Catholics are encouraged to make regular confessions. Most Catholics — for most Catholics do not go to Mass — do not go to confession at all. But I believe many Catholics who go to Mass go to confession twice a year, during Advent and during Lent. The Council of Trent said that Catholics had to receive communion at least once a year, and this meant making sure you were in a fit state beforehand.
The problem is that confession is difficult to do. It is not like visiting your therapist. You don’t go to the therapist to admit that you are a bad person, but so that she will tell you that you are a good person. Your therapist expects you to blame your mother for everything; your confessor expects you to blame you.
Fortunately, the Church has developed ways to make confession easier. There are guides. There are private boxes. There are signal lights. There are regular confession times. There are screens. There are men dressed in uniforms that help you forget that they are men and remind you that they are priests. There is the seal of the confessional. And, if you go to another parish for confession, there is even a shot at complete anonymity.
Unfortunately, there are people who think all of these things — the manuals, boxes, lights, regularity, screens, uniforms and anonymity — are superfluities.
Take, for example, the church I went to for confession one Saturday. Because loud music had driven me out last time, I was worried about this attempt, but my husband had gone a week or so before, and he said they had stopped the music. So I went back to kindly Fr. Elderly Irishman, who is such a lovely confessor.
But the music was back. This time it was recorded Taizé chant. And the same track must have been on repeat because as I prepared myself for confession, the speakers mournfully sighed, “Oh Lord hear my prayer, oh Lord hear my prayer, when I call, answer me” over and over again. At no point would the Lord have been able to get a word in edgewise, for the voices never let up. That rather defeated the purpose of asking the Lord to answer, didn’t it?
Eventually I stuck my fingers in my ears and tried not to sigh too much. I remembered that someone had suggested I treat such music as a penance, so I did. This comforted me enough to keep me in the pew until it was my turn. I grasped the doorknob of the confession room door and went in.
I had quite a shock.
Instead of Fr. Elderly Irishman, there was a young man in a sweater. He goggled up at me, and I goggled down at him. I looked around the room for some evidence that a priest had been in it, and then I goggled back down at the young man.
I had never seen this young man in my life, and there was no evidence that he was a priest except that he was sitting in a chair in the confession room. Pullover, casual slacks, golf shirt. He was dressed like a seminarian humouring the sort of seminary director who loathes seminarians in clerics.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ve never confessed to anyone not wearing a stole in my life.”
“There will be a priest in a stole along in five minutes,” said the young man.
I had two simultaneous thoughts. The first was that I had lost my place in the queue and would have to listen to Taizé water torture for up to another 45 minutes. The second was that a madman had sneaked into the confession room and had been earnestly listening to confessions for half an hour.
“Um,” I said. “Are you a priest? I’m sorry. I don’t recognize you.”
The young man, still goggling, said his name. It rang a distant bell, but the panicked feeling of complete and utter distrust remained. What kind of priest sits in a confession room with no sign whatsoever — not black trousers, not a Roman collar, not a grey hair, not even a stole — that he is a priest? Young priests, in my experience, might not have grey hairs, but they certainly wear stoles.
“I’m sorry, Father,” I stammered. “I don’t think… Um… I am in a fit state to… um… for the sacrament after all.”
“Sure, sure,” said the young man hastily. “Of course.”
I fled, and as I fled I wondered if he thought I was the weird one.
“Skandelion” is Greek for stumbling block. I stumbled on the painful road to confession, either because of lax security or because a priest couldn’t be bothered to look like a priest. And of all the places where it is appropriate for a priest to dress like a priest, the confessional must surely be near the top of the list.