Sins and saints under the spotlight on RTÉ

Sins and saints under the spotlight on RTÉ Fr Chris O’Donnell featured in RTÉ’s The Confessors.

There’s something iconic about the Confession box that draws attention, an intensity about the confessing and forgiveness of sins that makes one wonder why more people don’t have recourse to it.

The Confessors (RTÉ last week, BBC One on Monday, BBC Two on Tuesday) was an absorbing and insightful programme, uneven at times but with so much to enjoy. It was at its best when it kept the focus on the Sacrament of Reconciliation – the spirituality and the mechanics of it. We got to see so many different types of Confession box, with priests filmed in front of them, though I thought Reconciliation rooms deserved more attention.

The programme started on a whimsical note and was cheerful for about 20 minutes, then the emphasis strayed away from Confession to talk about the lives of priests in general and explored the effects of the abuse scandal.

It was interesting but very much like a lot of other programmes on the issue. Much of it was filmed in pre-Covid-19 days, but things took a turn as the virus began to spread. While again the emphasis veered away from Confession it was fascinating to watch the priests coping with Mass going online – on Facebook, YouTube and the like. One said Mass to a congregation in their cars and I wondered why this practice didn’t become more common.

Another priest said Mass outside his own front door and was joined at a distance by a handful of parishioners. In another creative move we saw a priest hearing outdoor confessions, while another took to the bike and travelled around blessing homes and meeting people at gates and doorways.


Things got somewhat unbalanced when controversial issues came up – for example, a few of the priests criticised the celibacy rule, but no-one spoke in favour. Some favoured or would accept women priests, but no priest explained or defended the Church’s teaching.

One of the saddest things was to see Confession boxes used for storage – mostly cleaning materials. Now, I could wax lyrical about the cleansing of souls, but it came across more as a case of redundancy.  I felt the programme lacked a sense of strategy for promoting the Sacrament of Reconciliation (not inevitably tied to the box of course), for re-investing, re-discovering, re-imagining.

I confess I spent more hours than was healthy watching the live Senate Confirmation Hearings (YouTube) for Judge Amy Coney Barrett. I was impressed by her humanity, professionalism, dignity and clarity. Yes, she declined to answer some questions as these were issues that were already in litigation or likely to come before at the Supreme Court, but in a time where lines are often crossed that shouldn’t be, it was good to see someone respectful of boundaries.

Her contributions am-ounted to a fascinating education in US law – now I know great stuff about originalism, textualism, ‘stare decisis’ and super precedents!

There was undercurrent of anti-Catholic prejudice, as if everyone except Catholics could bring their principles with them to the court. And it did get repetitious – Democrat senators kept using the occasion to attack Trump, and when they did ask questions of the judge it was always the same few topics: the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), Roe vs Wade (abortion), and possible post-election challenges to the result. Some Republican senators were cringily folksy as they wandered way off the point.

Those hearings and related issues surfaced on a timely Leap of Faith (RTÉ Radio One) last Friday night, when Michael Comyn spoke to Peadar Tóibín TD, Senator Ivana Bacik and Prof. Robert Schmull of Notre Dame. Both Bacik and Tóibín believed in the state being a republic, and in the separation of church and State. Tóibín believed in diversity but felt that the public space was being “cleansed” of diversity, with people of faith reluctant to admit they were practising. He referenced the ironic case of a female Aontú candidate being disinvited to a ‘women in politics’ event about diversity when it was discovered she was pro-life!

Senator Bacik thought the Catholic Church still had “undue dominance”, and in a cheap shot referred to a “shadow welfare state”, though later said this was due to the state abdicating responsibilities. The generous service of religious to the very vulnerable in society, despite serious flaws in the past, is very public.  Prof. Schmull reckoned Coney Barret would be confirmed and regretted the ‘profound’ polarisation in the US.

I suspect it may get worse before it gets better.


Pick of the Week
RTÉ One, Monday, October 26, 7 pm

The team explores the history and services of Kylemore Abbey.

BBC Two NI, Monday, October 26, 10 pm

This episode delves deeper into the meaning of the pilgrimage, as the pilgrims persevere through the hardest part: the all-night vigil.

Catholic Come Home
EWTN, Monday, October 26, 10pm, also Tuesday, October 27, 9.30 am

As a troubled youth, Tracey searched desperately for love and acceptance from others. Instead, she found it in a deep relationship with the Lord and a true home in the Catholic Church.