Where are the penitents?
The announcement last week by the Diocese of Lancaster that it is to encourage people to return to confession as part of the Year of Faith is an admission that many of the faithful are staying away from the confessional. The author of a forthcoming book on the sacrament set out to discover why
Fr Mychal Judge is a remarkable hero. He was chaplain to the New York firefighters at the World Trade Center on 9/11, where he heard confessions of the conscious injured, and gave the last rites and general absolution to the dying. Then he was killed by falling masonry. His story ennobled the role of the Catholic priest as confessor, a role which has been in decline for quite some time. For the impression that the faithful have abandoned confession – the Sacrament of Reconciliation – throughout the world is overwhelming.
Researching a book on confession these past two years, I have found it difficult to ascertain reliable figures. Questionnaires on religious practice in the UK and Europe no longer even itemise the rate of attendance. In the United States, the 2008 census by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (Cara), revealed that only 2 per cent of Catholics confess regularly. Anecdotal evidence for Ireland and the UK suggests a massive decline since the 1960s, and yet a mixed current picture is emerging.
One priest told me that in his rural parish in Oxfordshire, no one has come to confession for 10 years. Another in a Midlands industrial district reports that he never gets more than two penitents on a Saturday evening. In a straw poll survey of my friends, who lived through Vatican II, one in three have not been to confession for 30 years. For the rest, “every year or so”, or “once or twice a year”. According to most pastors I speak to, children nowadays rarely return to the sacrament after their first Communion unless part of an impetus once a term from the local Catholic school. And yet, there are inner-city parishes and cathedral churches where the sacrament is popular among every age group, including young adults. Many, seeking anonymity, are from distant parishes. A 26-year-old woman who converted to Catholicism aged 16, speaks of “queues” for confession at the Brompton Oratory and St James’s, Spanish Place in London. She likes to go to confession at least once month, but does not confess in her home parish in north London, because, she says, the sacrament is only available there “on application”.
The understanding of sin and confession today appears to pull in different directions, reflecting wider tensions in the Church. A recent convert informant, instructed in a traditionalist mode, has been taught that missing Mass is a serious sin requiring absolution before receiving the Eucharist. In contrast, a pastor of a large East End of London parish tells me that he never speaks of sin. “We have encouraged teenagers in our local Catholic school to see Reconciliation as an opportunity to talk about their experience of life, and their difficulties.”
The popularity of confession among groups of teenagers is clearly visible at World Youth Days, where the young queue in their hundreds to receive one-to-one absolution. The Penitential Service, or Rite Two (featuring several priests, available for auricular confession), is popular during Lent, with its stress on community contrition. And there is an ethnic dimension to the revival in traditional practice. A priest in an East Anglian market town tells me that when his Polish parishioners receive a visit from an itinerant compatriot priest, they all queue for confession in the old-style box which usually stands empty. Services of General Absolution (Rite Three) were banned by John Paul II, yet they persist in some parishes, and a priest in Buckinghamshire tells me of an unusual experiment where three or four children will come to confess together – admitting, for example, how they behaved badly towards each other, or were guilty as a group of bullying other children.
Yet attendance today bears no relation to what it once was, either in numbers or in character. In the East End of London parish of my childhood, confessions were heard for two-hour sessions on Thursday evenings, and Saturday mornings, afternoons and evenings. Most families went weekly: the nuns would check on our attendance every Monday morning. We brought to the confessional box our numbered, categorised sins: discrete offences, odious to God; blemishes upon the garment of one’s soul. There was not much focus on the consequences for others.
Today, the old dark box has been widely replaced by two armchairs, with a screen and kneeler as an option. Confessors speak of “real confessions” – a penitent’s discussion of the problems and failings in the whole of their lives. Not all moral theologians approve of the trend, seeing it too close to talk therapy.
But what of the millions of practising Catholics who have ceased to go confession altogether? The late moral theologian Bernard Häring wrote in 1978 that adult Catholics ceased to confess because so many of them were using artificial contraception, and saw nothing wrong with it. He might have added other stumbling blocks: sex before marriage; gay relationships; what Häring calls “self-stimulation”; being divorced and remarried (and yet being able to find an “understanding” confessor). These have caused people to either leave the Church, or simply ignore the teaching on “serious” or mortal sin and the need to confess before receiving the Eucharist. The circumstance has created, in consequence, a remarkable, historic split between teaching and practice.
Conversations with priests and people in different parts of the country raise diverse questions. Does confession reconcile us to the Church, or to God? Can “mortal” sin be forgiven with an act of contrition? For many people aged 50 and over, the experience of confession before Vatican II remains a troubled memory. The frequent confessions practised by my generation, and that of my parents and grandparents, was, as it turns out, an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of the Church. In 1905, St Pius X (1903-14) advocated that the age of first confession be lowered from the widespread norm of 13 or 14 down to seven and even younger. His aim was, in fact, to lower the age at which children made their first Communion.
He advocated, moreover, that confession, and Communion, should be made weekly if possible, and certainly more frequently than monthly; whereas the norm had been annually. Pius X’s initiative heralded a beneficial transformation in eucharistic devotion; but early and frequent recourse to confession brought unintended consequences for children at a formative age of development. A girl I once knew inadvertently broke the fast on the morning of her first Communion by taking a sip of water (in those days the fast began at midnight). Realising her lapse on approaching the altar rail, she was plunged into a waking nightmare, convinced that she had committed a sacrilege. It took five years of mental agony before she managed to broach her aggravated “wickedness” to an understanding priest.
Strong and widespread evidence has emerged of a link between early confession and clerical sexual abuse. The lowered age of confession from 13 to seven coincides, according to meta-analyses (see Marie Keenan’s Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church, Oxford University Press, 2011), with the age group of most affected victims. Pius X’s initiative resulted in the frequent exposure of Catholic children to priests untrained in child psychology and pedagogy, in circumstances of unsupervised intimacy. It is perhaps significant that the rise in sexual attacks, which started in the late 1950s through to the 1980s, coincides with not only the explosion of sexual permissiveness of that era, but the tendency for priests to hear confessions outside of the confessional box – in sacristies, parlours and priests’ quarters.
The Murphy and Ferns reports in Ireland, moreover, reveal not only the abuse of the confessional for the grooming of minors, but the regular exploitation of the confessional by priest offenders to square the circle of their pastoral and offending lives. A priest in Australia admitted in court recently that he had confessed sexual abuse of children more than 1,500 times to 32 priests. Priests in Ireland, meanwhile, have admitted that they would seek out a priest to whom they could confess “an impure act” without the confessor probing for further details: for example, the age of the “sexual partner”.
While childhood anxiety, consciousness of clerical sexual abuse and folk-memories of psychological oppression form significant aspects of disillusionment with confession, these considerations are hardly a sufficient, systemic explanation for the decline of the practice. The explanations are clearly wide-ranging and multifaceted, meriting a pluralist approach to enquiry. In association with The Tablet, and as part of the research for my book on confession, I accordingly invite readers, lay, Religious and clerical, and anonymously if they so wish, to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org), or write (John Cornwell, Jesus College, Cambridge CB5 8BL) expressing opinions, memories and experiences of confession, perhaps adding how long since the informant’s last confession, or how regular, and when (for example, before Easter or Christmas, or on other occasions).
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