Cleansing Fire

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Reconciliation Rant: Part I

April 21st, 2018, Promulgated by Diane Harris

Reconciliation Rant, in Four Parts: Part I

This 4-part series, on use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, aka Penance or Confession, is simply a view from the pew. It is an opinion, although making an effort to be consistent with Catholic Teaching. It is presented without being aware of any inconsistency with Catholic Teaching, and will be corrected promptly if any conflict with Catholic Teaching is brought to the author’s attention. Nevertheless, please note that the author’s opinion claims absolutely no “teaching authority,” with or without “correction.”

The Year of the Eucharist is the name of the liturgical year from October 2004 to October 2005, celebrated by Catholics worldwide. More recently, in the Diocese of Rochester, 2017-2018, was also a Year of the Eucharist celebration. Both were tremendous blessings! Now, wouldn’t it be special to have a Year of Sacramental Reconciliation too? Yes, but…. there is much which might be done to enhance reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in advance, to demonstrate thanksgiving and gratitude for such an important sacrament.

Many faithful Catholics know that the Mass, and therefore the Eucharist, has been under attack for a long time. We have heard about the damage to churches post-Vatican II, the horror stories of smashing statues and high altars, removing altar rails and kneelers, threatening organs, painting out murals, even throwing out materials used for the Traditional Mass, like altar cards, chalice veils, maniples, and bells.

And there are also other practices which impair respect for the Eucharist: receiving in the hand, disappearance of the paten, shortening of fasts, widespread and unnecessary use of lay  “Ministers of Holy Communion,” and hiding the Tabernacle in a corner. We can add to that list the virtual disappearance of genuflection, pressuring communicants to receive standing in line and to move away quickly, increased volume of secular noise before and after Mass, the disappearance of giving thanksgiving after Mass, coming late and leaving early, dressing inappropriately. Some “Catholic” hymns also poorly reflect (or even contradict) Catholic Eucharistic belief.  (No, we don’t “break bread together on our knees!”)

In very recent times we realize that Eucharistic devotion cannot help but be shaken by Vatican-driven ambiguity seeming to allow the possibility of receiving the Eucharist by Christians in heretical denominations, with whom de facto we are not ‘in Communion.’ Further, there is the apparent indifference of some bishops and pastors to Canon 915, which denies Communion to Catholics who cause public scandal, such as legislators who support abortion. And the list goes on.

A. Reconciliation and the Holy Eucharist

But how many Catholics would spontaneously add to the foregoing list the undermining of confession as also being instrumental in denigrating the Eucharist? Perhaps the attack on confession hasn’t been the same frontal attack as against the Eucharist, and maybe the impact isn’t as obvious, but it needs to be called out as suppressing the sense of the sacred, impacting the reverence with which the Holy Eucharist is received.

Compared to the extensive list of complaints about damage to Catholic churches and sanctuaries driven by lack of Eucharistic sensitivity, surprisingly few complaints seem directed at confessionals, which were also significantly “renovated out” of Catholic Churches post-Vatican II. One might flippantly reply: “There are not many complaints because so few people are going to confession!” But, which issue is the cause, and which is the effect? Did removal of confessionals hasten the reduced use of the Sacrament of Penance, or is the oft-claimed argument that people don’t come to confession anymore really the cause of ripping out confessionals? Where might improvements be made to attract more people to the joy (and mental peace) found through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and to elevate the holiness of families and parishes? Here is a list of some things which come to mind as having damaged utilization of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, with perhaps opportunity for some repair.

B. Confessionals Removed: After Vatican II, in the accompanying “Protestant-ization” of worship space, confessionals were torn out of some churches or filled up with storage materials, out-of-season nativity sets and statuary. Removal of confessionals certainly sent a message to the flock that confession is no longer an important stop on the path to the Eucharist.

One argument has been that with just one priest stationed in many parishes, only one confessional is needed. Yet, priests do ‘guest’ as confessors in parishes for the sake of the privacy or personal needs of individuals, such as during a retreat. It is absurd to see priests hearing confessions at a retreat while sitting in the sacristy, the sanctuary, or a “crying room” in a church that ripped out its confessionals. It seems especially ironic to add a temporary ‘confessing station’ (e.g. during Lent or before Christmas) in the sanctuary, which has been designed for enhanced acoustics! The medium IS indeed the message. Loud and clear.

Doesn’t it seem far better that the old confessional should at least stand as a sentry, testifying to its importance, and impugning those who neglect it, rather than to have been torn down? With what can it be replaced?

C. “Replacement confessionals” are often inadequate, fewer in number than were present before demolition, and sometimes even threaten the “Seal of Confession.” I am well aware that simplicity works in certain ScreenShot244circumstances, like the venues for World Youth Day, which have so many young people confessing that sometimes a simple outdoor “seat, screen and kneeler” works fine, but it would seem to be more the exception than the rule.

World Youth Day Toronto, Canada

World Youth Day, Toronto, Canada, 2002

After Participating once (and no more!) in a conference confessional day, with everyone squeezed together side by side, with very few screens, I realized it is not the kind of venue which leads to desiring a repeat of the ScreenShot245experience. To clarify, the purpose in mentioning the large venues is not in any way to criticize the amazing and blessed work which is accomplished at a World Youth Day, for example, but rather to caution that the success of such venues, especially with the young, does not automatically translate to (or justify) less private settings in a church, and perhaps has led somewhat to excessive tolerance regarding poor confessional space?

It would not be surprising to have some folks reply that they find a make-shift confessional to be ‘just fine.’ But the point isn’t about what works for someone, but rather for everyone, and not letting the confessional space become a stumbling block for anyone.

Inside a church, one expects more privacy, and a dedicated space.  Recently, I was in a parish on a Saturday afternoon, before Mass, when a confessor was in an alcove area adjoining the sanctuary. From half-way back in the church I could hear the priest and penitent fairly clearly. I don’t know what the other 30 people sitting in the pews, facing the alcove, waiting for Mass to begin, were able to hear, but it is of concern. I have personally carried ear-plugs to try to muffle the sounds, and I would be reluctant to go to confession in such circumstances. What a shame it would be if even one of the thirty in the “audience” were to refrain from a needed reconciliation because of hearing parts of someone else’s confession. It shakes confidence in “The Seal.”

D. Uncertainty: Older parishioners will remember the privacy and sacred ambiance experienced with those darker, velvet draped (sound absorbing) entries to confessionals, where one could almost “feel” the holy seal of confession. If one has never experienced the solemnity of the Sacrament in such a way, try a visit to St. Stanislaus for confession.  Where else might penitents find those pre-Vatican II confessionals? (Please share if you know; but we’re not talking about the ones, often found in European churches, where the penitent kneels in full view of all passers-by, speaking with the priest. (In Part III we’ll mention lip readers.) Note: since posting, I received feedback on some of the inadequacies of earlier confessionals. See comment #1.

One advantage of our “traditional” confessional was that it was part of what we expected, without concern about what we would be encountering. Start to finish, except for the penance assigned, we usually knew what to anticipate and what was expected of each of us. It took a lot of concern and fear out of the process. But the ‘ad hoc’ current confessional situation not only introduces uncertainty about the venue, but also about disconcerting practices. For example, why does a confessor, whom I don’t know, make a point of asking my name? The point isn’t about whether or not we mind having the priest know who we are; it is about the penitent’s expectation of privacy.

Confessional St. Patrick's Cathedraql NYC

Confessional
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
NYC

Recently I went to a parish which I had not attended in years for a Saturday afternoon confession. There were eight of us waiting for the priest. The church no longer has any confessionals, I discovered. We were all shown into a dimly lit living-room type of area, with stuffed chairs and children’s toys, waiting for confessions to begin. One gentleman asked with concern: “Are we going to all be in the room for each other’s confessions?”  What a message THAT sent! It all seemed so inappropriate that I just left and went elsewhere to confession.

One local confessional I am aware of has a louvered screen between the confessor and the penitent, so he can look down and see the penitent, but the penitent looks up and thinks he or she can’t be seen, due to the design of a louver screen.  When a friend of mine found out she could be seen, she was outraged! She felt conned, and her trust was damaged!

I do wonder if confessors who subject the penitent to such stumbling blocks actually confess their own lapses which cause the people to avoid the Sacrament?

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One Response to “Reconciliation Rant: Part I”

  1. avatar Diane Harris says:

    It has been brought to my attention that I may have spoken too broadly and without adequate discrimination regarding the advantages of some pre-Vatican II confessionals. Therefore, I would like to honor and respect that opinion, from a very trusted reviewer of my post. I have been told that some of those older confessionals (many still exist!)were highly inadequate for privacy, and for protecting the content of the confession and the advice offered by the confessor. I wonder how a survey would look of the penitents of that era, on whether or not they felt “acoustically safe” in those confessionals, and whether or not they were inhibited from confessing due to confessional construction.

    What I suspect is that many people from the pre-Vatican II era went to confession in the same church and often to the same confessor each time they received the Sacrament, over a period of many years. We rarely even considered “shopping around” for a parish. It was before the term “Roamin’ Catholic” was popularized. We belonged to a “parish” based on where we lived, and in my parish (not atypical) there were three priests, saying Mass twice each Sunday and once every single weekday (except of course Good Friday). The youngest priest got the earliest Mass, 7AM. That is also the one the nuns who taught in the school attended. The pastor had the 9AM, and the other priest of course said the 8AM. There was no vigil Mass, so Saturday morning Mass was also available. My point is that there was no reason to go elsewhere, and the parish had one single church. Therefore the experience of most parishioners was just those few confessionals in that single church and with one of three priests. If they had an adequate situation for confession they probably never went elsewhere. And of course people didn’t move around and job hop as they do today.

    My conclusion is that they either didn’t know how good they had it, or how bad they had it, without other experiences for contrast. And since I don’t remember any problems, I must have reflected the adequacy of my particular situation. But I should have also noted that there were confessional designs with the priest in the middle, between two penitents waiting for the priest to open the screen and hear their confession. I’ve since been in a few of those confessionals, and have to admit those do have a privacy problem.

    But today, with the bundling of churches together into “clusters” or combined into new juridical structures, often with only one priest and a schedule which can’t possibly allow for Mass in each church every day, and where pastors move on from their assignments to tend to other churches and to new parishioner relationships, the person in the pew often has to move to a different church for daily Mass, for cluster events, and even for confession, and experience more confessors than previously. I’m sure I am in more than a dozen churches per quarter, with more experience of “differences” between parishes and celebrants than my parents ever had.


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