Dear Donagh, I want to ask you about Confession. Like most people I don’t go as often as I used to. The priests in our parish never talk about it. Is it being phased out deliberately, or is it just being neglected? If it was so important before why is it so unimportant now? I feel myself that's it’s important, I've often found it very helpful, but I seem to be almost on my own. Tell me something about it - wise me up! Ita McC.
Dear Ita, Thanks for asking this question; it’s an important subject, and one that is largely passed over in silence, as you say.
Most people would feel that it was overused in the past. Before the time of Pius X, many people received Communion only once a year. It was taken for granted that before going to Communion they would need to go to Confession! Then when frequent Communion became normal, the frequency of Confession increased to keep pace with it. Many people felt they had to go to Confession each time before going to Communion. This didn’t have to be so. Today the rule is that you should go to Confession when you are conscious of having serious sin on your conscience. God grant that that's not too often! In addition, it’s recommended to go more frequently, but no particular interval is mentioned.
A teacher told me that she asked a child in her First Communion class how one should prepare for the sacrament of Penance. “First you have to commit some sins….” We often repeat now that the older approach was focused on sin rather than on the mercy of God. Part of the problem is that everything is simplified for children, and then they never learn a more adult way of using this sacrament. After a while they become embarrassed by the baby talk: “I didn’t love God when I used bad language…!” Yes it was sin-centred, and the training of confessors was the root cause of this. The confessor was taught to see himself as a judge of guilt and of the sincerity of repentance. For some more than others this obscured the real point of the sacrament: that it was a fountain of mercy.
Another problem in the past is that the whole practice was so utterly private and individual. All the other sacraments were celebrated in a crowd, “in the midst of the Church.” But this one was hidden in a box. This obscured the fact that the confessor was representing the entire community - head (Christ) and body (believers). In confessing to him you were confessing to the whole Church, but it was hard to see this from a confession box. It was not only obscured; it was obliterated from view. We now have a better sense of the Church, I think, and this is bound to impact on the old way of confession. The sacrament can now be celebrated in different ways: on special occasions there are Penitential Services, where people assemble first for a proclamation of the word, singing, reflection, etc. This restores the sense of community. In the Liturgical books there is a rite of general absolution, but at present this is not in use.
Is there a policy of neglect, or just a fact of neglect? There’s certainly no policy of neglect. The fact is that fewer people use this sacrament now, and less frequently. But in my experience it can be all the more meaningful now. Confessors have more time, they are not just waiting for a list of sins, they are aware that it is you yourself you bring to the Lord, not just your sins; they are willing to listen and they want to be of some service to you.
Whatever form of the sacrament we use, it can be immensely meaningful. It’s very important to throw out the rubbish! The heart is the more fertile place in the world: anything we keep there will grow. If we keep weeds there they will produce a fine crop! Opening the heart takes us out of our isolation and terrible privacy: we get the grace to know that there is a mercy in our life that we haven't had to earn. It is a meeting with Christ.
I hope this reply to your question isn't too long, Ita. God bless!