Fr. Peter Daly
I’m reading a book called, How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill. It is, of course, true in every detail. I say that from the standpoint of true objectivity, being only three-quarters Irish.
During Lent there is one Irish contribution to civilization that is very much on our minds: the Catholic practice of private confession. Given President Clinton’s recent public agony, it seems that the Irish custom of confessing one’s sins in secret, has something important to teach our whole culture about the way to handle matters of sin and reconciliation.
For all the criticism the Church gets from the media for being too judgmental and rigid, it seems to me that it is the media, not the Church, that is unforgiving about sin. It is hard to imagine any public official who wouldn’t much rather unburden his conscience in the privacy of a confessional than to the bloodhounds of the media. The television networks tear people apart on the news for the very sins they laugh at on the sit-coms? I’d rather an Irish confession than “Inside Edition.”
The practice of private confession has served the Church well for 1400 years. It gives us path to reconciliation that does not lead through the valleys of shame and humiliation.
Before the Irish monks, sin was treated as a public concern. Reconciliation was a once or twice in a lifetime affair. Sins were public matters, requiring public revelation and public penance.
But as Cahill writes, “The Irish innovation was to make confession a completely private affair between penitent and priest – and to make it as repeatable as necessary. (In fact, repetition was encouraged on the theory that … everyone pretty much sinned just about all the time.) This adaptation did away with the public humiliation, out of tenderness for the sinner’s feeling, and softened the unyielding penances of the patristic period so that the sinner would not lose heart. It also emphasized the Irish sense that personal conscience took precedence over public opinion or church authority. The penitent was not labeled by others, he labeled himself. His sin was no one’s business but God’s. … No one could ever pry knowledge gained in confession from a priest, who knew that every confession was sealed forever by God himself. To break that seal was to imperil one’s salvation: it was practically the only sin the Irish considered unforgivable.”
The more confessions I hear (and make), the more I realize what a great spiritual innovation the Irish gave us. It allows us to face up to our sins while preserving our dignity. A practice that requires us to change but recognizes that we might well fail.
In my experience there is a slight increase in the numbers of people coming to confession. Each week I hear 10 or 12 confessions at the regular hour on Saturday afternoons. I get a couple more confessions by appointment every week.
People seem very mature about the sacrament. Few are what we would once have called “scrupulous” confessions. Most penitents have a good sense of social as well as personal sin. Occasionally people even confess sins of “omission.” They do not seem to be obsessed with any one topic, including sex.
In my parish it seems like most regular parishioners go to confession about twice a year: Advent and Lent. The numbers of people coming to confession seems to relate directly to how often I mention it in homilies. Last year I preached at every mass about the need for reconciliation. I even made the congregation practice saying out loud “I’m sorry” so they would get used to saying it to God and to each other. It seemed to have a big impact. At the Lenten reconciliation service we had such a huge crowd show up for confessions the seven priests could not hear them all.
Our parish seems evenly divided on the style of the confessions: face-to-face or behind the screen. While I prefer the face-to-face myself, some people are just too shy to confess to me one day and see in church the next. The screen is a necessary mercy. Jesus did not shame people, he reformed them.
Saint Patrick’s day falls in the middle of Lent. The Irish monks of the sixth century might appreciate the connection to confession.
It is not a burden, but a way to lay down a burden. It is the poor man’s couch. The sinner’s refuge. The saint’s consolation.