Virginia Barton

Confession, Forgiveness, Reconciliation


Oxford, 4 April 2014


You’d be hard-pressed to find a better meditation when preparing for the Sacrament of Reconciliation than these words of St Augustine:

“O Holy Spirit, descend plentifully into my heart.
Enlighten the dark corners of this neglected dwelling
and scatter there thy cheerful beams.”


confession-3Surely only saints enjoy going to confession? It was a big hurdle for this convert – and still is. Has changing the name from “confession”, to “reconciliation” made it any easier for us everyday Catholics? Do you ever say, “I’m just off to receive reconciliation”? I can’t say that I do or know anyone who does.

No mere name can ever make it less intimidating to tell out our sins to God, if that is, in part, what the change of name was intended to do.

Curiously, I have found that confessing outdoors or in a very crowded church where confessors sit, or even stand in the open, with a queue of penitents at a decent distance, is more natural. One is among fellow sufferers as it were.

Has that ever happened to you and did you find it helped? Or do you prefer the total privacy and silence of the enclosed confessional?


Confession is on my mind with Good Friday barely two weeks away. The last time I recognised I could no longer put it off I was greeted by the priest with an ironic: “Mmm, welcome back.” It was only three months since my last confession which I thought okay, but the priest was not impressed. Note to self: not going back to him.

Of course he was absolutely right; the more often one confesses, the more one reveals; sins lurking, hiding or buried; besetting or new ones. The sacramental element of confession, where forgiveness and true healing lie, becomes more accessible the more often one searches one conscience in the effort to become transparent.

Am I making any sense? That extraordinary Sacrament of Reconciliation which is there for the asking, and the advice and guidance of a good priest are beyond telling.


Neither should we forget the act of penance. We used to go to a lovely Irish missionary priest in Hong Kong and join the queue round the block to make our confessions. It was always the same, even when you admitted to something truly horrid:

“Now don’t you worry so much. It’s very very hot here; say a Hail Mary and an Our Father. Pray for me and I will pray for you. Go in peace and may God bless you.”

I often think of him, and how he cheered me up with his holy good sense and simple penance.


St Paul, as usual, put all this into a few words when he wrote in his letter to the Ephesians [5:8-14] that the ugliest and most secret sins, those we are “most ashamed even to speak of”, when exposed to the light are illuminated, and so become light.

Light in every sense – that huge feeling of relief after confession is known to us all as we positively skip out of church!







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