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.