For several years now, I have noticed something strange happening when it comes to Confession. Confession is that Catholic thing where we (usually) go into a little wooden cubicle in the Church and verbally confess our sins to a priest, sitting behind a screen. Although this practice seems to be a cause of some hilarity for many outwith the Church and – more recently – the subject of heated discussion in some places, still it is a practice Catholics take fairly seriously.
Or at least, we did.
And that is really the nub of the matter, because fewer and fewer Catholics are participating in this practice as time goes on. Already, the numbers of those who avail themselves of this particular Sacrament – one of seven in the Catholic Church – have dramatically reduced.
I don’t doubt that part of the explanation for why this might be is simply that the number of people practising their Catholic faith has – if recent statistics are accurate – more than halved. But I don’t think this is the whole story – I think there is more to it, not least of all because the numbers I am seeing are way below half of what they once were; those numbers have not been halved, they have been decimated.
Our parish offers weekly Confession for fifteen minutes before the vigil Mass on a Saturday evening, as well as ‘by appointment’. I have no idea if anyone avails themselves of this latter offer, but I do know that very few make use of the former. On many weeks, the confessional box remains empty; on other weeks, there are perhaps three people, but often only one or two. Literally one or two. I generally go for Confession to a particular city centre parish, which I have done for some years. They offer much longer periods for Confession, and several such periods during the day – but here, too, things have slowed down considerably. Of course, there are exceptions – the season of Lent, for example, tends to be much busier, and a return to actual queues of penitents.
Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from God’s mercy for the offense committed against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example, and by prayer labours for their conversion.
For me, the most dramatic example of what I am describing was a recent occasion on which, with the explicit permission of the bishop, the two churches in our parish each offered a reconciliation service at which a general absolution was given; I was present on both occasions. At one, there were a perhaps fifty people present; at the other, maybe twenty. And this, with the great incentive of general absolution – which is exceptionally unusual and mainly used only when there is imminent danger of death, such as when the plane is about to crash.
During the early part of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, our bishop used to give weekly online reflections. I used to tune in and they were actually really wonderful – the bishop exercising his teaching ministry in what felt like a really personal way. He had the added benefit of presenting himself on those occasions in a particularly ‘fatherly’ manner, which was perfect for what he was seeking to do. In the course of these and of other discourses to the Catholic population of the diocese, he noted clearly that even when we cannot or do not go to Confession, still we can receive the forgiveness of God by means of our contrition and asking the Lord’s forgiveness. I think this was intended mainly because at that time, Confession was simply not available and so there was no other option open to us. Yet what he said was true. Confession is the usual means of our obtaining the forgiveness of God, and that in a sacramental manner – but it is not the only means. After all, God created the Sacraments, they did not create Him. He can forgive in whichever way and by whatever means He chooses. But whilst this is so, the Church reminds us assiduously that the Sacrament of Reconciliation – Confession – is the primary and established way in which this forgiveness is obtained; and obtained in a communal – as much as in a personal – way.
I wonder if a large part of the reason for the fall-away from Confession is the diminishment of the sense of the communal and the rise of the purely personal. Our world tells us it is all about us, that the world stops at the end of our nose. And I think we see this false belief reflected in so very many different ways in everyday life. Our consideration is very much for ourselves and for our own personal wants, desires and needs. We are living in the days of “me” rather than “us”.
This is one of the main things I think is at the root of the loss of Confession as a sacrament we take part in. We do not consider the communal aspect of our sins, even though they might be personal. And perhaps it goes well beyond this facet – for I think we have, in many respects, loss our very sense of sin itself. And when we consider we “haven’t really sinned”, then why on earth would be confess?