Tea with the Curate: “No Confession times; just call me.”

Tea with the Curate: “No Confession times; just call me.”

Written by Hilary White
8/25/17

“The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works.” St. Augustine

How many have seen the third Godfather movie? A lot of Catholics really found much of the Vatican stuff in that movie rather laughable and potboilerish, and I think the criticisms of the depiction of Catholicism are pretty fair. But there was one scene towards the end that I think was interesting: it’s where Michael Corleone, perhaps motivated by his poor health and a growing awareness of his mortality, tells his doting sister Connie, “I made my confession today.” Connie is rather shocked by this, and says, “That’s not like you, Michael.”

We might have missed the importance of Connie’s response; as a Catholic woman she understood that Michael having made his Confession meant that he had decided to give up all sin, which would have to include participating in the Corleone family’s criminal operations. He was saying, in effect, I’ve returned to the path of virtue; from this day on, I can’t be a gangster, and if that means I can no longer be the head of the Corleone Family then so be it. In the next scenes, Michael turns over the reigns to his nephew Vincenzo. The film went on to show that, for his sins, Michael’s redemption was not to come so cheaply.

Connie’s response to Michael’s Confession, surprise and dismay, were born of her understanding of what Confession meant, the power of the sacrament over a person’s future decisions.

Confession and absolution mean a definitive turning away from sin, an entirely new life taken on consciously and deliberately, abandoning evil.

Contra the heresies currently fashionable in the Vatican, it is Confession, not the Holy Eucharist, that is “medicine” for the sick soul.
St. Thomas Aquinas:

“In the life of the body a man is sometimes sick, and unless he takes medicine, he will die. Even so in the spiritual life a man is sick on account of sin. For that reason he needs medicine so that he may be restored to health; and this grace is bestowed in the Sacrament of Penance.”

The necessity for Confession is the real reason that a world without priests would mean an eternal death sentence for all of us.

As in other countries, especially away from the city centres, Italian parishes have largely given up offering scheduled Confession times. After 50 years of naturalism, of the loss of the sense of sin, the loss of the notion of the necessity of sacramental grace, the loss even of the concept of a supernatural salvation of souls, it has become difficult even in Rome to do what was perfectly normal and expected throughout the history of Christendom; pop into a church and get shriven.

“Three conditions are necessary for Penance: contrition, which is sorrow for sin, together with a purpose of amendment; confession of sins without any omission; and satisfaction by means of good works.” St. Thomas Aquinas

I will dare to suggest that before these conditions can be achieved, a pre-condition is required: awareness of sin and the need for salvation from it. But in Italy at least, it is very rare to find a priest or a parish where the practice of confession is taken seriously, in any language. Despite 30 years of “conservative” popes, and a revival of Confession in some places, here, as elsewhere, the Confession box has given way to the practice of face-to-face, quasi-therapy sessions. The presentation by the penitent of the “shopping list of sins” is disparaged by oh-so-up-to-date clergy, and penances tend to be of the “Sit in the church for five minutes and think nice thoughts about God” variety. I have said many times that Italy is the place the feel-good ‘70s came to retire, and it is true of the sacramental life as well as aesthetics.

What’s worse, it means that the old training in moral theology for seminarians is rare, and the knowledge of how to conduct the “cure of souls” is almost lost. Here, as elsewhere in the post-Conciliar Church, if you want to pursue seriously the life of grace, you’ll be doing it mostly without the help of any priest. As with nearly everything else since the Revolution, it’s still on the books, it’s still done officially and no one would dare say otherwise, but on the ground Confessions just aren’t being heard, absolution not given. Aside from the deformation of the Mass, this is probably one of the most significant and damaging alterations to the post-Conciliar Church. Confession and the Holy Mass were, for 1965 years, the two great conduits of grace into the world, and the near-cessation of the former has meant that sins are being retained, and the world has been deformed accordingly.

In my conversation the other day with the nice local curate, I spoke of my frustration at the absence of Confession as part of a normal sacramental life. In this parish (really several parishes grouped together) there is not one place with regularly scheduled Confession times. You have to ask, and, unsurprisingly this is rare. The result, of course, is that the practice of Confession has all but died out. I was told, “Just turn up to Mass a few minutes early.” My young friend was quite insistent that he never turned down any request for confession.

It was clear that this situation is considered normal and acceptable. He told me that when he first arrived in this parish, he had spent two years manning the Confession box, “And no one came.” In response to my assertion that the practice of Confession was dying out, he assured me that “just this week” someone had asked him to have his Confession heard.

He insisted that he would never turn down any request for Confession; and of course I believed him. But this is the sacramental minimalism – normal now across the Catholic world – that I have referred to as the “slow starvation” of the faithful. They may be so anaesthetized by wealth or entertainment or the internet or distractions of all sorts that they don’t know they are starving to death, but this is a sacramental caloric intake barely sufficient to keep from dropping dead. The indifference and insouciance of both clergy and laity in the Novusordoist Church towards the urgent necessity of sacramental grace is a major feature of the New Catholicism.

I can understand that a normal Novusordoist priest, assigned to a rural parish in demographically dying Italy has never experienced a really healthy, flourishing parish sacramental life – most of them simply don’t know what we’re missing. Such things now mostly only exist in the rare little Traditionalist pockets, where children come in batch lots of six or seven – or ten or eleven – marriages and baptisms form a summer-long parade and there is a line for the confessional every week.

In the “mainstream” Catholic Church devotion to Confession seems mostly to exist only in places where it has been deliberately revived through conscious and protracted effort. And to go to that effort, the first thing that is required is awareness of a need for it. A place where the post-Conciliar status quo is quietly maintained will never see such a revival. This kind of “cultural” Catholicism of lukewarm indifference has become so much the norm that without experience of anything better it is all but impossible to recognise the problem – the frog has almost boiled.

I think this is why my young curate friend seemed not too terribly concerned that the practice of Confession had all but died out on his watch. I expect that necessarily limited experience – and the cheerful approval of his superiors – could produce no other result.

Despite the casual apathy – the smiling shrug – with which the country’s secularization has been received by many Italian clergy, this condition constitutes a state of emergency. At every Mass I’ve been to here, the entire congregation receives Communion (nearly all in the hand). I’m confident that the practice of sin hasn’t died out. If this curate is receiving, say, one phone call a month for Confession, can we hazard a guess how many of those receptions of Holy Communion are sacrilegious? Maybe we could consider how few children are born and add an estimate of how much contraception has entered into the equation. It’s hard to go to Mass here, see maybe at most ten children on a Sunday, and forget about the death-spiral Italian fertility rate.

But let me tell you another story. In 1997 I went to live in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the far east coast of Canada. In that town the former bishop had allowed his priests to cease to offer normal, in-the-box, anonymous Confession at scheduled times. “By appointment” had become the universally adhered-to standard, and of course, human nature and the modern Church being what they are, no appointments were ever made. Everyone was happy because the laity never really wanted to hear or think about their sins and the Boomer-generation priests had never much liked sitting in the box anyway. In some places it was even worse and “general absolution” had become the norm, with a little hand-waving at the end of Mass considered sufficient.

Shortly after I arrived we got a new bishop who had, as it turned out, been given the mandate by Rome to revive the practice of individual Confession in Halifax. Realizing that there was no point in having his priests sit in the box if no one was going to come, he ordered that for several months they must preach on sin, repentance and Confession as a normal part of the Catholic sacramental life at all Sunday Masses.

Then he organised a mission to be preached by visiting priests on the subject in the cathedral, St. Mary’s Basilica, and a surprising number of people turned up. Following these Masses, and the powerful preaching, he had about a dozen priests set up shop in stations around the church, one of which he manned himself. This went on for a whole weekend and I think hundreds returned to the practice of Confession. Since that time, the permission for appointment-only Confession was rescinded and all parishes were required to offer scheduled times. In my parish, at least, those scheduled times always attracted enough penitents to form long lines.

Obviously we know that reviving Confession is not the only thing to be done; but we could say that it’s the first thing to be done. But first it is necessary for clergy themselves to take it seriously. Confessions-by-appointment, quasi-psychotherapeutic Confessions face-to-face, “general absolution” are signs that Confession is not taken seriously. Given what Confession means, these are signs that the Faith – the reality of sacramental grace – is not taken seriously.

It is a rule of life in the Catholic Church that the clergy lead. A community of Catholics, a parish or a diocese, will take the Faith only as seriously as the clergy do. A person who has no awareness of the seriousness of sin will have no motive whatever to go to Confession, and he will never have this awareness from any source other than his priests. (Trust me, he’s never going to learn it from Italian television.)

“Confession heals, confession justifies, confession grants pardon of sin, all hope consists in confession; in confession there is a chance for mercy.” St. Isidore of Seville

A priest who really wants to demonstrate the mercy of God must offer that mercy in sacramental Confession. This implies logically that he must make it as easy as possible to obtain that sacrament. I submit that forcing a penitent to make an appointment is the opposite of making it easy for him.

Our friend, the columnist and regular Catholic guy, Pat Archbold, wrote some years ago of his “longing” for a Church in which Confession is understood as an urgent necessity:

“I wanted to go to confession before Christmas, but somehow last week I didn’t get around to it. I wanted to go today, but I had work and so I would need to call for an appointment. I didn’t go. I wished that today there was one place in my diocese where I knew I could turn. Some Church, even if I had to drive out of my way, that I knew if I made it there, there would be a priest waiting for me. No appointments. Just there, waiting…

“I like thinking that a priest is still sitting in that confessional, waiting. I don’t think I could handle it if I made my way downtown only to find the doors locked.

“This Christmas I wanted what I really need, but unfortunately the establishment was closed with a sign that said, ‘By Appointment Only.’”

A parish that has Confession available by appointment only – “Just call me,” – is a parish that is simply not making Confession available. In fact, the Code of Canon Law acknowledges this aspect of human nature – that a Confession that is difficult to make is a Confession that won’t be made – when it mandates regular times.

Can. 986 §1 All to whom the care of souls has been entrusted in virtue of some function are obliged to make provision so that the confessions of the faithful entrusted to them are heard when they reasonably seek to be heard and that they have the opportunity to approach individual confession on days and at times established for their convenience.”

In fact, in 2002 Pope John Paul II issued a motu proprio addressing the strange new trend of parishes refusing to offer regularly scheduled Confession times. It seems mostly to be addressing the growth of the bizarre practice of “general absolution” replacing individual confession (that thankfully has mostly disappeared). But the document “Misericordia Dei” makes clear that because “individual and integral confession and absolution are the sole ordinary means by which the faithful, conscious of grave sin, are reconciled with God and the Church…confessors must be visibly present at the advertized times, that these times be adapted to the real circumstances of penitents.”

And this means in the church, not in the person’s kitchen or the sacristy or anywhere else, because “the proper place to hear sacramental confessions is a church or an oratory.” The use of the box “with a fixed grille” is also mandated by Canon Law; the Church understanding the need of a penitent for anonymity, an anonymity rendered meaningless when you force him to call to make an appointment.

I have read that modern priests don’t like to “waste time” in the Confession box; I have no doubt that hearing confessions can be emotionally arduous and I’m glad I’ll never have to do it. But it is one of the things you are supposed to have signed up for and no one is ever forced to become a priest.

If I had one message to give to Novusordoist priests it would be “Stop telling your flock that ‘God loves you the way you are.’ Start talking about what sin is and how you don’t get to go to heaven with serious sin on your soul. Tell them, specifically, what ‘serious sin’ means, and give examples, including the embarrassing ones. Start talking about the absolute necessity of Sacramental Confession and then start offering it at least every week, anonymously, in the confession box.”

I might add, “If you keep the flock in perfect, invincible ignorance, it might be possible that they will avoid the dread judgment, but it certainly won’t be possible for you to do so.

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