Walking into a church always carries with it the risk of immolation. At least for me. Consecrated bread has never touched my lips. I’ve never been baptised, nor have I made my Confirmation. While my family were devout Roman Catholics, my parents broke away from the church and decided I should decide my faith for myself.
And so, as a child, I thought of God as a big man in the sky, as most probably do. I decided I was happy as I was and continued on my way. I remember my classmates finding it strange I didn’t participate in the daily prayer, but were satisfied when I told them my family didn’t believe in “that”. I remember the vast amounts of books I consumed at the back of the class while my friends prepared for their Confirmation. I remember one classmate reasoning with me that it was surely safer to go to church than to risk spending eternity in Hell. I remember thinking if that was the basis of his faith, he’d probably be burning with me.
Most of all, I remember my relief at not making Confession. I didn’t know what my sins were. What would I confess? Would I have to make up guilt? Was my lack of regret in itself a sin? The nature of remorse and guilt are complicated concepts for an eight-year-old, and in all honesty, it still confounds me. To this day I picture Confession as sitting in a dusty, dark, wooden box nervously listing transgressions to the unknown.
In an effort to dispel the mystery, I began to research absolution and the nature of sin. Before long, I wound up on an online confessional. Here, your sins were organised by category. I clicked through, wondering what I might admit to. Claiming that I had committed theft, I was asked to rate the severity between one and five. After filling out all the relevant information, I had the option of adding more sins to my basket, or to proceed to checkout and receive my penance. I was told a few days fasting and a number of Hail Marys would atone for my sins, and I would be able to return to living in Christian purity. Committing the more severe act of adultery earned me the same length of fasting, with only an incremental increase in the number of Hail Marys.
Hoping to further explore the ideas and background of confession and forgiveness, I arranged a meeting with Father Tom Dalton from the Ferns Diocese in Wexford. Having been in the priesthood for 23 years, Dalton combined experience with an understanding of the modern world. Organising the interview, his emails were tagged with “Sent from my iPhone” and I arrived to find his bungalow adjacent to the church, where he led me into his simple but modern office, curiously filled with a variety of plants, primarily succulents. Gifts from grateful parishioners, I imagined.
We briefly talked about college, and my interest in confessions. Sitting opposite me, his collar undone and his legs crossed, one didn’t get the sense of authority so much as confidentiality and trust. The silver chain of a cross around his neck was barely visible and confirmed, without announcing, his dedication to his faith. Discussing the difference in our backgrounds, Dalton smiled as he explained a possible hindrance in his coming explanations. “You’re coming from your perspective there as an atheist. I’ll be coming from a faith perspective, as a Catholic. There are some things you might find unusual or difficult to comprehend. While I mightn’t fully understand them, I accept them by faith. The faith background does play a part in this.”
History of Confession
According to Fr Dalton, there is no direct mention of Confession in the Old or New Testaments. While forgiveness was a huge part of Jesus’ teachings, the only reference is in the New Testament, when Jesus was asked by Peter how many times he should forgive his brother, and if seven times was too many. Jesus said as many as seven times seven. As Dalton repeated seven with a coy smile, it was clear he understood that in a modern context, this may seem odd. He quickly explained the importance of the number seven in the Bible, and how it is a holy number. This, he laughed, made seven sevens really holy.
While baptism cleansed the soul of all sin, this could only be performed once. The three major sins were idolatry, murder, and adultery. To commit these major sins was to cut oneself off from the Christian community. The issue was people would be forced to abandon their faith upon committing these sins, damaging numbers and expecting a very high standard of behaviour. In order to resolve this, they were offered absolution. Dalton gave the example of helping a local widow out for a year. In other words, no minor assignment. Vaguely reminiscent of a Herculean task, these would prove the worthiness of the sinning member to the community, and they would be allowed back in. They were only granted this forgiveness once, however. To transgress again was seen as a statement: “You’re not interested in this kind of life. It’s better you just go.”
As a result of this, Dalton explained many people would leave being baptised until their deathbed. This would ensure that they wouldn’t transgress, and would be ensured their place in heaven. Dalton commented this came less from a lack of faith, and more from fear, speaking of their inner monologue, “I mightn’t be able to live this way”.
Dalton explained that from there, there was a development in the Christian community as a whole. With the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, the religion spread across the continent. Confession, however, wasn’t an aspect of the religious practice. Many Christians sought to lead a holy life, but struggled to achieve it. This was particularly evident in Ireland, which consisted of both monasteries filled with pious monks and hardworking farmers. The monks were seen as spiritual leaders, and paragons of the Christian faith. Dalton said that with their barebones lifestyle and fundamental beliefs such as “the flesh is bad,” they were exemplaries of the “Christian life”. Dalton remarked: “People looked up to them.” The farmers, on the other hand, had little time to ponder theological matters and were more concerned with survival.
In order to receive spiritual guidance, locals would travel to the monastery and ask for advice. Here, they met one-to-one and told of their sins and their troubles. The monks, referred to as their “anam cara,” or soul friend in English, would do their best to instruct them in how to live their life in the most pious manner possible, while recognising it wasn’t feasible to live as they were in the monastery. When Irish monks travelled abroad as missionaries, they brought this custom with them, which evolved into what we now know as the modern Confession.
The modern day
As the custom cemented itself as a solid part of the Christian faith, Dalton explained that certain functional aspects also developed. The confession box, Dalton speculated, was designed largely for the safety of the parishioners. “The confession boxes were designed to keep people safe.” Considering the social power the priests wielded within the community, it was important for people to maintain their anonymity when confessing their sins. He explained that aspects of this fear remain to this day; that many of those who come to him for Confession travel from an adjacent diocese. Another tool developed were “manuals of sins”. Dalton said these were thick volumes of possible sins, with appropriate penances. He laughed as he painted an image of a priest furiously flicking through his manual, as he attempted to located the relevant task for the sin being listed.
Moving away from these practices was an important development of the Church in the modern world. Dalton focused on a number of instrumental changes, particularly after Vatican II. The manuals were replaced with books titled “The Rites of Penance,” and priests were given more leeway in their ability to dictate the terms of absolution. “That puts me in the position of a judge,” Dalton admitted reluctantly.
For Dalton, the focus has shifted from knowing the exact nature of the sin to a more general assertion of what the deed was. Rather than knowing the who, what and where, Dalton seemed to focus on the whys, saying “I don’t want to know the details”. He admitted with a sigh that this isn’t viewed as universally correct by the Church. “Sometimes the adults are still caught up in the system of punishment and damnation.” He cited this as a particular concern when introducing an ever-younger cohort of people to the Church. “The age of reason was eleven, but now it’s seven, or actually eight in our diocese.” Stemming from a desire to give the Eucharist to a younger age group, it is necessary to achieve a “pure soul”. This isn’t without its drawbacks: “You’re looking at this seven year old, thinking what grievous fault could they have, you know?” Instead, he encourages children to think of moments they cut themselves off from their community or family: “Times when they didn’t show love.”
This led us to discuss the changing makeup of the diocese. “Compared to forty years ago, there is a huge decline.” He says that, of the 5,000 in his diocese, roughly 20 or 30 would attend Confession. “You’ve two categories. You’ve the ones who always come to Confession. The regulars. They don’t confess things that are, to my eyes, very serious. They were gossiping or swearing or giving out about their husband or wife.” He paused dramatically, before moving on with caution: “Then you have some people who come and it’s been a long time since they’ve come to Confession and they need to unburden. They feel that it’s something they need to free themselves from. It’s something more substantial.” Weighting each word, it was clear Dalton had heard no end of people’s darkest secrets, or in his own words: “Stuff they have been carrying for a long, long time. It’s not good for you.”
This, to Dalton is one of the things that has been lost in the movement away from the Church. The inability, or unwillingness to unburden oneself to a third party and talk about the mistakes they’ve made. Dalton points out that even the Anglican Church, which would be most similar to Catholicism, doesn’t have the sacrament of Confession. He strongly believes in its benefits, however: “Us verbalising what we’ve done makes it more real for us. It’s sometimes not easy for us to do. It’s not easy for me to hear myself that I’ve done this. It may be more healing, and to hear someone say, ‘God knows,’ and he sees your genuine side.”
The dangers of Confession
While Dalton is an advocate of the benefits of Confession, he does recognise a number of issues with the practise. Aside from the almost voyeuristic tendency of certain priests to demand every detail, which Dalton refers to as asking about “matter and kind” – what you did and how often you did it – others are strict in their offering of forgiveness. Part of the job of the priest is to ascertain whether or not the person confessing is truly sorry. If not, the priest must withhold absolution. While Dalton says that this is a very rare occurrence for him, he knows of those who were deeply wounded after being refused absolution.
Other reasons for being refused absolution included a list of “reserved sins”. These were acts that the regular priest in the diocese was unable to absolve, and so the confessee would have to travel to the nearest bishop to seek penance instead. Among these reserved sins was abortion, which according to Dalton, had been a growing source of distress for those coming to him: “The guilt. The fear they had that they had no other option and then feeling really bad.” Pope Francis recently removed this limitation, however, in what was known as the “Year of Mercy”. This was an important step forward in keeping the Church modern: “As priests we need to look at how we approach [Confession]. [Pope Francis’s] message to us as priests was to be merciful.”
Wrapping up the interview, it was clear Dalton had no doubt in his own mind of the value of Confession, regardless of certain negative aspects. As the tensions of our dense theological discussion cleared, he regaled me with humorous stories from his time in the priesthood: “It was a Saturday morning, and this lady came in and I could hear the door opening and the shopping bags going down. There was this big sigh and this lady said: ‘Father, I’m here for the grace. I have no sins. I’m what you call perfect.’ And she was being genuine, or I believe she was anyway. And in my most sarcastic voice, I said to her, I said: ‘Well I’m very pleased to meet you. I’ve never met anyone perfect before in my life.’ She got up and came around and shook hands with me and said: ‘I’m pleased to meet you too, Father.’ You have that kind of stuff as well, you know?” This seemed to summarise Dalton’s approach to Confession and his faith in general. While a deep current of knowledge, belief and understanding flows under all he does, so too does he recognise that not every situation can be approached with the heavy Roman Catholic influence of fire and brimstone. Instead, Dalton keeps an open mind about how every situation should be approached and remembers that at the core of Confession lies one of the central teaching of Jesus: forgiveness.