The year was 1961. The confessional was dark, as it should be. A recalcitrant fifth-grade sinner, I had just poured my soul out to a family friend, the parish pastor. As he finished absolving me for what I was sure were the worst sins ever, he added, “Tell your mother that…”
I can’t recall the rest of the message; I only remember my deep mortification. The whole purpose of the box was anonymity. How was this okay? It was perhaps borderline prideful on my part to think my sins that exceptional. And, as a frequent Mass server, he probably just recognized my voice. Still, I felt violated. What was routine for him was a very big deal for me.
And still, I was compelled to seek the sacrament. In the end, it always seemed a journey from shadow to light. I was a repeat offender. My sins were monotonous, petty, and yet they oppressed me. Absolution was the light at the end of the tunnel. The confessional was repulsive yet enticing.
A few short years later, face-to-face Confession was to become the norm—one might say, the preferred mode. I can’t help but wonder how many souls have been discouraged in the process. Confession is easily the most intimate spiritual thing imaginable. Is confidentiality really enough? Clearly, the creators of the box did not think so. Wouldn’t anonymity help the cause of confidentiality? How is it that in the age of psychology we have forgotten so much psychology?
Surely, there are those among us who prefer a face-to-face encounter. Good for us. But personality differences alone will tell us that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to something so intimate.
To be certain, the Saturday morning lineup for the confessional is not what it was a generation ago. I seriously doubt that the reason is that the current generation is less sinful; it is much more likely that fewer of us actually believe that sin is a thing. When face-to-face confessing was introduced, there was an effort to make sure that maintaining anonymity was still an option. But now that seems to be less and less the case.
I say, bring back the box. The face-to-face experiment has been a noble effort to make the Faith more engaging, more personable—no scary black box. It hasn’t worked. The black box is not scary, except maybe to second graders, but I didn’t find it so. The lack of anonymity is plenty scary for many.
My non-Catholic readers may, of course, find no necessity, no utility whatsoever in this discussion because they have embraced a direct avenue to forgiveness. Of course, we Catholics understand that it is God who forgives in the confessional just as surely as He forgives us when we go to Him directly. That being said, Christ’s command to the apostles concerning sin—“Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain they are retained”—is entirely devoid of context without confession, unless we are attributing to all of the apostles the ability to read souls, something that neither Scripture nor Tradition has ever claimed. And if the Church assigns no necessity to the process of confessing, then Christ was wasting words. The Word doesn’t waste words.
It is one thing to confess your sins to God, it is another to receive counseling and an objective perspective of the weaknesses in your life in Christ, a perspective that serves to assist a soul in embracing another of Christ’s commands: “Go and sin no more.”
Though the Sacrament of Reconciliation is probably the least popular of the seven sacraments, there is nonetheless a human obsession with confession. It requires humility, something perennially in short supply, and yet there is something in the human psyche, some craving, some absolute need to unload, as witnessed by police officers who record statements from the accused that go something like this: “Why am I telling you this? I don’t know. I just had to tell somebody—anybody!” Face-to-face confession began at the local precinct.
If you’ve offended your spouse, God will forgive your sin; but that forgiveness will not heal the relationship with your spouse. Similarly, a need to confess to another human being, one of the many we offend nearly every day, is a dimension of spiritual healing that cannot be ignored. Our sins offend both God and humanity; the priest is there as the representative of both.
What’s that? You don’t offend people? Immaculately conceived, eh? God knows us and our nature much better than any of us ever will, and that’s why he instituted this terrifyingly wonderful sacrament.
When the non-Catholic sects abandoned the sacrament, it left a void, a wound that has only deepened with fewer and fewer Catholics availing themselves of the graces of the sacrament. Substitutes have been sought, but such are largely an exercise in self-deception: most often, absolution by blame.