Tuesday 4 August 2015

:Mad Trad 4: C is for Confession

My column about Benediction cause a bit of a flutter in the Prairies, I have recalled, because it included some Latin. I reassured my editor that this next piece would have no Latin at all. Of course, it is enthusiastic about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, only calling it, as did everyone before 1963, and many after, "Confession."

There are different theories on when one should go to Confession. One school of thought is that you ought not to go at all unless you are conscious of some serious, big, fat, nasty sin. Needless to say, this is not the Traddy school of thought.

Right. Copied from my email, and previously appearing in the Prairie Messenger, here is my piece on Confession:

Five Minutes Old

Every once in a while, usually on a Saturday, I get a short phone call from my husband [Benedict Ambrose].
“Five minutes old,” he says.
This is a reference to G.K. Chesterton, the English convert who said that the “first essential answer” to the question “Why did you join the church of Rome?” was “To get rid of my sins.” Chesterton believed that the Catholic who steps out of the confessional steps out again into the dawn of his beginning, re-made in God’s own image: “The accumulations of time can no longer terrify. He may be grey and gouty, but he is only five minutes old.”
Given the relief of absolution, it is strange that nowadays we go to confession so rarely. It is doubly strange when we consider the popularity of celebrity magazines and talk shows where people confess their sins to the world and beg forgiveness of such spiritual leaders as Oprah Winfrey. Politicians rush to apologize for historical sins for which no reasonable person could blame them personally. We love public acts of contrition, however self-serving. We love psychotherapy, too, and we confess our dietary lapses to our coach at Jenny Craig. But we’re scared to go to confession. I’m scared to go to confession.
I’ve often wondered what made our ancestors so much braver than we. Saturday after Saturday they queued outside wooden boxes, staring inwardly at their remembered sins, running over in their minds the Act of Contrition, memorized from so many repetitions: “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but mostly because I have offended Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of my love. I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.” They would sooner have lost an arm than receive the Eucharist in a state of serious sin. They took St. Paul’s words on the subject very seriously.
Surely it was no less painful then than now to recognize one’s own evil-doing and to confess it aloud to a priest. Our natural tendency is to defend ourselves; how odd to accuse ourselves, especially if we have not yet been caught out. But, as it says in the first letter of John, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1: 8-9).”
God alone can forgive sins, but Christ imparted his own power to forgive sins to his disciples when he said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 21:23). Positive evidence that the successors of the apostles heard confessions and forgave sins reaches as far back as Pope Clement’s first century Epistle to the Corinthians. It seems, though, that confession in the first Christian centuries was usually a much more public affair than nowadays. Thank goodness for the development of the private box, say I.
Confession, we know, is not enough. Indeed, it is only part of the entire sacrament of penance, which includes true contrition (sorrow) for sins, confession and “satisfaction” (penance). To be forgiven our sins, we actually have to be sorry for them, and so not only do we have to recognize and remember them, which is embarrassing, we have to grieve over them, too, which is painful. I very much admire those Catholics who manage to get to confession once a month, let alone once a week.
The last time I went to confession, it was relatively easy, for I was at a Catholic conference where priests offered to hear confessions. Also, I had been trying to make myself go to confession for weeks and was even a little frightened that something seemed to be holding me back. Finally, the conference featured a little film called “The Forgotten Sacrament”, which urged the regular confession of even venial sins, to clean the grime off the soul as one cleans a window, to let the light in. With all this encouragement, I managed to get down on my knees before a grille and say “Bless me, Father for I have sinned.”
Afterwards I borrowed a friend’s phone and called home. My husband answered.

“Five minutes old,” I said.

By the way,  I know an elderly Protestant convert who was told by a priest in the 1970s that Confession was a very late development, and she promptly lost her belief in the Confession as one of the Seven Sacraments. Way to go, priest. I wonder if you are married now, or one of those legendary Communist plants, or  dead, and what your story was. While researching this column, I found this article invaluable. It directly contradict Father Hippy's soul-endangering b.s.


  1. I am eternally grateful that even though I made my First Confession and First Communion in the mid-late 70s and the Height of Awful, I was prepared by a wonderful religious sister who was the only one of her community to vote to retain the habit (which was wool). I still remember things she taught us about these sacraments, about the Mass, about what to pray when we genuflect or at the elevation of the host and chalice at the consecration.

    Nevertheless, even Sister Saintly had us memorize the Act of Contrition with these changes: "...I detest all my sins because of Your just punishments....I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin." Not the worst of possible revisions; I did know that "just punishment" meant losing Heaven and suffering for all eternity in hell, I knew that I had to do the penance I was assigned, and I knew that Confession wasn't a free pass, that I was supposed to overcome confessed sins. And I have to say I watched out for those near occasions of sin. But for someone who didn't have Sr. Saintly and/or well-catechized parents to teach them, the revised Act of Contrition does seem rather...wishy-washy. And for the life of me, I can't recall any other formula when I'm actually in the confessional.

  2. Self, approaching confession, "I hate confession. I hate confession. I hate confession."

    Self, leaving confession, "I love confession. I love confession. I love confession."

    There's nothing quite like confession to make one feel all shiny and new again.

  3. Yep, I feel that too. Too bad I get annoyed waiting in line for it. I have had to wait over an hour more than once because so many people were in line. I wish they had confession with more convenient hours for working people.

  4. Can you suggest this to your priest? I had some weird experiences going to confession,and the first time I wrote to the pastor about it. I HOPE I was diplomatic--and I think I was mostly complaining about the overly loud recording of not-exactly-Catholic music (John Rutter?) drowning out my thoughts and prayers as I waited to confess. However, the next bizarre episode meant A) an article in the Catholic Register and B) me never going to that church for confession ever again, ("Mission accomplished" the priests of that parish may be thinking, since I no longer believe all priests believe the Catholic faith and hope to foster it in Catholics, let alone anyone else.)

    1. I think the issue is that we really need another priest at the Cathedral, combined with a congregation that has a high attendance at Confession compared to the other churches in the area. We had a Msgr. of blessed memory preach often about confession, and we still see the fruits of it after his death. As for weird experience, I think it has to do with my impatience and lack of charity than anything else. The parish is quite orthodox about the way they do things, no vapid music (think Bach during, and silence before and after), by the rubric, etc. It'd be "nice" to blame the parish, but I'm afraid it's me!


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