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“The confessional must not be a torture chamber”

December 23, 2013

When we make our confession we make ourselves vulnerable. Despite knowing, through our Lord’s own passion and death, that there is a mysterious connexion between being weak and helpless and our salvation, for us frail human beings, going to confession is a challenging thing to do. We feel hesitant, reluctant. It’s a combination perhaps of shame and of fear of the reaction we might get. Will the resolve to make a full and frank confession be received with tender, loving mercy, or will it provoke a dreadful scolding and denunciation? That’s what we all fear.

Pope Francis recently wrote to us all[1] about the joy we should feel on encountering the Good News of Jesus Christ. That’s the good news that God still loves us (despite everything) and that we can be reconciled with God, and – that God will not be angry with someone who returns to Him in faith and hope. Pope Francis’ latest letter is a fascinating read, because, as usual, he doesn’t pull his punches. On the Sacrament of Reconciliation he reminds us that on our journey of openness towards God we must always remember that the Church teaches quite clearly that when someone does something sinful, their confession should be heard in a spirit of understanding that every sinner is often a victim of complicated circumstances: that each of us is part of a very complex situation. A person making their confession may not know the full facts around the situation they were in when they sinned, they may have been frightened, they might have been behaving in a certain way through a habit they continue to find difficult to break, or there may be psychological or social factors that effect a sinner’s behaviour. The important thing remains that they are sorry.

The Pope reminds us that when we go to confession, the Church, as the agent of God’s forgiveness, should accompany us with mercy and patience through the various stages of our own personal growth. Each one of us is on a journey; sacramental confession is a pause on that journey: a chance to check the map, to make sure we’re still on course, and to get advice and reassurance on the best way to move off again towards the final goal.

Pope Francis reminds his priests that a small step forward by a sorrowful sinner, “in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.” In other words, better to be a journeying but repentant sinner than a hypocrite in denial, putting on a brave face. This thought struck me when I last went to confession: the priest finished by saying to me, “There was something else but I can’t remember what it was. It doesn’t matter. We’ve talked about enough for one day for you to be getting on with.”

So tonight, when you make your confession, throw yourself on God’s mercy. Don’t make excuses, just tell the priest honestly what you have done wrong. Then be surprised by the reaction you get. Understanding, compassion, practical advice and delight joy that you’re starting afresh on your journey towards getting things right. And you’ll be reassured that Pope Francis had this to say to priests specifically about responding to sinners: “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best.”

[1] Evangelii Gaudium 2013

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  1. MM said [via FaceBook] “It has never been a torture chamber for me or anyone I know! Indeed, I sometimes wondered, when I was younger and had some serious sins on my conscience, whether the priest was showing indifference to God by the lightness of the penance given to me.”

  2. This may be part of the fear people have – they don’t know what reaction they’re going to get. The Bishop of Nottingham tells a good story of being outraged by a priest’s denunciation at his confession – as a result he went to another church and came under the influence of a more understanding priest. The rest is history – he left his job at London Transport and joined the Dominicans….
    Incidentally, it is always open to the penitent to tell the priest that they think the penance is insufficient and to ask for something else. True. (and I’ve done it myself).

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