Maybe it’s time to rethink how we do confession


In the BBC remake of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mystery novels, the intrepid title character sometimes makes use of certain special knowledge when sleuthing crimes.

This particular superpower is not the result of radioactive mutation or dark magic.

It has to do with his priesthood, but it is not the Holy Spirit, exactly.

It is the Sacrament of Reconciliation—or a side effect thereof.

It is hearing confessions.

Father Brown does not violate the seal of the confessional, thank goodness.

He never reveals what he is told.

But he can occasionally take a hint from privileged information that comes by way of a parishioner, something that helps him comprehend the goings-on of his community as no one else can. (He also benefits from a confessor’s keen awareness of human frailty.)

In the stories, this is mainly for the good—more mysteries solved. But what good could be done if his superpower were shared more widely?

Confession: It’s done and dusted

Confession has been falling out of use altogether.

There are various theories as to why; surely our need for repentance is not on the decline.

Some say it is because of an ego-centered culture that teaches people they can do no wrong.

Maybe that is part of it, but I think there are more charitable explanations, too.

For instance, many families have come to teach their children to communicate more on the basis of mutual respect than hierarchical roles. For their own safety, many people are also raised to avoid becoming too vulnerable among those with authority over them.

I know I find it easier to allow myself to be vulnerable when the people around me are on the same level and are vulnerable, too.

Compounding this, young people often face a daunting generation gap with priests in whom they are expected to confide.

It is not the priests’ fault, but a lack of comfort with a priestly one-on-one could end up keeping people from the grace of the sacrament.

Rediscovering the sacrament

Perhaps it is time to explore ways of rediscovering the sacrament.

Perhaps confession deserves a wider repertoire.

The “reconciliation” we are talking about, remember, is not simply reconciliation with a priest.

We confess sins to seek forgiveness from God and realignment with the church, the community.

Christ entrusted the apostles with the keys to guide each other through the world and toward our God.

In the confessional, the priest represents this power, and he represents the community of the church.

One reason we confess to a person and not just to God in private prayer is to acknowledge our responsibility to set an example for fellow Christians, as best we can, of repentance and humility.

The Book of James instructs, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

The church is more than any one priest, but current practice inclines us to forget this. Continue reading

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