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
Felipe Araujo
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Manchester's Muslim community under siege: "We are part of the fabric of this nation"

As the investigation into last week's bombing continues, familiar media narratives about Islam conflict with the city's support for its Muslim population.

“You guys only come when something like this happens,” said one of the worshippers at Manchester's Victoria Park Mosque, visibly annoyed at the unusual commotion. Four days after the attack that killed 22 people, this congregation, along with many others around the city, is under a microscope.

During Friday prayers, some of the world’s media came looking for answers. On the eve of Ramadan, the dark shadow of terrorism looms large over most mosques in Manchester and beyond.

“People who do this kind of thing are no Muslims,” one man tells me.

It’s a routine that has become all too familiar to mosque goers in the immediate aftermath of a major terror attack. In spite of reassurances from authorities and the government, Muslims in this city of 600,000 feel under siege. 

“The media likes to portray us as an add-on, an addition to society,” Imam Irfan Christi tells me. “I would like to remind people that in World War I and World War II Muslims fought for this nation. We are part of the fabric of this great nation that we are.”

On Wednesday, soon after it was revealed the perpetrator of last Monday’s attack, Salman Ramadan Abedi, worshipped at the Manchester Islamic Centre in the affluent area of Didsbury, the centre was under police guard, with very few people allowed in. Outside, with the media was impatiently waiting, a young man was giving interviews to whoever was interested.

“Tell me, what is the difference between a British plane dropping bombs on a school in Syria and a young man going into a concert and blowing himself up,” he asked rhetorically. “Do you support terrorists, then?” one female reporter retorted. 

When mosque officials finally came out, they read from a written statement. No questions were allowed. 

“Some media reports have reported that the bomber worked at the Manchester Islamic Centre. This is not true,” said the director of the centre’s trustees, Mohammad el-Khayat. “We express concern that a very small section of the media are manufacturing stories.”

Annoyed by the lack of information and under pressure from pushy editors, eager for a sexy headline, the desperation on the reporters’ faces was visible. They wanted something, from anyone, who had  even if a flimsy connection to the local Muslim community or the mosque. 

Two of them turned to me. With curly hair and black skin, in their heads I was the perfect fit for what a Muslim was supposed to look like.

"Excuse me, mate, are you from the mosque, can I ask you a couple of questions,” they asked. “What about?,” I said. "Well, you are a Muslim, right?" I laughed. The reporter walked away.

At the Victoria Park Mosque on Friday, Imam Christi dedicated a large portion of his sermon condemning last Monday’s tragedy. But he was also forced to once again defend his religion and its followers, saying Islam is about peace and that nowhere in the Koran it says Muslims should pursue jihad.

“The Koran has come to cure people. It has come to guide people. It has come to give harmony in society,” he said. “And yet that same Koran is being described as blood thirsty? Yet that same Koran is being abused to justify terror and violence. Who de we take our Islam from?”

In spite of opening its doors to the world’s media, mosques in Britain’s major cities know they can do very little to change a narrative they believe discriminates against Muslims. They seem to feel that the very presence of reporters in these places every time a terror attack happens reveals an agenda.

Despite this, on the streets of Manchester it has proved difficult to find anyone who had a bad thing to say about Islam and the city’s Muslim community. Messages of unity were visible all over town. One taxi driver, a white working-class British man, warned me to not believe anything I read in the media.

“Half of my friends are British Muslims,” he said even before asked. “ These people that say Islam is about terrorism have no idea what they are talking about.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.

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