. It’s in taking the role of the penitent that we learn best what works and what doesn’t.

One of the tricks I learnt from a confessor once was to get to the end of the list of sins, finish giving any advice and then say, “Is there anything else you want to mention under the seal of the confessional?”  More often than not there isn’t; but sometimes something will have occurred to the penitent during the course of the confession, or sometimes a penitent may have consciously or sub-consciously ignored something that they feared might be too hot to handle. It’s a bit like the patient who goes to the Doctor saying, “My arthritis is acting up” and then at the end of the consultation casually says, “Oh while I’m here, could you just have a look at this lump I’ve found?” The presenting problem isn’t always the full story; nor are the presenting sins always the full story. Sometimes the process of confessing enables the penitent to plumb greater depths and to open up more, so it’s important to give that opportunity, just in case.  

Most important of all, of course, is the Seal of Confession – the absolute guarantee of secrecy. Recent issues around safeguarding have caused some people to question whether the seal should be required to be broken where sins regarding abuse of children or vulnerable adults are confessed.

This suggestion shows a woeful lack of understanding on several counts.

First, the penitent is, as I’ve already said, confessing to God. What they are  sharing belongs to the Almighty, not to the Confessor.

Second, there is no such thing as a partial seal. If the seal can be broken –  or  is required to be broken – in relation to certain sins, then there is in effect  no seal at-all. Any assurance given to a penitent that their confession will not  be shared with anyone else would be meaningless, whilst embarking upon  an  explanation of some sort of exemption clause at the outset of the process  would be both absurd and unpastoral. In any event, an abuser who didn’t  intend to mend his/her ways by seeking help with their offending and wasn’t  genuinely seeking God’s forgiveness would hardly make a confession under  these circumstances, whereas an offender who was wanting to come to God  in desperation could be discouraged from doing so, and may therefore be  less likely to seek help and more likely to re-offend. 

Third, it is a requirement of offering absolution that the priest who is ‘listening  in’ is satisfied that there is genuine repentance, that the penitent has done  everything possible to make amends for what (s)he has done, and that there  is a genuine desire and intent not to repeat the sin. Where the sin involves  some form of abuse or any other serious criminal activity, the proper response from the Confessor should be to explain that true repentance will   involve going to the police and seeking help to ensure that the offence is not  repeated. Indeed, the Confessor would have a pastoral duty to accompany  and assist the penitent in this process. If the penitent refuses to do this, the  Confessor can and should withhold absolution.  

Well I’ve dealt with teaching about the Confessional, I’ve talked a bit about  how to make  confession a positive experience, and explored what the Seal  of Confession means, but I want to go full circle and end where I began.

I’m a priest. When I had to ring a priest to ask for some of his time to hear my  confession, I felt awkward and hesitant. How much more awkward would a  lay person have felt? How often do we, as clergy hear those damming words,  “I didn’t like to bother you because I know how busy you are”?

Effective ministry has to include what I call ‘the ministry of availability’. I think  that’s especially true of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  If the Church is to  rediscover this sacrament, we need to re-instate it as a regular, fixed,  advertised part of the church’s life.

I’ve heard clergy say, “I’m not going to waste time sitting around in church  waiting for people who are never going to appear”. I understand the  sentiment, but a regular confession slot, whether it’s weekly or monthly need  only be for half an hour. If people come in that time, you stay until the job’s  done. If no-one comes, you go home after the half hour. During the half hour,  you can read, think or pray – things that too easily get pushed out of the busy  clerical day; and while you’re there, even if no-one comes, you’re still  exercising a ministry of availability. How can all of that possibly be a waste of  time? They also serve who only sit and wait!

If you don’t think you’ll get penitents, widen the scope a bit; in my second  curacy parish we had Benediction every Saturday evening at 7.00pm and at  7.30pm we advertised “Confession, Spiritual Counsel or just someone to  listen”. People came; some to confess, some just to talk – and they all knew  that it had to be about spiritual or pastoral matters not the flower rota or the  next PCC meeting!

During Lent a couple of years ago, when we had Stations of the Cross on a  Friday evening at 7.00pm, as an experiment I advertised the fact that the  church was open and I was there from 6.15 for confession or spiritual  counsel. On the first week, the first of several penitents was kneeling at the  confessional at 6.20pm. One or two folks just came to pray quietly; of those  who came to confession, two of them hadn’t been to confession for many  years. When I asked why this was they simply said, “There wasn’t really any  opportunity.”  This was despite the usual ‘Confessions by appointment’ notice  in the parish magazine and on the website. If we believe in the Sacrament of  Reconciliation, we have to create the opportunity.

When I first went to Walsingham with a weekend parish pilgrimage about  thirty years ago, on the Saturday evening, after all the liturgical shenanigans,  there were half a dozen or so of us in the shrine church waiting to make a  confession to one or other of the shrine clergy who were in the two  confessionals there. 

Nowadays on Saturday evenings in Walsingham I gather that people often  have to queue to make their confession, and there are priests in all sorts of  nooks and crannies hearing confessions. Contrary to popular belief, the  sacrament isn’t dead. Okay, there is something rarefied about being on  retreat or pilgrimage that makes people more open to  Reconciliation; maybe  what we parish clergy need to do is to learn from that and to recreate  something of that feeling, so that confession becomes once again part of the  lifeblood of the church and one of the key ways in which the share the Good  News with God’s people and enable them to lead a new life in Christ.

© Fr Trevor Thurston-Smith SMMS
    November 2018
(Based on a paper delivered to the  Leicester  Chapter of the Society of Catholic Priests in April 2015)




  1. Thank you for a great post! I tell people that I regularly receive this Sacrament to (hopefully) promote more use of it.


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