Sitting in the confessional or sacristy at the appointed confession times, waiting for penitents, is one of my least favourite activities.
Time slows. Seconds pass like minutes. Minutes feel like hours. If I bring a book – my Breviary maybe, or some spiritual reading – it’s invariably tedious, if not repugnant. Important tasks – urgent tasks – flood my consciousness. “I really should do that now. As in right now.”
It’s a real battle of the will to stay put for the appointed time, on the off chance that a penitent shows up. Often, there are no penitents. But sometimes penitents do show up, and I’ve discerned a pattern. If the temptation to abandon my post is especially strong, and if a penitent then shows up at the very last minute, they are almost always a “big fish.”
“Grois poisson,” or “big fish,” is a term St Jean-Marie Vianney applied to penitents who made a good confession after years or even decades of inveterate sin.
Inveterate sinners, Vianney said, are like deep water fish who swim around in the dark for a long time, impervious to the fishermen’s nets. It’s a resonant metaphor.
“Duc in altem,” Jesus said to the apostles in Luke’s Gospel:
“Stand out into the deep water, and let down your nets for a catch.”
Simon answered him, “Master, we have toiled all the night, and caught nothing; but at thy word I will let down the net.”
And when they had done this, they took a great quantity of fish, so that the net was near breaking.
Duc in altem. Launch out into the deep.
Chesterton may have had Vianney’s big fish metaphor in mind, when he imagined Father Brown catching a criminal, hearing his confession, and letting him go. Says Fr Brown:
“I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”
Evelyn Waugh composed an entire novel around that image. Brideshead Revisited (which is to my mind Waugh’s masterpiece and the best English novel of the twentieth century) relates the operation of divine grace – especially the grace of conversion – on a host of inveterate sinners of varying wickedness. Waugh’s characters wander freely and widely, until they become receptive to God’s grace and return like the prodigal son. A “twitch upon the thread.”
Australia is a nation of amateur fisherman, so I hardly need tell my readers that big fish put up a great struggle before they are landed. It’s especially apt, then, that confessors should experience a spiritual struggle before hearing “big fish confessions.” I can only imagine it’s nothing compared to the struggle ensuing within the penitents themselves.
I think important lessons can be gleaned from this. There is a spiritual battle raging all around us, and within us. It is invisible, but it’s real and it’s powerful. Sacramental confession plays an important part in this battle, which is why it is targeted.
I think we receive “windows in time” during which we are not only especially encouraged, but also especially empowered, to go to confession and sacramentalise our conversion from sin. The enemy place obstacles in front of these windows, so that we pass them by. The enemy’s attacks are double edged: the penitent is discouraged, and so is the minister of the sacrament. How easy it is for penitents to pluck up the courage to make a good confession, note the schedule, show up resolutely, but abandon the plan all together when they meet a dark and empty confessional! I know, because I’ve been there and done that.
So be warned. If you resolve to go to confession – be it frequently or after a long absence – the enemy will discourage you and try to prevent you. Don’t allow it.
St Michael the Archangel, defend us in the hour of battle.
GK Chestertons Fr. Brown is one of my favourites, A new series was aired on abc just recently, it was quite good!
What a terrific post, Padre! My PP bangs on about confession at every opportunity, thank God. The venerable priest Fr Des Byrne mourned in his homily at his diamond jubilee last year that there was such a dearth of confessions available in the archdiocese – except at our parish…
One of the most challenging and exhilarating experiences of the spiritual life is to confess to priests who know you and know you well. I am always confident that I will get the best spiritual direction and I do. It works! What an amazing grace of God’s mercy.
I convince myself that the priest who has just heard my confession and to whom I am speaking ten minutes later about something mundane, has forgotten what I said in the box.
From my side of the grille, it all seems perfectly natural and fine – even when one has followed the advice of St Josemaria to confess the worst, the most humiliating sins first!
How sorry I feel for Protestants who don’t have the sacrament…
I have on occasion known an almost physical sense of a burden having lifted after Confession. Without the priest that could not happen – I never had that experience as a Protestant – so thank you for your faithfulness in being there, and may you catch many “big fish”.
Fr John, I always say to people that the Sacraments are the Treasures of the Catholic Church. I think that priests and lay people should encourage people to approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession). The experience of going to confession is awesome. Yes, I do agree that when we go for confession after say a long time (about 20 years) or so, the penitent is very reluctant to go for confession but when we do encourage the penitent and assure him that he can go for confession to a priest who does not know him. I can then see the penitent heaving a sigh of relief. I always tell penitents not to avoid confession because they do feel ashamed of their sins. I tell them to go for confession to a priest they do not know. They said say, ‘I have forgotten how to confess’. I immediately take their email address and then I help them through. I explain to them that it is Jesus Christ whom they are confessing to and it is Jesus Christ who forgives their sins and that the priest is only an instrument who gives us absolution. I also continue to tell them that only Jesus Christ is sinless and His Mother Mary who was created sinless in anticipation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They feel more comfortable to note that all men of sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God. We must do our best to make all penitents comfortable and explain to them that all men have sinned and we all approach the Sacrament of Confession in humility and contrition. Fr John we can do it. Try to convince the people to confess on a regular basis and explain to them the benefits of confession and you will find a long queue waiting to confess their sins.
Awesome to see a good priest making sense! My journey has been immeasurably blessed by this sacrament and the many good priests who still value it and call us back to it. Thanks Father for your courage and witness. Keep it up!