Step into the dawn
s Confession dead?” That was the question a writer posed on The Catholic Thing website last year. “The Confessionals are empty,” he explained. “The sinners have gone away ... I sense poignantly a lack of what I would call ‘sin awareness’ among modern Catholics.”
For years anxious commentators have referred to Confession as the “endangered sacrament”. So it was surprising when Cardinal Vincent Nichols announced last week that Confession has increased “dramatically” in the Year of Mercy. The surge is not limited to Westminster. At the end of their plenary meeting, the English and Welsh bishops spoke of a “remarkable increase in the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation” across the country.
To put this in perspective, most research in the past half century has suggested that the sacrament is in decline. A 2008 survey by the Von Hügel Institute at Cambridge University found that “the link between Confession and Communion appears to have been severed”. Just three per cent of Catholics said they only received the Eucharist after confessing their sins. Almost half said it was possible to be a “good Catholic” without going to Confession. That same year, pollsters found that three quarters of American faithful confess once a year or less, and almost half never go at all.
The bishops of England and Wales describe the increase in Confessions as “an early fruit of the Year of Mercy”. That’s plausible: many Catholics across Britain are obtaining the Jubilee Year
The bishops say the rise in Confessions is ‘an early fruit of the Year of Mercy’
indulgence, which involves walking through a Holy Door and going to Confession.
But the rise in Confessions is likely to date back further, to just after Francis’s election when he was establishing the tone of his pontificate. In his first Angelus address, he said memorably: “The Lord never gets tired of forgiving us. It is we who get tired of asking for forgiveness.”
Ever since Francis has shown what one writer calls a “Confession obsession”. He speaks, implicitly or explicitly, about Confession in the majority of addresses. In 2014 he became the first pope to attend Confession publicly. His consistent promotion of the sacrament is an important reason for the rise.
There are likely to be local factors as well: annual Lenten events such as “The Light Is On For You”, excellent CTS booklets, priests extending their availability for Confessions and more visible confessionals.
One cuckoo, of course, doesn’t make a spring. When the Year of Mercy ends in November, Confession could easily slip back into decline. We must be ready to promote the sacrament again: not by hectoring, but by speaking of its tremendous benefits. GK Chesterton expressed these well. “When a Catholic comes from Confession,” he wrote, “he does truly, by definition, step out again into the dawn of his own beginning, and look with new eyes across the world ... He believes that in that dim corner, and in that brief ritual, God has already remade him in His own image.”
This week the Queen passed the landmark of her 90th birthday, an occasion for much celebration. She is the first British monarch to have reached such a venerable age, and has been, for some years now, the longest-lived monarch in our history. She is also our longest-reigning monarch, having beaten the record set by her ancestress Queen Victoria.
In an era of rapid change, the Queen has remained largely the same. Her annual routine – the trips to Sandringham, to Balmoral, to Windsor – has been unchanged since she came to the throne in 1952. No doubt her successors will make changes to this royal diurnal round, just as Edward VII made
Britain’s anchor profound changes to the monarchy on coming to the throne after Queen Victoria. But the Queen’s unchanging routine is a pleasing reminder of the way that the values she embodies have not gone out of date. These values are more important than ever. In an age of public displays of emotion and rampant narcissism, the Queen reminds us of the importance of service, hard work and duty, and the dignity of reserved behaviour.
In her long years of dedication to the country and the Commonwealth, the Queen has had the unstinting support of her devoted husband, Prince Philip. Their enduring marriage, which has clearly enriched them personally, has been a blessing to the rest of us as well, and a salutary reminder of the value of lifelong, faithful marriage.
It is well known that in private the Queen has a wicked sense of humour and is a talented mimic. Prince Philip, too, is known for his wit. A sense of humour must have sustained them both over the years, through difficult times, of which there have been several. And so too has their faith in God, which is deeply felt, clearly visible, but little talked about.
For these and many other reasons too numerous to be recounted here, the country today looks on the Queen and Prince Philip with respect, appreciation, admiration, gratitude and love.
CATHOLIC HERALD, APRIL 22 2016 3