Magazine article The Spectator

Forgive Me, Father

Magazine article The Spectator

Forgive Me, Father

Article excerpt

For non-Catholics, the most luridly fascinating aspect of Catholicism is confession. Telling your inmost sins - and we know what they are - to a male cleric, eh? In a darkened booth. How medieval is that?

Well, the fantasies that people who never go to confession nurse about it are about to be shored up by a new book on the subject by the Catholic author John Cornwell. It's called The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession . On the cover is a scary-looking picture of a confessional - not somewhere you'd take the children, frankly, but right at home in a Hitchcock movie.

John Cornwell is a friend, and moreover an intelligent and thoughtful man, but if ever there were a book that played to its gallery, it's this one. The thing is riddled with sex, including child abuse, which is plainly working miracles from the point of view of publicity. I've been asked to review it by three newspapers; another is carrying extracts. It's a cue for every ex-Catholic in the commentariat to discuss their angst about sharing their sex lives with elderly priests. The trauma!

The last time I went to confession was on Christmas Eve, in my home parish in Ireland.

Confessions were from 10 until noon. There had already been a penitential service that week, so I assumed anyone who had anything on their conscience would have gone then. To my surprise, there were priests in three confession boxes and two rows of people, constantly renewed, waiting their turn in front of each of them. The penitents weren't all elderly, either. There were teenagers and children.

My confession went just fine, thank you.

There was, as ever, a grille between me and the priest; the box was dark but not intimidatingly so, which is how I like it. The priest didn't dwell on stuff relating to sex; he homed in on the opportunity of opening ourselves up for divine forgiveness. From the point of view of a non-Catholic, it would have been a bit dull. But when I left, with my penance (an Our Father and Hail Mary) I felt that curious lightness I always feel after I've been told: 'I absolve you from all your sins.' Later, I asked the parish priest how many people came normally. 'A dozen, two dozen a week, ' he said.

'But people want to talk about all sorts of things. There'll always be the need for that.'

That's just one parish. And plainly in the church in Britain and Ireland, and in comparable countries, confession has changed inexorably in the last couple of decades. The lines of penitents that turned up in every Catholic church every Saturday aren't there any more; the young are even more conspicuously not there. Quite a few of the children who went to first confession with my son a couple of years ago haven't been since. In my church in London, penitent numbers are small and steady.

But things are changing. I'm not entirely sure about the 'Pope Francis effect' - since his election there's apparently been an increase in Mass attendance - but anecdotally there's talk of an upturn in confessions too. In Westminster cathedral, there's been a discernible increase in the numbers. The cathedral attracts transient penitents who don't want to tell their sins to a priest they know. (Shallow, I know, but I'm just the same. ) It always has people waiting in line. A priest I know who served in Bristol for three months over the summer said that in his church - again, one attended by irregulars - he had daily confession for a half hour every day, and he was busy all that time. 'Quite a number were young men, ' he said. 'And they had taken the trouble to prepare, to make very good confessions. …

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