Time for a confessional tune up

Confession is no longer part of life for many

There’s something deep within human nature which means that most of us tend to pick and choose the things that reinforce what we already think rather than challenge and expand our thinking or worldview. It’s all too easy to spend all of our time reading writers who reinforce our deeply-held opinions. For Catholics, this is a dangerous pursuit. Is there anything less Catholic that an approach to faith which sees our religion as a narrowly-focused or single-issue sect?

This approach is sometimes evident in the way some Catholics view the papacy. I’ve sometimes heard people describe themselves as ‘John Paul II Catholics’ by which many mean that they were highly-motivated by the Pope’s unwavering defence of the right to life of the unborn, the elderly and those living with life-limiting disabilities. This is a vital part of our faith and cannot be set aside. But, John Paul II was so much more than bioethical issues. In every corner of the globe while preaching what became known as the ‘Gospel of Life’, John Paul pricked the conscience of Catholics and the wider world to sharpen the focus on social justice.

Sinful structures

He denounced “sinful structures” that contrive to keep poor people poor. In the United States, he reminded Catholics that they must widen their compassion and extend their care for the unborn to opposing the death penalty.

John Paul II, like all other Popes was calling attention to a much wider understanding of the Faith than the narrowly-focused version of Catholicism that many people cling to. The same is true of Pope Francis. Yet, it’s remarkable how many commentators have become adept at proposing their own ideas for Church reform and then co-opting Pope Francis as an endorser. Sometimes even when what is being proposed is in stark conflict with the Pope’s public utterances or actions. One commentator recently farcically observed that when the Pope said the door was closed on women’s ordination, he was beginning a conversation about the ordination of women.

I was reading an article recently by the Mayo-based cleric Fr Brendan Hoban. In the course of the article Fr Hoban opines that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is in need of radical reform. The confession box “itself is, in places, no more than a strange symbol of an almost forgotten past, an heirloom representing part of the way we were,” Fr Hoban wrote proposing that the Church make wider use of general absolution.

It’s an interesting point of view. And there is no doubt that Confession is no longer part of the lives of many Catholics, including those who attend Mass regularly. Fr Hoban goes on to write: “The notion that we can’t change the format of Confession flies in the face of reason.

“I suspect that Pope Francis will just get on with it,” he adds.


I wouldn’t be so sure. Since his election over a year ago, Pope Francis has hardly let a week go by without impressing upon the faithful the importance of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and confessing ones sins.

Just this past weekend, the Pope surprised his liturgical adviser by going to Confession during a ceremony in St Peter’s Basilica.

After an examination of conscience, the Pope and 61 priests moved into confessionals or to chairs set up against the walls to offer the sacrament to individual penitents. However, as the Master of Ceremonies was showing which confessional the Pope would be using to hear confessions, the Pope pointed to another confessional nearby, indicating that he himself was going to first confess.

Francis spent about three minutes kneeling before the priest’s confessional and received absolution. He then went to another box and spent about 40 minutes hearing confessions.

Sometimes there’s a temptation to have a defeatist approach in the Church. The logic goes something like this: people have stopped going to confession, so we should stop having confessions. It’s also common to hear sentiments like “what the Church proposes on x, y and z is too difficult for people, let’s drop it”.


This is not the approach of Pope Francis. He has praised an initiative being rolled out in many dioceses – including in Ireland – to encourage people to go to Confession. “Tell them that our Father is waiting for us, our Father forgives us, and even more, he celebrates,” the Pope said.

If people have stopped going to Confession maybe there are wider questions about the importance we attach to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the life of the Church. I’ve certainly never heard a homily about the importance of Confession or the Church’s understanding of the sacrament. If priests and bishops don’t appear to attach importance to the sacrament it’s hard to blame the people if they react accordingly.

Pope Francis is calling on the Church to ‘wake up the world’ to find new ways of presenting ancient truths. He is asking priests, people, bishops and religious to be creative in finding ways to engage with a world which has a piercing need for healing and reconciliation. He’s not calling on people to throw in the towel.

G.K. Chesterton’s 19th Century observation is as true then as it is now: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried”.