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.

The Cinderella Sacrament

Recently, I spoke on the phone to a very dear friend who lives in Scotland. She attends the Extraordinary Form of Mass at her church, and told me that not only is this Mass very well attended but that, when it is said, many of the congregants go to confession, as well.

In fact, the numbers are so high that the priest is obliged to hear two confessions at once.

I was amazed when I heard this. Two confessions at once: my only experience of that has been in paintings, such as the one below.

Now, maybe in other parts of the world, the two-at-once scenario happens often, but not here in the U.K. Here, confession has for long been the Cinderella sacrament, the one that is there doing all the work of taking sins away but which Catholics ignore with abandon.

What is happening in Scotland? I attribute the popularity of confession at this church with the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. It is a Mass of great solemnity and dignity and in this is surely drawing people to the confessional. I shall continue to believe this until and unless I hear of confession being equally popular in a Novus Ordo church.

Before I finish, I must add one thing: I love the Novus Ordo Mass. It is the one I go to every week, and am very grateful for it. I also hold the Extraordinary Form of the Mass in high regard. I do not lift it up in order to put the Novus Ordo down. If anyone was able to show me a church where the Novus Ordo was bringing people back to confession, I would be delighted and would thank God for giving us two distinct forms of the Mass, both of which are brining people to that wonderful encounter with Him in confession.

Inspired by a friend I’ve never met

Corona Chronicles I

I follow Niall Gooch on Twitter. He is a clever and compassionate person and I always benefit from his tweets. A few days ago, he tweeted,

This seemed to me a good idea so on this blog, until such time as the coronavirus abates, I will try and record what’s going on in my little corner of the world – Islington, London, U.K.

First of all, home life.

Yesterday, our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, ‘urged everyone to avoid unnecessary social contacts, to work from home where possible, and to stay away from pubs and restaurants.’ This doesn’t affect me too much as I work from home, and don’t have the money to go out very much, anyway.

The above quotation comes from the BBC website, here. The same report states that ‘[p]eople in at-risk groups will be asked within days to stay home for 12 weeks.’ My mother and father are 79 and 80 so are definitely ‘at risk’. I still live in the family house so am now part son, part shield. The latter fits my love of chivalry perfectly. Are there any medieval romances where the Knight washes his hands a lot?

A concern for my parents now informs all my actions when going out. For example, yesterday (16th March) I had intended to take a walk across town to Westminster Cathedral to go to confession. Because of the worry that I might pick something up, at the cathedral if not along the way, however, I decided to stay at home. Now that we are being told to avoid unnecessary social contact, I suspect I will not go to confession again until the summer. It’s not ideal but the thought of bringing an unwelcome guest home is even worse.

Now that I am avoiding going out, what about my daily walks? I am going to do more exercise at home, even if it is just walking on the spot while watching a film on Netflix or a You Tube video.

Speaking of exercise, you may recall me mentioning my dodgy leg in last year’s Camino posts. Well, back in January I finally – FINALLY – got round to submitting a request for a physiotherapist appointment with the NHS. I thought I might not get an answer until later in the year but within a week or two, I was offered an appointment. Three weeks ago, I met the physiotherapist and he gave me some exercises to do. I have been carrying them out religiously ever since and let me tell you, while my leg is not perfect, it is SO MUCH BETTER than before. The old pain is almost entirely gone. Not quite, but almost. I am amazed. And all it took was ‘some’ stretches. Unless the medical centre has been closed, I am meeting the physio again this week to let him know how I have been getting on. I can’t wait to tell him.

There is one fly in the ointment – part of the physiotherapy involved walking in a slightly different way and I haven’t managed to perfect that yet. In fact, I am a long way off it, so that’s something I need to work on whenever I do go out.

Away from home.

I mentioned above not going to confession. I will keep going to Mass unless one of us in the house falls ill or until/unless the churches are closed. How extraordinary it is that I have to write these words. Who could have foreseen it, even at the start of the year? It’s like we have gone back to the time of Shakespeare with the closing of the theatres. The other day, someone on Twitter said that when W.S. was quarantined he wrote King Lear. The implication was that you should do something similar. Nonsense, of course, but I hope I can be at least a little creative. I have one or two ideas in this regard and will mention them if I can realise them.

All sporting events in the country have been cancelled or postponed for the time being. The one that affects me most is the calling off of the first few Formula 1 races. I can do without football or even rugby but F1 I miss. Depending on how things go we won’t get any races until May or June.

As I said above, I don’t go out the often. I am the secretary of The Keys Catholic literary group, though, so attend its meetings every month. I had already decided not to go to this month’s meeting but yesterday the Master decided to postpone it. I immediately sent the e-mail to all the members confirming this. Thankfully, the ones who have responded have been very understanding. We haven’t decided what to do about April’s meeting, but as with the F1, I don’t expect there will be another one until the summer.

Further Afield

There is just one thing I would like to write here. Business Insider reports that the American President, Donald Trump, ‘tried to poach German scientists working on a coronavirus vaccine and offered cash so it would be exclusive to the US’. You can read the report here.

If the report is true – the German government says it is, the company for whom the scientists work say it is not – it really is the most diabolically selfish act on Donald Trump’s part. Of course, given his past behaviour, we should not be surprised by this, but I think we may be surprised by the depth of his selfishness in this regard.

Thank you to Niall for letting me quote his tweets in this post! (It’s true I’ve never met him so I hope he doesn’t mind me calling him a friend).

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)