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Confession: An opportunity, not a risk

16 November 2018

How does a priest handle hearing confessions? Philip North reflects on his own experience

St Mary Brookfield, Dartmouth Park

“There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15.7)

A FEW weeks ago, I was doing some training on the confessional with a group of deacons in the Blackburn diocese who were very soon to be ordained priest. I enquired what preparation they had been given for this ministry in their initial ordination training, and the answer was an alarming one.

The few who had encountered the confessional at all appeared to have done so not under pastoral studies, but as part of their safeguarding training, and this had left them in fear of what they might hear and how they might deal with it. They viewed the confessional not in terms of opportunity, but in terms of risk.

What a tragedy that is. The purpose of the confessional is to ensure true contrition in order that the Christian might know to the full the amazing grace of absolution and the sheer joy of being set free from sin. There is a party in heaven when a sinner repents, fatted calves are slain, the angels rejoice. And because, as a priest, I have the incredible privilege of both hearing the confession and of pronouncing the forgiveness that is Christ’s gift, I have some share in that heavenly joy.

In fact, there are few occasions when I am as powerfully aware of changing lives through ministering the saving work of the cross. In the confessional, a priest releases the most profound freedom, the most powerful love that it is possible to know. It is pure joy. And it is that joy which sustains this ministry.

TODAY, there is a deep confusion that lies behind some of the current fevered debate around the confessional, which is that it is a form of counselling; that what matters most is the relationship between priest and penitent. If that were to be the case, we should — of course — scrap the seal and offer priests supervision, such as would be available to any secular counsellor.

But the confessional is not a conversation between two people. It is a conversation between a sinner and the God of mercy and grace, with the priest as an encouraging listener-in. It is a sacramental transaction. That is why it must never be confused with spiritual direction or be thrown in as an afterthought if a pastoral conversation takes a penitential turn.

To indicate its character, the confessional should happen in a time and place set apart, within a liturgical framework, and with the priest vested — because the priority is not the advice that the priest offers, but the words of absolution that we proclaim.

In the confessional, we are dealing with the supernatural workings of God, and because of that I have noticed two things that always happen and which have no rational explanation and make the ministry not just sustainable but thrilling.

First, as the priest, you find yourself saying things that you never knew before. To encourage and inspire the penitent, God puts words in your mouth that you had never thought of, or offers you an inspiring passage of scripture that was buried away in the deepest recesses of your mind.

And, second, it becomes incredibly easy to forget every word that has been said. In most instances, forgetfulness is a weakness and something that we go to great lengths to avoid. In the confessional, it is a gift. It is easy to keep the seal, because God channels our forgetfulness to his own purpose.

IF YOU believe Hollywood, confessions are full of sex and crime, or are often abused in order to silence a priest. That’s rubbish. For the most part, sin is dull, mundane, and repetitive. The confessor rarely deals with anything more gripping than failures in prayer, difficulties in relationships, outbursts of anger, or problems with forgiveness. But what happens if something really serious comes up?

I have heard thousands of confessions (particularly during my years at Walsingham). But I have never heard anyone confess an unreported crime of any kind. Since this highly unlikely scenario lies at the heart of the current debate over the integrity of the seal, it may help for me to speculate what I would do if someone did confess an unreported crime or a safeguarding matter.

I would first make it clear that, since the crime was unreported, there was no prospect of absolution. I would then direct the penitent to go at once to the authorities to report what they had done, and, if the matter were serious, would accompany them there.

But this is an incredibly unlikely contingency, and it would be a terrible tragedy if, for fear of it, a sacramental gift were lost that would be of benefit not primarily to the criminal, but to the victim. That is because, in my experience, a group of people who often make use of the confessional are survivors of trauma or abuse.

While the confessional may not, on the surface, be the right place for someone who has been the victim of the sins of another, its absolute confidentiality inspires a confidence that makes it a safe place, where buried memories can be brought to the fore, perhaps even the place where a journey to healing can begin.

Each year, about 600 teenagers come to Walsingham for the Youth Pilgrimage, most from urban or estates parishes. On the Wednesday evening, 12 to 15 priests are assigned to hear confessions, and often they are there for much of the night. For those young people, the idea that sin can be released and that fears can be named in absolute confidence is almost too good to be true.

The atmosphere the following day is one of barely contained joy — surely the same joy as is in heaven when a sinner repents. And, as usual, in their example it is the young who recall us adults to the very heart of things.

The Rt Revd Philip North is the Bishop of Burnley, in the diocese of Blackburn.

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