Every Saturday morning there were pews of us, row after row of wriggling children.
We shuffled along shiny wooden benches, first in one direction then the other as we approached what John Cornwall has called “The Dark Box” in his new book of the same name. It’s better known as the confessional.
Catholic children were introduced to sin at the age of five. By six, we could differentiate a venial sin from a mortal one. A white lie was venial. Were we to die with its mark on our soul, we would go to purgatory where we would burn but only for a short time. A mortal sin would, however, condemn us to the fires in hell for all eternity.
That was a lot for a small child to cope with when it was drilled into me that missing mass on Sunday was a mortal sin. What would happen if I was sick one Sunday or if my parents took me on holiday? They might have said it was fine but I knew it wasn’t.
Oh, the terror then of crossing the road in case a car ran me down before I had the chance to confess. The writer Frank O’Connor immortalised his First Confession in a short story of that title. Aged seven, he’d contemplated murdering his bare-foot, shame-making grandmother and was “scared to death of confession”.
His terror abated when the priest confided: “Between ourselves, there’s a lot of people I’d like to do the same to, but I’d never have the nerve.”
I never met a father confessor with such a sense of humour. It’s hardly surprising, considering what the priests had to endure. What torment it must have been to sit hour after hour while hundreds of small children poured out their piffling misdemeanours.
What was it all about? Why were small children set on this path? Why make us feel bad so young? Why bring such negativity into our lives when we were barely out of junior infants?
After our first confession, truly carefree childhood was over. And the crazy thing is that the practice still goes on. Look at the furore the Scottish Government’s plan for a named person for each child has generated. Imagine sending your children off weekly to spill out their list of sins. A named adult pales into insignificance in comparison with this incursion on family life.
The children are no longer seen in a confessional box, though I would prefer its uncomfortable anonymity to the cosier face-to-face arrangements that replaced it.
In The Dark Box, John Cornwall, a writer on Catholicism, reveals that the regime I grew up in was introduced only in 1910 by a Pope called Pius X. Until then, confession was annual and didn’t start younger than at 12 to 14-years-old.
Making it weekly from the age of seven was an experiment that predated any real understanding of child development. We can but wonder what effects have trickled through the generations.
That said, I don’t entirely regret that it happened to me. There are upsides.
Who, in this confessional age, can doubt that we all get something out of dumping the bad stuff and being forgiven? To tell all and to receive absolution is very powerful.
At seven-years-old, the tales of heaven and hell and angels and devils and the notion of a soul that was Persil-white on Saturday and grimy-grey by Wednesday was grist to the imagination. Life is never dull when eternal hell-fire nips at your heels.
Don’t take my word for it. Read Joyce, Waugh, Toibin and Edna O’Brien. Though he came to Catholicism later, read Graham Greene too.
Growing up, as our lives became more complicated, there was comfort to be had. We could go into any church anywhere and anonymously tell all, knowing that within minutes we could walk out with a clean slate.
Remorse was necessary as well as a determination not to repeat the offence. These are not high hurdles when your conscience is troubled. I thought it was a clever psychological tool. And yet it was my generation that abandoned it in droves.
When the sexual mores of the congregation parted company with Roman Catholic teaching, confession in the European church collapsed. Cornwall reports that in America only 2% of Catholics attend it.
Meanwhile, turn on daytime television and confession is to the fore. People spare us nothing about their intimate lives. Open any magazine and there is a page of personal admissions and moral conundrums in search of answers.
We shouldn’t be surprised. John Cornwall’s book reveals that the practice of publicly confessing major wrong-doing in order to seek forgiveness and gain readmission to the community goes back to the early Christians and beyond into Jewish tradition. Prayer, penitence and charity were the route back to the fold.
So have Catholics made an error in abandoning confession in such large numbers over the years? I think not, not if the reason for their absence is that they no longer respect the Church’s rules on, for instance, sexual morality. If people don’t believe they have behaved sinfully, what would be the point in confessing?
At present, we are all more likely to turn to therapy for the peace of mind we seek.
For most people discontentment is not a matter of feeling guilty about their behaviour. It is more that we are puzzled about why we do what we do. We wonder why, when we are so fortunate in the world’s terms, contentment eludes us.
We go in search of explanation and understanding. We go in search of a better understanding of ourselves. It is, in the West at least, a more individualistic journey.
And yet there is an appetite for something larger, a shared faith and sense of belonging. It was evident in the millions of young people in South America who turned up to see the new Pope say mass.
He seems to bring a new ethos and different approach. Time will tell if it lasts. There have been many changes since I was a child, yet one tradition persists.
Seven is still considered to be the age of reason. It still marks the age at which Catholic children make their first confession and yet we know now that it isn’t good to give children such fixed rules so young.
We also know, sadly, about the incidences of child abuse that have dragged the church into disrepute. It was, John Cornwall writes in his book, the private access of the confessional that offered an opportunity to abusers. It was an opportunity to spot the vulnerable ones.
I find it strange to look back at a system that I was taught to believe was set in stone by God himself only to discover it was an initiative by a man, albeit a Pope. That same Pope Pius X also banned orchestral music and forbade women to sing in choirs.
He closeted trainee priests without newspapers or books or even lay teachers. He cut them off from family and contact with women.
And we wonder where it all went wrong.