Sunday, 21 December 2008
Confessions Of A Lay-Woman...
I was rather surprised to read that the Bishop of Arundel & Brighton, Kieran Conry, advised against frequent use of the Sacrament of Confession. Surprised, and rather saddened: I hoped that he was being mis-reported, or that his words had been taken out of context, but, reading the article in the Catholic Herald, it would seem that this is his genuine opinion.
Personally, I thought that his remark was singularly unhelpful. And the following reflections on my own situation might help to explain why. Please don't get the wrong idea: I am not holding myself up as some sort of exemplar, nor do I immediately assume that everyone's experience of the Sacrament will be the same. But I do think that describing concrete experiences (rather than hypothetical situations) can be of benefit.
I'm an ordinary lay woman. I did take private vows, six years ago now, but that doesn't change my status within the Church. I have gone to Confession pretty regularly since I returned to the practice of my faith a little over sixteen years ago, in a variety of churches, to a variety of priests, and I guess that, while I don't claim expert status, I think I may have some valid points to share.
To begin with, I had a problem understanding what "regular" Confession meant. I mean, once a year is a regular interval! But I knew that not making use of the Sacrament had contributed to my fall away from the Church, and I was determined not to let that happen again. I didn't want to risk losing the pearl of great price which I had so recently found, and so I went to Confession once a month.
I was pretty ill at this time, waiting for major surgery, and I had plenty of time on my hands. I started to go to daily Mass. I found out about Plenary Indulgences, and a holy priest (now deceased) said that by going to Confession once a fortnight it was possible to obtain a Plenary Indulgence every day. So I upped the frequency. However, I was aware that other priests had differing opinions on the ideal frequency of Confession, and I felt uncomfortable telling some of those priests that it had only been a fortnight.
I had plenty of bad character faults, and I had even more bad habits. I wanted to change, and it seemed that the longer I left between Confessions, the harder it was to recall the small things. But, not being a mad axe-murderer, I had few (if any) mortal sins to confess. I was, however, very aware that it was the small stuff which was going to get me into hot water, if not actually into Hell!
Similarly, I can always tell which children, preparing for Confirmation, don't go regularly to Confession. They're the ones who start off by saying, "I haven't committed any sins..." Not going regularly to Confession helps to deaden the sense of what is sinful, and makes it more likely that serious sins will be committed.
One metaphor came to mind: if you have a favourite blouse or t-shirt, you will always get it cleaned when you spill something like ketchup on it. That's like mortal sin: Confession is the only remedy. However, if you only clean the shirt when you spill something, its going to get grubby pretty quickly, and the dirt will be harder to clean off because it will be ingrained. Venial sin is like everyday grubbiness... definitely easier to deal with on a regular basis. And if you have a really grubby shirt, the major ketchup incidents are less noticeable...!
I became aware that, if I left the period between confessions longer than usual, I felt uncomfortable, and "grubby," and going to Confession (though very difficult) really helped to take away the burden of my sins, and allowed me to make a new start. As a teacher, I have often noticed the same thing in many students: they don't want to continue working on a page which has several mistakes on it; instead, they want to turn over a new leaf (literally!)
Unfortunately, as I said, not every priest reacts so well to this frequent use of the Sacrament. Maybe they fear a penitent doesn't take it so seriously if he or she goes too frequently... however, the same standard is rarely applied to reception of Holy Communion!
For someone who is worried about being overly scrupulous, it can be hard enough to get into the confessional without being made to feel guilty for wasting the priest's time! I remember being overjoyed when I read that Pope John Paul II went to Confession every week, because if he did it, it had to be ok!
I have had to field questions like, "Do you always go this frequently to Confession?" (said in disparaging tones!) and, "You really ought to get married!" (that one was while I was trying to discern my vocation... I was sorely tempted to ask if the priest had anyone particular in mind!) And then there is the "sigh" which suggests that confession of venial sins is really not worth bothering with...
Going to Confession frequently is not simply a matter of routine. The time and place may be a regular thing, but it still requires preparation. As for bringing the same sins in to the Confessional week after week, well, that's not necessarily a bad thing. It would be pretty strange to find yourself marching in and saying gleefully to your Confessor, "Hey, Father, I've got a new one for you this week... " And we are creatures of habit: very few of us have lives which are so amazingly varied each week that we find ourselves in new and unknown situations. Work or school is the same each week. The people met are, by and large, the same each week. The temptations available are pretty much the same each week... I could go on, but I'm sure you get the general picture!
I still find it excruciatingly difficult to bring my sins to the Confessional. I am fully aware that I have committed the same sins over and over again. I am even more aware that it is due to my own character faults that I respond in the same way to various situations, and, even though I know what I should do, I do exactly the opposite. I also know that, on my own, I will never be able to change.
And that's why I go to Confession regularly. I don't want to continue with my venial sins. I want to change. But I can't do it myself. However, with the grace of God, anything's possible. Maybe not this week, maybe not the next... I may never fully succeed in overcoming my own particular faults and failings, but I have to try, to show willing... to demonstrate my desire for conversion of heart.
And that is why Bishop Conry was wrong: he seemed to imply that conversion was a sudden event, demonstrated by a complete change in one's character and way of life. But God accepts even imperfect contrition, so a desire to change, coupled with a demonstration of that desire, must also be acceptable to him...
I know that the conversion I experienced sixteen years ago was just the beginning. I have to continue that conversion every day, with the grace of God, through prayer and the Sacraments. I need all the help I can get. Please God, we won't get too many more Bishops discouraging our attempts to get to heaven!