Universalis

White elephants in our churches?

Posted on behalf of Chris Ow

A perverse thought came to my mind just one weekend ago: Have we been breeding white elephants within our Church buildings? The idea arose not from some strange encounters with albino pachyderm excrement, but from a random association between a north-eastern landmark of a train station and an integral part of Catholic Church architecture.

I was a visiting worshipper in a parish church in the northeast. It was the Saturday before Ash Wednesday and I was hoping to go for Confession before the anticipated Sunday Mass (otherwise known as Sunset Mass). So upon entering the church, I stopped to ask one of the wardens about the possibility of having my confession heard.

She pointed me to the Confessionals but warned me that sometimes the priests don't turn up. Notwithstanding her well-intentioned warning, I decided to sit at the pew next to the confessional and wait anyway. The wait was in vain.

Confessionals would surely seem to be architectural anachronisms to a disinterested non-Catholic observer noting their use (or rather their under-utilisation). Have we as Church turned our confessionals into white elephants? Are we not treating them as relics of a bygone era?

Catholics are not afraid of the Sacrament. The long lines at Advent and Lenten penitential services should serve as ample evidence. If that will not suffice, the hunger for the Sacrament is also manifest at St Alphonsus everyday of the week, and especially on Saturdays. The Redemptorists fathers seem to understand well this need, and they work to meet it.

Yet it does seem that the simple anonymity, privacy, and intimacy of the Confessional is no longer preferred in some of our parish churches. Perhaps the Singaporean Catholics of today are more comfortable confessing face to face in the priest's office or elsewhere, but on the basis of (my rather limited) personal experience and discussions with others, I find that quite unliklely. I might be wrong about this, but I think a large majority of local Catholics would be far more comfortable making their confessions within the Confessional rather than without.

It's also a chicken and egg problem of course. If priests don't enter the Confessionals routinely, penitents will not come. Yet if the demand for Confession is perceived to be low, priests will push the hearing of Confessions in the parish Confessionals down their long list of priorities.

Action is what is needed. And this on both sides at once. Parishioners need to be more vocal in expressing their desire for their priests to be available for Confessions, especially before Masses. Priests too should be bold in taking the initiative to make the Sacrament available.

I recall with fondness an old missionary priest (now deceased) whom I knew had a habit of always carrying either his breviary or missal with him. Before each Mass, he would sit waiting outside the Confessional. He was ready at the slightest notice to step in to hear a Confession, even if it was before an early morning Mass. Why are such examples so rare these days? Have we lost something along the way?
Written by Chris Ow

5 comments:

John Goh said...

First off, the priests in the parish of St Francis Xavier are absolutely impeccable with their service of administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

I have a hypothesis with regard to the lack of priests in the confessional. I once spoke to an aspiring youth who was interested in maybe becoming a priest. This guy was actually thought that it was not so important to celebrate the mass in a manner that was faithful to the Latin rite, or that it was even the priest's first and foremost duty to dispense the sacraments. What was more important for him to do, if he were to be a priest would be to be there for his parishioners, to counsel them, to be there to talk about their problems etc. That is, to cater to the pastoral needs of the parish.

Maybe this is the view of our current generation of priests. That catering to pastoral needs sans counselling, talking to parishioners, attending prayer meets is more important as a priest.

But this cannot be the case. The priest is the sole minister of the Sacraments, it is part of the indelible mark conferred upon the priest on his receiving Holy Orders. The Eucharist, source and summit of the Christian life and the Church, can only be presided by a priest, and no nun, deacon or brother can ever replace him. And yet, as the sole minister of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, we find sometimes a less than dignified execution of the holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Truth seeking Christians hunger for the peace that only Christ can give through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, only to find an empty confessional.

The Sacraments, of which the Eucharist is the principle sacrament from which the Church draws its life, is the single most distinguishing identity of the Catholic Church. For priests to not administer the Sacraments faithfully and impeccably would be, in my own view, to betray their calling to Holy orders. Without the sacraments, the Catholic church would be like other christian communities, where some inspirational hymns and songs and an awe-inspiring sermon is seemingly sufficient to live out the Christian faith.

Let us pray then, as always, for our priests, that they may place first things, first. May our Lady be there to comfort them when they need to draw strength to carry on their ministry.

Br Lawrence, O.P. said...

Well said Chris. In any case, the Church requires that a parish allows for either face-to-face confession or anonymous (behind a screen). The well-constructed confessional should be so made that the penitent may choose which manner he prefers.

Daniel said...

by Daniel Tay

I think that celebrating the sacraments is just one aspect of being a priest. A priest must not only celebrate the sacraments but must live them out.

In all the sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist and Reconciliation, Jesus gives himself totally to his people - by his body and blood, and by his death and resurrection that reconciles man with God. If a priest celebrates these sacraments frequently, but fails to live them out in his life by turning away those who come to him for help, then even more frequent celebration of those sacraments would be nothing more than hypocritical, or even a farce.

Still, I do believe that many people who seek priests out for counselling also receive the sacrament of reconciliation from him at the same time. Also, sometimes when a priest is absent from his parish, he could be giving Holy Communion to the sick and homebound.

So it is not proper to say that our priests are not placing first things first, because they just might be, and it is we who are blind to the sacraments that we do not see being carried out.

Norman said...

In all the sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist and Reconciliation, Jesus gives himself totally to his people - by his body and blood, and by his death and resurrection that reconciles man with God. If a priest celebrates these sacraments frequently, but fails to live them out in his life by turning away those who come to him for help, then even more frequent celebration of those sacraments would be nothing more than hypocritical, or even a farce.

Actually no. When the sacraments are being celebrated, it is Christ Himself who is acting. The efficacy of the Sacraments has absolutely nothing to do with how the priest is living his life. Check this out When A Priest Is In Mortal Sin

Daniel said...

Of course, the sacraments would still be valid. But the priest who fails to live his life in that same self-giving nature as the sacraments is turning his priesthood into a farce.

Then again, the Catholic who receives these sacraments but fails to live his life in the same self-giving nature as the sacraments is also making a mockery of the sacraments.

- Daniel