Maybe it’s time to rethink how we do confession
In the BBC remake of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mystery novels (I confess: I have never read the books), the intrepid title character sometimes makes use of certain special knowledge when sleuthing crimes. This particular superpower is not the result of radioactive mutation or dark magic. It has to do with his priesthood, but it is not the Holy Spirit, exactly. It is the Sacrament of Reconciliation—or a side effect thereof. It is hearing confessions.
Father Brown does not violate the seal of the confessional, thank goodness. He never reveals what he is told. But he can occasionally take a hint from privileged information that comes by way of a parishioner, something that helps him comprehend the goings-on of his community as no one else can. (He also benefits from a confessor’s keen awareness of human frailty.) In the stories, this is mainly for the good—more mysteries solved. But what good could be done if his superpower were shared more widely?
Confession has been falling out of use. There are various theories as to why; surely our need for repentance is not on the decline.
Confession has been falling out of use altogether. There are various theories as to why; surely our need for repentance is not on the decline. Some say it is because of an ego-centered culture that teaches people they can do no wrong. Maybe that is part of it, but I think there are more charitable explanations, too. For instance, many families have come to teach their children to communicate more on the basis of mutual respect than hierarchical roles. For their own safety, many people are also raised to avoid becoming too vulnerable among those with authority over them. I know I find it easier to allow myself to be vulnerable when the people around me are on the same level and are vulnerable, too.
Compounding this, young people often face a daunting generation gap with priests in whom they are expected to confide. It is not the priests’ fault, but a lack of comfort with a priestly one-on-one could end up keeping people from the grace of the sacrament. Perhaps it is time to explore ways of rediscovering the sacrament. Perhaps confession deserves a wider repertoire.
Perhaps confession deserves a wider repertoire.
The “reconciliation” we are talking about, remember, is not simply reconciliation with a priest. We confess sins to seek forgiveness from God and realignment with the church, the community. Christ entrusted the apostles with the keys to guide each other through the world and toward our God. In the confessional, the priest represents this power, and he represents the community of the church. One reason we confess to a person and not just to God in private prayer is to acknowledge our responsibility to set an example for fellow Christians, as best we can, of repentance and humility. The Book of James instructs, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
The church is more than any one priest, but current practice inclines us to forget this. Ancient Christians would sometimes confess their sins in public, to the gathered assembly. Announcing sins out loud like that must have taken courage, but it also enlisted the whole community in helping them to do better. “Communal celebration expresses more clearly the ecclesial character of penance,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. And such confessions would broadcast a reminder that we do not always get from week-to-week churchgoing: We are all sinners, however uprightly we seem to sit in our pews.
We are all sinners, however uprightly we seem to sit in our pews.
Public confessions would not themselves be sacramental, so a public ritual should be accompanied by the private, sacramental one with a priest. And public confession might scare even more people away than confessing to a single priest does. It need not be the only alternative.
Consider, for instance, friends or spouses serving as ministers of reconciliation for each other. This kind of confession could be part of spiritual direction or a dimension of intimacy in a marriage. Again, this would need to come alongside private confession with a priest to make the sacrament valid.
Some people feel most able to express themselves in small groups—this is another approach, recalling Christ’s promise to be present when believers gather together. A group of parishioners could decide to meet at certain intervals for “confession circles,” acting as a kind of regular support group and committing to keep secret what others share, as in Alcoholics Anonymous. Such groups might be a consistent set of people, or they might form in more ad hoc ways, such as among strangers who come together for a pilgrimage or a feast day. After the small-group meeting, a priest could meet with each participant privately for the sacrament itself.
The one-on-one, sacramental ritual need not stand alone.
There could be virtual confessors, too. This is a slippery slope with a very lonely hole at the bottom of it, but the right kinds of digital tools could help us see the bigger church to which we are confessing, beyond a local parish or national culture. Someone on the other side of the planet might be able to offer just the perspective on your peccadillos that you need. This kind of exchange is no substitute for the sacrament, but a virtual confession might at least help one prepare for a subsequent sacramental encounter.
If there were options such as these, how would you confess? No need to pick just one. Imagine being able to choose among different forms at different times to meet different needs. Of course, as the Catechism reminds us, “Individual, integral confession and absolution remain the only ordinary way for the faithful to reconcile themselves with God and the Church.” But the one-on-one, sacramental ritual need not stand alone. Just as couples choose music that is meaningful to them for their wedding, we can make choices that help us to recognize God’s grace more fully and to serve each other as we do.
Father Brown’s special knowledge—for both solving crimes and glimpsing the condition of the faithful—need not be a monopoly. Our church is a community of sinners, a community where we can live in both sin and grace together, sharing both, and helping each other keep our eyes on the better half. Confession is where that sharing begins.