The God app: Vatican should rethink the ban

It could be a blessed relief for Catholics.

It had only just been announced, but a "God App" that some hoped would allow Catholics to confess their sins via their iPhones has been denounced by the Vatican, even though the programme had been given an Episcopal thumbs-up from a US prelate, the Bishop of South Bend, Indiana. "One cannot speak in any way of confessing via iPhone," says Father Federico Lombardi, a spokesman for the Holy See.

For once, I find myself sharing the view of my one-time Telegraph colleague Tom Utley, who has not been able to bring himself to go to confession since 1967. In today's Daily Mail he writes:

If it was OK by the church authorities, who was I to argue? If it would cut out the middleman, giving electronic absolution without the embarrassment of having to face a priest, it seemed like the answer to my prayers.

Like Tom, I have not been to confession for many years; unlike him, however, I feel no remorse at this, having thoroughly and completely lapsed in my teens. But I do remember what an excruciating business it was, and wonder if some kind of electronic version might not be a bad idea, whatever the current line from Rome.

Non-Catholics may be baffled by the very notion of it. But current and former Catholics will know how seriously confession is taken, even if it is not regarded as it was a few centuries ago (Hamlet's father, you will remember, was condemned to purgatory because he died unshriven).

You were supposed to go regularly, although I and most of my friends avoided it whenever possible. Hence, when you did go, you invariably committed a sin by lying almost as soon as you were in the confessional. "When was your last confession, my son?" "Er, a while ago, Father. About three months." (That is to say, anything between six and 18 months, if you were lucky.)

If you went to confession at the church where you attended Mass, you almost certainly knew the priest on the other side of grille, which hardly eased the process of unburdening. At least that old-fashioned practice was better than one that began to replace it around the time of my First Confession in the late 1970s. In tune with the liberalising trends of the decade, to which the Catholic Church was then not immune, guitar-strumming priests would sometimes substitute for the organ. Likewise, the confines of the confessional were occasionally abandoned in favour of face-to-face sessions.

I remember having to sit opposite Father Sean, a young, popular and charismatic priest whom everyone in the parish adored, and not being able to come out with anything like a proper confession (unlike in Utley's day, we were provided with no lists or examples to crib from). I was only seven, so I'm not sure how serious an array of sins I was expected to own up to. Nevertheless, you were meant to try. I think in the end I might have admitted to squashing a spider, which seemed a small matter with which to trouble Our Lord, and not quite what the whole process was supposed to be about.

The farce was completed by the fine, as it were – the list of prayers you had to say as penance afterwards in return for absolution – "five Hail Marys and one Our Father", for instance. These were to be uttered prayerfully and contemplatively. Naturally, we would rattle through them as fast as we could. Timing myself today, I find that I can still say a Hail Mary in six seconds. I'm sure I could have shaved a second off that in my pious youth.

Whatever I might miss from my church-going days – the glorious hymns, the intoxicating incense billowing through the pillars, the deep tolling of the bell at the consecration of the bread and wine, and the sense of being part of a ritual that connects Catholics across continents and millennia in a way that no other Christian service can – going to confession is not one of them.

Once, when I was a child, the difference between Protestants and Catholics was described to me by a telephonic analogy. The former had a direct line to God, it was said, but in confessing their sins Catholics were required to go through the operator. If that's so, shouldn't the Church be willing to embrace the latest technological successor to the human operator at his or her exchange – one of the many functions the iPhone provides? For millions of Catholics, confessing in such a manner would truly be a blessed relief.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.