The shape of the confessional

The shape of the confessional

The Divine Mercy of our Lord – the feast, the image, and the devotion – is very important to me. It was pivotal to my return to sacramental confession.

Some people, I know, think the Divine Mercy image is kitsch, or worse. Maybe it isn’t great art, but that’s not really the point. Sacred art is not intended to evoke admiration; it is meant to evoke prayer. St Faustina was very distressed by the first portrait of the Divine Mercy, which she considered quite ugly. (It is!) But our Lord assuaged her concerns:

Not in the beauty of the colour, nor of the brush lies the greatness of this image, but in My grace.

In any event, I like the image very much, regardless of respective versions’ artistic merit. One of the ordination presents I most cherish is a large oil on canvas of the Divine Mercy, which was a gift from the Peart family. (Deacon Joel Peart is a serial commenter on this blog.)

Most years it is solemnly blessed on today’s Feast, though not this year. The painting is in Casterton, but my Mass schedule was elsewhere. The image is put to good use. It was originally in my study, but not long after arriving in Casterton, I restored the confessional to it intended use and hung it there: 

The first thing one sees when entering . . .

As you can see, penitents have two options before them. They can kneel at the prie-dieu, and maintain their anonymity, or they can sit face to face with the confessor.

Many people have expressed surprise at this choice, and advised me that the first option was abrogated by Vatican II. (The mythology surrounding that Council is remarkable!) Some of them were not only surprised, but delighted, when I assured them that the screen or curtain is allowed:

Can 964 §2. The conference of bishops is to establish norms regarding the confessional; it is to take care, however, that there are always confessionals with a fixed grate between the penitent and the confessor in an open place so that the faithful who wish to can use them freely.

Personally, I much prefer this option, both as penitent and as confessor. To my mind, this arrangement manifests the supernatural character of the sacrament. You’re not confessing your sins to a priest; you’re confessing them to Jesus. I often explain this rationale to people, so that they don’t think it is “secretive” to choose the screen, and so feel pressured to sit face to face.

I also acknowledge the rationale for the alternative arrangement, as I see it. I avoid value-laden language about “maturity,” because I see nothing “immature” about the screen. But I do appreciate that confession is sometimes an occasion for spiritual direction, which is facilitated by face to face dialogue.

Adults often assume that children prefer the face to face option, and that they are intimidated by confessionals. Wouldn’t an open space be better? I am always sensitive to this, and never presume, but my universal experience thus far is that children prefer the confessional, and the screen.

It’s not about the anonymity. Kids typically stick their head around the curtain and say, “Hi Fr John,” before they start. I can only guess they share my sense that kneeling and confessing without eye contact differentiates the sacrament, so that is more a prayer to God, and less a conversation with a neighbour.

The sacrament of reconciliation is intimidating, especially when you’re out of practice. But it’s also exhilarating. And liberating. I wish it was more widely practiced. And I thank God for the Divine Mercy feast and devotion – not only for its role in my own return to the sacrament, but also the return of so many others. I bet we beneficiaries number in the millions. Deo gratias.

Fr Henry Nickel, RIP

Fr Henry Nickel, RIP

Please pray for Fr Henry Nickel, SVD, who died this morning.

Fr Henry is one of the priests who loomed large in my childhood. He was never in my own parish in Ballarat East, but he moved to the cathedral when I was nine years old, so he was a familiar priestly presence.

I long identified him with Pope John Paul II. They shared a close physical resemblance — at least to my child’s eye — and they were both Polish. Their accents, though, were very different. Fr Henry was much harder to understand. Perhaps because of that, I listened closely at his Masses.

Fr Henry always prefaced ex tempore remarks with, “My dear people,” and his homilies were liberally peppered with the same. When he preached he exhorted, so even at a young age I differentiated him from most other priests, who tended not to exhort but to instruct. Popes exhort too. Another resemblance between Fr Henry and his compatriot!

In the first month of my priesthood, I lived and worked at the Ballarat cathedral. The first weeks after priestly ordination are filled with wonder and awe. Fr Henry dined late at night, and I would often share a drink with him, which allowed me to debrief. Those conversations demonstrated his great love for the priesthood, but this was even more evident in his spirit of service and his generosity.

I would add, too, that Fr Henry was a man who “thought with the mind of the Church.” That’s not easy, because the mind of the Church is really the mind of God, and our human minds naturally settle for narrower horizons.

When Fr Henry departed Australia last year, Fr Gary Jones — another priest I remember as a child, who did live in my parish! — wrote a warm tribute. It is timely.

More competition!

At last count, eighty per cent of weddings in Australia are now conducted by civil celebrants.

That’s bad, insofar as it reflects the triumph of secularism and the reduction of Christianity.

It’s also good, insofar as it demonstrates the demise of “cultural” church weddings. Getting married in a church is now something intentional. I find that the couples whom I prepare for marriage are sincerely open to theological and moral formation. It’s a great opportunity to evangelise.

Still, I’m weary of the growing numbers who look elsewhere for services traditionally ministered by the priest. It started with weddings and funerals. Is sacramental confession next?

Apparently so, by the looks of this sign outside a key cutters in Carlton!

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Simon the Pieman’s tips

Simon the Pieman’s tips

When I think of the Melbourne Cup, I think of many things: horses, jockeys and the weather! But it’s the people that make the day most memorable — like Sir John Kerr’s speech, Pattie Newton, plus Bruce McAvaney and Peter Donegan on Channel Seven.

I also enjoy the ABC radio coverage. They are there all from sunrise to dusk! Especially when the Coobeans are on! Peter Jago who makes hats!

I also like John Letts talking to the winning jockeys. Unfortunately he is not there this year. He has been sick. His horse Banjo is about 20 years old in horse age. Sam Hyland has taken on another horse this year!

Now for my tips for the big race!

I like Red Cadeaux — I know I backed it last year when it didn’t even place in the Cup. This horse has run in three Melbourne Cups and places two Seconds. He is now nine years old, and no nine year old has won the Melbourne Cup. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him, win lose or draw, back next year for another run in the Cup!

16. Brambles — Peter Moody’s most famous charge is Black Caviar. The trainer has high hopes for Brambles, and jockey Luke Nolen ran a good Caulfield Cup. I reckon Brambles can step up to the Cup’s distance and run a cheeky race.

20. Opinion — Another good trainer. Opinion is in good shape and undoubtedly ready for the Melbourne Cup. Last start was a flop, but I reckon that’ll be made up today. But everyone has opinion about the Melbourne Cup, don’t they!

10. Gatewood — Ran last year, but is in better form than last year. So Gatewood might be wiser, and go on to win the Cup.

I must add Calvaryman to the mix. Another nine year old! One for the Christians maybe. Number fifteen is Precedence, trained by Bart and his grandson. Normally wears Din Chan Tim owner colours, but that has been changed to Sir Patrick Hogan colours for the Cup. Yet another nine year old!

Plenty of tips, but are they winners? That’s another question.

Happy punting from Simon the Pieman.

Wikipedia and misinformation

Wikipedia and misinformation

Well, it’s been a long time between drinks. I haven’t blogged, or even been online, for weeks. I’m putting it down to the Easter rush, and the crash which invariably follows.

Now, I’m on holidays. In New Zealand. Cue photos of Hobbiton! Later. For now, I’m catching up on my online reading.

Tonight I’ve finally been convinced to relinquish any faith in Wikipedia. I was a staunch defender once, and a Wikipedia Foundation donor, as well as an editor. It seemed to me that Wikipedia was at least reliable on mainstream and non-controversial topics. And I believed Wikipedia would get better with time. It hasn’t. It has got worse. Meanwhile, other parts of the Internet have got better.

Search engines have given us the power to instantly uncover source material that used to take weeks of library research to find – if it was available at all. Sources can be biased, but at least with other sources you know who has written what you are reading. With Wikipedia, you do not. Everyone has an agenda, but with Wikipedia you never know who is setting it.

Wikipedia: where truth dies online.

Annunciation: 25 March

Annunciation: 25 March

The Annunciation: what a feast! Some scholars believe we celebrate Christmas on 25 Christmas because early Christians counted forward nine months from today, 25 March.

Moreover, it seems the first Christians celebrated the Annunciation on 25 March not because our Lady had recorded the date and advised the Church accordingly, but because they believed 25 March is the anniversary of Christ’s death.

A pious Rabbinic tradition holds that by God’s providence, all the great figures and prophets of the Covenant — Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, etc. — died on the anniversary of their conception. Naturally enough, many Christians surmised Jesus would be similarly favoured.

So, there’s the logic of Christmas. If Jesus was crucified on 25 March, it follows that he was conceived on 25 March, and it follows (not quite as logically, but certainly very neatly) that he was born on 25 December.

The pious traditions surrounding today’s date are fascinating, and I never tire of them. I go into more detail in a post I published this time last year.