Over the weekend, I met a very dear friend for a coffee

and amongst other things we talked about Catholicism. Two topics that we covered were what changes I would make to the Church if I could – I will come back to this in an upcoming post – and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, also, and more popularly, known as confessions.

A confessional in a Catholic church

Confiteor
Confessions are usually heard in church, either in a confessional like the one in the photograph on the left, or in one that is essentially a tiny room – Westminster Cathedral in London, where I go to make my confession, has one of these.

Regarding the confessionals featured in the photograph above and below. As you may have noticed, neither of them appear to have anything separating them from the world. Also, both have two alcoves for penitents to kneel inside.

In regards the lack of separation, I don’t know how common this is. The ones at Westminster Cathedral have curtains or doors. This is not the case for every church I have been to, though. Despite this, I have never worried, about saying my confession in a confessional without any separation – I don’t speak loudly, and people are very respectful about keeping their distance.

As for the two alcoves, I wonder if this is a throw over from the days when two people might say their confessions at the same time. That doesn’t happen now – not, as far as I know, in England, anyway.

In case it seems odd for a priest to hear two confessions at once, one must remember that he is not primarily there to listen and counsel, although, of course, that can happen; his primary duty is to hear and forgive.

A Digression
What’s the difference between listening and hearing? If I listen, I take in, I absorb, I interiorise; if I hear, I don’t take in, I simply acknowledge or register. That’s all a priest needs to do in a confessional. The confession, after all, is being made to God through him, and while it may be best for the priest to pay attention – hence we no longer have two confessions being heard at once – God doesn’t need the priest to do so in order to grant His forgiveness to the penitent. Having said that, I’m getting into much more theological territory than I meant so let’s move on.

You Shall Go To The Sacrament!
The Catholic Church requires Catholics to go to confession at least once a year. I don’t know how many Catholics today do that, but I vaguely recall that in the 90s, when I was received into the Church, the sacrament was talked about as being in decline; since the Second Vatican Council in the early 60s, fewer and fewer Catholics were going. It was, in short, the Cinderella of the Seven Sacraments.

Cinders and Me
That’s such a shame. In 23 years of being a Catholic, I have only had one negative experience in a confessional. It was years ago, late 90s or early 2000s, and I’ve long since forgotten what happened. As I am usually (and unfortunately) very good at remembering negative experiences, I take this to mean that what happened on that day was not that bad.

I have never made a perfect confession. I have no doubt made very bad ones. I once went to confession, forgot to mention something so went back; the priest gave me short shrift. He told me not to worry as I had been forgiven. Of course, I would have loved for him to be all sweetness-and-light but perhaps my scrupulous self needed to be spoken to a bit more firmly.

Even the Pope goes to confessions. Normally, one would kneel in one of the alcoves on either side of the priest. I expect Francis has chosen to face the priest for the sake of the photographer so people can see clearly what he is doing and be encouraged thereby

As I write this post, I can honestly not think of any other occasion when the priest was anything other than a priest, hearing my confession in persona Christi. I’m sure I have made plenty of confessions to priests who were not in a good mood, fed up, or tired, etc but if so, they sure hid it well.

This gives me such joy! I will never stop being apprehensive when I go to confessions – its embarrassing to admit one’s faults, after all, and who knows what the priest will be like – but to know that the odds are overwhelmingly in favour of everything being alright, that I will say my confession and that Our Lord through the agency of the priest will forgive me, is a very great encouragement.

A Short Walk to Freedom
I love seeing people walk out of a confessional as I know I am looking at a Saint – a person who is in a state of grace; I love walking out of the confessional myself. I don’t usually think of myself as being in a state of grace, but I certainly feel fresh and renewed, ready to start again.

There’s more that I could say. I don’t know how it’s coming across in this post, but as I write, I am really feeling rather passionate about confessions! I guess I’m trying to get across what a great sacrament and experience it is.

Yes, there’s more that I could say; I will try to say it, perhaps later this week. In the meantime, here are the great words that a priest says as the penitent makes his Act of Contrition:

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit.


(The “+” is there to show you when to cross yourself)

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