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!






  • Jack L says on: April 4, 2014 at 6:09 pm


    You’re so right about the “light.” If only more Catholics would avail themselves of the sacrament, they would discover that it is habit-forming, and the source of countless graces.

    I often tell a story of when I was a religious education teacher in my parish. I had a rambunctious group of 20 third graders, age 9-10. I convinced them that the best gift they could give the baby Jesus on Christmas was to go to Confession. Most had not been since receiving their First Holy Communion, two years before. And so they did, behind the screen, some with a good deal of trepidation. God bless our priests who are patient and gentle. When each emerged, they were positively radiant, smiling from ear to ear. That’s grace!

    On the matter of face-to-face or behind the screen, I prefer the latter. I think anonymity is less intimidating, especially for those who have been away for a while, and allows the mind to focus on what the priest is saying. When a well-meaning priest gives you a fixed gaze, face-to-face, it can be distracting!

  • Ginny says on: April 9, 2014 at 2:06 pm


    Every Lent and Advent Saturdays we pray in our parish church for vocations; for more “.. gentle and ardent servants of the gospel…,” be they priests, members of the religious orders, or deacons. How badly they are needed we all know. Not least to administer the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

    But what about ” the elephant in the room”?

    This sacrament, tragically, has fallen into disuse in part perhaps, because of the greater tragedy child abuse — thousands in number, and some, unbelievably, during confession. I know people who say they will not got to confess to a priest who may have been guilty of such a crime.

    In our Deanery the children can go to a Service of Reconciliation, during which they may make their confession to any of the priests seated around the church.

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