SCP #Tractswarm – Sacrament of Reconciliation
I have been going to confession since I was twelve, and have been hearing confessions since I was 25, when I was ordained priest. Well that is the official story. But in fact, I heard one confession the year before, when I was still just a deacon.
Shock, Horror! I hope not.This is why. In my first parish, the unlikely named St Salvador’s in Edinburgh, the Rector and I were the Episcopalian Chaplains to Saughton Prison. I visited every week and got to know some of the prisoners well. One was due to be transferred to another prison in the north of Scotland and when I went to see him, he asked if I would hear his confession. Of course I explained that I was just a deacon, and that I would tell the Rector to come in, though it would be a week or so, since he was unwell. The young man said “No, I have to do it now: they are moving me tomorrow.” So I heard his confession and absolved him with the words “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power in his Church to forgive all sinners who truly repent and unfeignedly believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee all thy sins. And by his authority WHICH IS ABOUT TO BE COMMITTED UNTO ME I absolve thee from all thy sins; in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen”. He went off the next day to his new prison in peace of mind. I, however, went to see the Bishop and confessed what I had done. He listened to the whole tale and then said, with a twinkle in his eye “Well, I suppose I’ll just have to ordain you priest now, or that absolution will never take effect!” Since then I have heard confessions for the 47 years of my priesthood, but have never been as sure of God’s merciful presence as in that first “illicit” one.
That is not a typical experience of the Sacrament of Penance but it points me in the direction of not being too eager to make hard and fast rules about the sacrament. It is a sacrament that fell into great disrepute in living memory. In Scotland, I can remember men who would regularly get roaring fu’ (in England this is referred to as “awfully drunk”) every Friday night after getting their wage packet, which often resulted in domestic violence when they got home from the pub. And there they would be every Saturday night at the local RC church in long lines waiting for a couple of minutes in the Box, where they would confess the same old sins and be assigned three Hail Marys for their penance. Some would say: “Well, that was surely better than never going at all”, but it wasn’t – it gave them a get-out, that God took their sins as lightly as they (and the official Church) did.
Thank God that fewer people are going to confession now than used to, or that they go less frequently. My RC priest friends tell me what a weight has been lifted off their shoulders that they no longer have to spend long boring hours listening to weekly confessions, where almost everything that was confessed was a minor fault or no sin at all. We Anglo-Catholics never had the very long lines that the RCs did, since we never said that this sacrament was compulsory, though I have been in churches where I dared not take too long with any one penitent because of the queue forming in the pews. And one great advantage we had over our RC brethren was that we hardly ever needed to question the sincerity of anyone who came to confession, since they almost all came from a great need and not out of sheer routine. Now, most of us hear confessions only at the great seasons, before Christmas and Easter or on Shrove Tuesday, though I hate to see a church notice board which says only “Confessions by appointment”. That can be one step too far for some tormented soul. Even half an hour a week, if advertised, is a very good thing.
Finally, since I am sure the Society of Catholic Priests wants only a variety of short reflections on this subject, I am happier calling this sacrament the Sacrament of Penance rather than the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Reconciliation with God needs no sacrament; it can be effected the minute a soul turns back to God and says “I’m sorry”. But sin is not just something between a soul and God: it has repercussions on the whole community, and especially the whole Church. So this public owning up to sin is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace that has already happened before a person entered the confessional. The Form of this sacrament is the confession of sins, the absolution pronounced by the priest, and the penance imposed by the priest on the penitent. And the three Hail Mary’s for a penance are often not a good idea. Of course, it is right that the penitent should say some prayers in thanksgiving for his absolution, and I often tell them to say the General Thanksgiving from the Prayer Book (whose page number I have long ago memorized!), but in some cases I have suggested that a real penance might be to go and do a kindness for someone. After all, kings and nobles were sometimes told to go on a barefoot pilgrimage to Jerusalem for their penance – so calling on some poor lonely person or sending a gift to someone in need is not such a hard task.
“All may, none must, some should” is a great Anglican slogan. Those of us who should know who we are.
Since then I have heard confessions for the 47 years of my priesthood, but I have never forgotten that first “illicit” one.