Edith Stein + Julius Caesar

Edith Stein – St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – is one of my favourite saints and yesterday (9th August) was her Feast Day. This called for a glass of wine in her honour. Before that, however, I went to confession and Mass at Westminster Cathedral. Before continuing, I must here confess two things, though:

  1. I had originally intended to go to confession last week or the week before but for one reason and another had not managed it. When I decided to go yesterday, I hadn’t thought of connecting the visit to Edith Stein’s feast day. I’d love to say that I went to the cathedral in her honour, but this time round, it was just a happy coincidence.
  2. I didn’t only drink a glass of wine last night in honour of St. Teresa Benedicta. 9th August is also the anniversary of The Battle of Pharsalus, the decisive battle in the Roman civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus. Had I been alive in 48 BC, I would certainly have sided with Caesar against the Pompey and the Optimates so I am very happy to celebrate his victory every year.

Back at the cathedral, things are returning to normal. Confessions are no longer said standing up in one of the side chapels (usually in the chapel where Cardinal Hume and Bishop Challoner are buried and the baptistry next door) but back in the confessional boxes in front of the Lady Chapel. We still need to wear our face masks while in the cathedral, but are allowed to take them off while making the confession. A piece of glass over the grill protects priest and penitent.

Before COVID, you sat down while queuing for the confessional. Now, you have to stand. That’s a bit rough of people who might find standing for any length of time but, of course, it’s easy to understand why they have been removed. While queuing, I looked up to the domed ceiling above us. If you visit Westminster Cathedral, go to where penitents queue, and look up; you’ll see a net. Behind the net are chalk marks. Before the net was put there, they formed what seemed to me the shape of Africa. I noticed this some years ago. As a result, every time I have gone to confession at the cathedral, I have looked up and prayed for Africa and her people. Unfortunately, the net makes the outline harder to see, but the habit is now ingrained in me.


Better Late Than Never, I Hope
Two weeks ago, when I wrote this post about confessions aka the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I mentioned that I had more to say and would try to say it later in the week.

Unfortunately, I now can’t remember what I meant to say! I think I wanted to write some more about my experience of going to confession so let’s do that here.

Seat & Seatability
I’ll start with my visit to Westminster Cathedral today for confessions. I arrived at about midday – confessions began at 11:30am and as it was quite early and today is not a particularly special day in the Church’s calendar, I expected the queue to be quite short. Wrong! There are seats for about thirty or so and every one of them was taken; for the first few minutes of waiting, I had to stand up.

Actually, this was not because not every seat was being used: as penitents head into the confessional, those waiting have a habit of not moving forward to the next seat. It can often happen, therefore, and in fact, invariably does, that at some point you end up moving forward several seats in a one go. This happened today.

With that said, there were still a substantial number of people waiting – 20 at least. In my previous post, I called confessions the Cinderella sacrament, and in the wider Church perhaps it is, but there is definitely a sub-section of Catholics who hold to it. And they are not the older generation, either. Today, I saw one woman who can only have been in her twenties.

Finding Her Way Home
Because of the numbers of people waiting, a second priest arrived. He took the confessional box furthest away from us. If you know Westminster Cathedral, it was the one closest to the Lady Chapel. The woman I mentioned a second ago had to make her way up to him and, if she knew the Cathedral, was obviously not familiar with this confessional. She first headed towards the empty one to the immediate right of where the priest was sitting. He popped his head out of his box to let her know where to go. Except, she couldn’t seem to see where to kneel (from where she was standing perhaps it was just out of her sight) and needed further directions. The poor thing – I hope she wasn’t too flustered.

A Showdown
The worst thing ever to happen to me while waiting in the queue for confessions – apart from the occasion I had to listen to an extra loud penitent make theirs – was witnessing a woman leave the queue to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist at Mass. That wasn’t the problem. The problem came when she returned to her seat and was quietly challenged on what she had done by the man sitting in the seat to her right. I couldn’t hear what he said, but I could certainly hear the woman’s indignant response. People arguing in the queue for confessions is one of those things that really ought not to happen so it all felt very awkward.

My view is that the man was certainly out of order. What the woman did was between her and God. And if he challenged her because he assumed that she was in a state of mortal sin, that too was wrong. Yes, that is one reason for going to confession but it is not the only one. One may also go because one has committed only venial sins as well. With that said, what she said did not look good. It makes one think, hold on, you’re going to communion even though you are aware of sins that you need to confess? But this is my problem to overcome, not hers to take account of.

An Unexpected Gift
On a happier note, after I made my confession today, the priest gave me a miraculous medal! He popped the medal through the grill and handed me an explanatory leaflet over the partition that separates the priest from penitent. I had thought that it was a wall that separated us but it turns out there is a little gap at the top. Anyway, I’m quite chuffed with this gift and it will certainly be coming with me to the Camino.

A Little Laugh
I converted to the Catholic Faith when I was at university in Dundee. In those days, I went to confessions at Dundee cathedral. The Parish Priest there was also the university Catholic chaplain. This meant we could, if we wanted, talk freely after the end of the confession. On one occasion, I went after England had beaten Scotland in the then Five Nations. After saying my confession I took advantage of our friendship and asked the priest if it was a sin to enjoy England’s win. It was, I admit, a You Had To Be There moment but we had a good laugh over it.

I finished my confession today at the same moment as communion was being held for the 12:30pm Mass, so I joined that queue straight away. I rarely finish my confession at this precise moment so it felt quite odd doing so. In fact, I wondered to myself if I should sit down to say my penitential prayer first. I was very unsure and therefore discombobulated; this is why after receiving Our Lord from one of the Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist I forgot that the Cathedral doesn’t distribute communion under both kinds and went to the second Extraordinary Minister. I realised my mistake at exactly the moment as she did and put her hand over the ciborium. Oops!

By the way, the usual penitential prayer is, of course, x number of Our Fathers or Hail Marys. Today, the priest asked me to say the Divine Mercy prayer. I know about the Divine Mercy but not the prayer so if I had sat down to say it… I wouldn’t have been able to; not unless I got my phone out to google it, and that was not going to happen. There would have been nothing wrong with doing so, but I wouldn’t want to draw attention to myself that way.

As it happens, I clean forgot to say the Divine Mercy prayer when I got home and only remembered when I wrote the above, so let me draw this post to an end and go and say it!

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

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)