Tuesday, 20 May 2008


I was recently fortunate enough to hear a superb talk on the Liturgy of Reconciliation, commonly called Confession, given by the Bishop of Richborough. He pointed out that people seem to take the line these days that they don’t really need confession. However, how many people would reasonably argue that they ‘didn’t need’ the other sacraments? "Baptism? Aw, no, don't worry about it" or “Oh, it’s alright, I don’t need to go to Mass, thanks, I’m quite full from lunch”. No. What a ridiculous suggestion, I’m sure you’ll agree. So why don’t people think of confession in the same way? Bishop Keith concluded two things: firstly, that people mistakenly assume that the General Confession in the Mass will suffice; secondly, that the practice of confession is far less widespread than it used to be amongst Anglicans and Anglo-Catholics and so has ceased to be one of the natural rituals of Christian life. A very helpful little book entitled "First Confession" (1901, published by the Catholic Truth Society), written by Mother M. Loyola of the Bar Convent, York, offers guidance to children preparing for confession. Her advice, though aimed at children, is also of use to us adults too, however. 'When we have done what was wrong to please ourselves, we are glad for a little while. But it is only a little while. Then we begin to be dull and sad... Sin is like those green sweets that are nice just whilst we have them in our mouth. But they leave a bad taste and pain behind, and we wish we had never touched them.' How blessed we are to have a way to repent and to be absolved.

In his talk, Bishop Keith also dealt with common fears and misconceptions about confession. It strikes me that the most significant factor in putting people off going to confession is that they just don’t know what it will be like. If you go to a new church, or some unfamiliar liturgy, you can rub along quite nicely by watching those around you (when to sit, stand, where to move to etc). Not so in the confessional where there are no such helpful models to follow. Apparently, in the good old days some theological colleges used to train up their priests using 'box tutes' where the liturgy of reconciliation would be simulated. This seems a pretty good idea for those who wish to go to confession for the first time. I can imagine that this is a widespread practice amongst those preparing children for confession, but I wonder how many adults have this opportunity. I would certainly have appreciated this before my first confession as I’m sure that I was almost as worried about doing and saying the right things as actually getting to the topic of nearly a lifetime’s-worth of sins. To be honest, I was terrified. Good advice in the words of Mother Loyola: 'Think you are kneeling at the feet of Jesus and you will not be afraid' . I was also fortunate enough to be encouraged by friends who were either novices like me, or had experienced it before and could reassure me that it would 'be ok'. I didn’t feel bullied into it; rather I was lucky enough to feel encouraged to the point where it was something I felt I wanted to do. Finally, one of the most powerful elements of Bishop Keith’s talk was the fact that he reminded us of the words spoken at the end of confession: the priest asks the penitent to pray for him, a sinner also. This, I think, is a great reminder of our equality before God, and how we are all fallible. We all try, but we all fail. And we can all seek God's forgiveness and receive it through this sacrament.

I'd like to let Mother Loyola have the last word on this one: 'Will the quarrelsome boys be like two little angels as soon as they come from confession? Not a bit of it. Or Alice be a busy bee directly? No. They will all break their good resolutions many and many a time. But shall I tell you who will succeed in the end? Not those who tried most the first day or two and then gave up. But those who go on and on, who are sorry when they break their resolution, and then try again as if they had never broken it. This is very brave. I will do this... My God, I will try not to do these things again. But if I do it again, I will not be cross and miserable, and say it is no use trying. I will say directly: "My God, I am sorry. Forgive me once more." Then I will try again.'


  1. There are lots of point which you make that are well worth stressing. In the midst of an otherwise disappointing talk, I heard a phrase which applies, I think, to the words with which you close. Someone - a monk, I think - was quoted as having described his spiritual journey as being like going along the thread of a screw.

    All the time, you feel you're going forward, until you recognise something you passed a little while ago, and then it seems like you're going round in circles. What you need is the perspective to understand that you're going upwards as well as round and round.

    Just a thought.

  2. Hear, hear! Great to have an article on this topic. Having made a first confession under less than ideal circumstances when I was confirmed, it took me ten years to pluck up the courage to go as an adult. And even THEN I almost didn't make it - I arrived at the advertised time and no priest turned up...I had to come back at the next slot, which took even more doing. As you say in your article, not knowing quite what to expect was a huge factor in my delaying. I have heard of Lenten sermons where a mock confession is acted out in front of the congregation to show everyone what to expect: this sounds like a great idea in many ways.