INNER LIFE BY DAVID TORKINGTON
INMY LIFE time the practice of confession has changed from the time when you'd need the patience of Job to get into the confessional at Christmas or Easter, to the time when one priest I could name fell asleep in the box during Holy Week for lack of custom. I should know because I was there when he suddenly woke up and pretended he'd been listening all the time to what I knew he hadn't. If he had he'd have given me more than three Hail Mary's!
A good friend of mine, Henry, who proudly proclaims himself a "dyed in the wool" traditionalist said he's horrified at how the traditionalist practice of confession has been reduced to a mockery of what it used to be. The trouble with people like Henry is that they know very little about tradition, they just know a lot about the tradition they assimilated between "mewling and pewking in their nurses arms" and the time when they finally stopped creeping like snails unwillingly to school.
Sometime it was a tradition that only developed in the generation or two that preceded them. I dumbfounded my friend Henry by authoritatively informing him that the first confessional box was erected in 1517. I don't know why that date suddenly sprang up from the other trivia that clutters my mind but it did. However he wasn't impressed, in fact he didn't believe me. He didn't believe me either when I
said that large numbers of early Christians didn't go to confession at all.
I told him that St Ambrose used to advise the young to put confession off as long as they could because once they'd been they couldn't go again. Once and once alone was all that was permitted in the early church. When he still wouldn't believe me I gave him a few books to read to put him right. I made sure that one was written by a cardinal and the other by a monsignor whose orthodoxy was beyond all question. When I met him a few weeks later I met a new man who'd been chastened by history. He said he'd never known that private confession as we know it was all but unknown for the first eight centuries of Christianity. Of course there were penitents and there was confession but only for three or four megasized sins, and the confession was usually public in front of the whole congregation. If they brought that back on Saturday nights then Jeremy Beadle and Cilia Black might suddenly find themselves plummeting in the ratings!
Now if I was a confessor and had to deal with people like Henry "in the box" I wouldn't make them recite Hail Marys, I'd make them read liberal doses of history
for their sins and we'd all be the better off for it. Church history can give a true perspective that can broaden the mind of the most dogmatic ecclesiastical bores. It can make them quite huggable at the kiss of peace, if you go in for that sort of thing.
Henry is not quite huggable yet, but you've no idea how much he's changed since he's been converted to history. When I met him a few weeks ago he said he was no longer a traditionalist but a traditionist. "Tradition," he said, "is the living voice of the dead. traditionalism is the dead voice of the living." However, he admitted that he doesn't want to bring back public confession, nor has he made any major changes to his confessional practices. He's as regular as ever.
However, he sees more clearly than before how sin separates him from God and from others, from his own family and from the wider family. History has taught him humility too that's enabled him to see and express his sins for what they are instead of hiding behind the well worn cliche that he'd hidden behind for years. If he doesn't go to confession before he goes to Mass he wouldn't think of missing out on communion, but he arrives early enough to prepare him for what he'd taken for granted before. Outwardly you wouldn't notice much but he's changed a lot within, thanks to the One who can speak through history to those who are humble enough to hear Him.