10. On the Practice of Auricular Confession
- Title: Studies in Soul Tending or Pastoral Work in its Relation to the Individual
- 1. Introduction
- 2. Prayer in General
- 3. Fasting
- 4. Fasting Communion
- 5. Meditation
- 6. Intercession
- 7. Scheme of Private Devotion
- 8. Thoughts of Divine Immanence in Worship
- 9. Priest’s Relations with His People
- 10. On the Practice of Auricular Confession
- 11. Treatment of Individual Souls
- 12. The Sick
- 13. Care in Preparation for Reception of the Holy Communion
- Appendix: Standard Theological Works
ON THE PRACTICE OF AURICULAR CONFESSION
IT is an unquestioned fact that a strong and very general prejudice exists against what is known by the term “Auricular Confession.” Nor is this prejudice altogether ill-founded. We cannot afford to decry or even ignore it. The thing which it contemplates and which represents its idea of the practice in question is certainly objectionable. In any case there are very serious dangers attending the practice we shall now consider, namely, that which we may describe as Sacramental Confession.
As ordinarily practised it is altogether too slight a thing, conducted too hurriedly, and therefore superficial. This is rendered inevitable from the fact of the numbers who have to be dealt with, and possibly in some cases by the frequency with which it is observed.
In most cases, however, it is the rarity rather than the frequency of observance which tends to neutralise any benefit which might otherwise attend its use. The idea of compressing the acknowledgment of a year’s sin and the presentment of the comprehensive view of the soul’s condition as arrived at in that period, together with the admonition and direction which would necessarily arise as its result, all within the space of say half an hour, or even an hour, involves a 66
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self-evident absurdity. The truly discreet and learned priest will generally find more than one interview necessary for the purpose. The various avenues through which the central principle of sin finds its vent, and the various concrete forms which it takes in so doing, will have to be traced and dealt with separately; then the various aspects which the central principle of ” love-motive ” will have to assume in the work of correcting the mischief in its different shapes must also be set before the penitent fully and distinctly.
This will require time for thought and for the initiation of act. Hence the practice of sacramental confession for any individual, in such a degree as to promise real benefit, must necessarily be occasional and comparatively infrequent.
Another danger connected with this practice is that of leading the penitent to place too much dependence upon a human mediator, more especially in the act of Absolution. It is therefore most essential that the priest should clearly explain his position as that of a mere agent, whose office is simply that of leading the penitent to recognise and address himself to the Real Presence of the one great Confessor, Absolver, and Director, Who is invisible. A fearful responsibility rests upon the officiating agent in this respect. He must bear in mind the tendency in weak humanity to turn aside from the invisible to the visible, to depend upon earthly props and supports; he must remember the danger of hindering rather than helping the work of salvation by assisting to deflect the penitent’s view from the One Object, the contemplation of which brings life. He must make absolutely sure that throughout the whole course of this sacramental proceeding the penitent has his eye fixed upon the
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invisible High Priest, and that in every act which he is called upon to perform whether it be confession, renunciation, or loving trust it is Christ Himself Whom he is addressing, while the earthly priest stands aside as it were, and simply leads and points the penitent to the true Personal Object of every spiritual endeavour.
Again, there is the danger of arousing the spirit of prejudice to which reference has been made, and so repelling the penitent, and incurring the loss of influence in a general sense. The priest should bear in mind the fact that prejudice, though unreasonable, may not be despised or disregarded; it is one of the most serious hindrances to the priest’s influence for good; it should therefore be his care, and the object of strenuous effort, to allay or disarm it. He cannot fight it down, that is certain. He must be patient with it, treat it as a disease, and above all things treat it with gentleness and kindness. If he cannot allay or remove it let him assure himself that the fault must be to a great extent his own. Remember St. Aidan ” Was it their stubbornness or your severity? Did you forget the Apostle’s command to feed them first with milk and then with meat? ” l There are, however, few instances in which the parish priest need get to loggerheads with his people if he can only bring himself to act as St. Aidan acted. So with confession; the most desirable method of conducting it is, no doubt, in the Church, the priest habited in cassock, surplice, and stole. But supposing that the practice in this form should be objectionable to a portion of his flock, simply because they associate it (and not unreasonably) with methods of conducting it which he himself would probably 1 Wakeman, History of the Church of England, yth edit. p. 24.
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allow to be open to serious objection, he would show himself to be an unwise pastor by persisting in con ducting it with those particular adjuncts. He would find no difficulty in gaining his point as regards the true nature of the sacrament if he could only bring himself to dispense with what cannot be regarded as in any sense essential features.
It is true that many of his people, especially those who need it the most, would object to yielding their confidence to their clergyman on the subject of their inner life. This is a difficulty of an entirely different character, and is to be overcome only by the exercise of personal influence of such a kind as to invite and win their confidence through the manifestation on the priest’s part of a character worthy of being admitted to such inner relations.
But when all is said and done, the great obstacle to the profitable exercise of this all-important priestly function consists in too many instances in the lack of qualification on the priest’s part for that exercise.
Romehas its cut-and-dried method in which its clergy are fully instructed. They know exactly what they have to do, and they do it accordingly. To us their performance of this sacramental ordinance may appear lamentably inadequate, but that is their business, not ours. With our fuller light as we are taught to regard it we could not dare to enter upon the practice of sacramental confession on the same lines as those which they follow. We realise the necessity for going deeper and riding higher, and this being so, we forego it altogether and leave our young members to flounder along as best they may! Brethren, this ought not so to be. Then why is it so? Simply because the due observance of the practice entails
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qualifications which are not possessed in sufficient kind and degree by the average parish priest. Such qualifications are, (1) A knowledge of human nature attainable only by careful study and by experience founded upon watchful observations, digested by mature judgment.
(2) The main requisite of personal knowledge of our Lord Himself, in His character as Example, and in His relation to humanity as a Lover of souls.
Training in the former respects should form a conspicuous feature in the preparation of candidates for Holy Orders, and although the shortness of the time ordinarily allowed for such preparation would make it impossible to carry out this form of study with any degree of thoroughness, yet the instruction given in this subject should have the effect of giving the student a start in the pursuit of this all-important branch of study. The young clergyman in his Diaconate and early Priesthood should make it one of the most emphatic objects of his study and efforts to carry on the work of training himself in this branch of his duty, and this not necessarily by the use of books on this special subject, which are often misleading.
Better means are those of self-examination, careful observation, meditation, and the practice of the Presence of our Lord. Careful observation, not of course in the sense of prying or espionage, but open and above-board, such as will infallibly be attained by the habit of spiritual conversation with all sorts of people, and with each one in that particular manner and tone which individually suits him best. The young priest cannot be too cautious in the matter of entering upon the discharge of this branch of his functions. The very greatest mischief may be the
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result of his taking it up with ” prentice hand.” The human soul is a frail and delicate piece of texture to handle, and the work of operating upon it calls for the surgeon’s hand a symbol which represents the ideal of the priestly art firm, unshrinking, unshaking, strong, decided yet gentle as a woman s.