While Reconciliation is intended to allow Christ’s victory to overcome sin in our lives, what happens when shame over one’s sins is so great that it keeps people away from the sacrament?
The famous Spanish theologian Father José Antonio Fortea discussed this phenomenon, and practical solutions to it, in a blog post. Normally, a sense of Christ’s mercy should be enough to help people overcome their shame and go to Confession, in order to receive forgiveness and healing.
However, in some cases, Fr. Fortea acknowledged, people are overwhelmed by their sins, and this shame becomes “a wall” keeping them away from Reconciliation. “They would rather make a 100-mile pilgrimage than have to confess face-to-face certain things they did that are terribly and frightfully humiliating to them,” he said, reflecting on the torment that faces some penitents who struggle approaching the sacrament.
The Spanish priest first pointed out the importance of priests offering fatherly compassion on those who have “these burdens on their consciences.” He also noted the importance of ensuring truly anonymous confessions. In each city, he said, “there ought to be at least one confessional where instead of a grill, there is a metal sheet with small holes, making it totally impossible to see the person making their confession.”
The person confessing should not be visible to the priest as they approach or leave, he continued. If there is a window on the priest’s door, it should not be transparent. “With these measures, the vast majority of the faithful can resolve the problem of shame,” Fr. Fortea said.
But for those “truly very rare” cases where shame is still a major obstacle, even with anonymous confessionals, additional steps can be taken. In these instances of extreme shame, the person can “make an anonymous phone call to a priest in the city and tell him about this problem.” Confession itself cannot take place over the phone, but “in many cases, the phone conversation will be enough so the penitent can get up his confidence and can approach the kind of above-mentioned confessional.” If the penitent still finds that the shame of mentioning his sins is too great to bear, he can arrange for a written confession with the priest.
Fr. Fortea said that in several of the confessionals in his city of Alcalá de Henares, Spain, “it’s possible for the penitent to move the screen slightly, just a fraction of an inch, and slip in a piece of paper.”
He offered guidelines for such written confessions: they should generally not be longer than one page, sins should be written “in a clear and concise manner,” or if possible, should be typed for clarity in reading. “The priest will give his counsel, the penance and absolution without needing to bring up any questions for the penitent. In this case asking questions would be counterproductive,” he reflected.
While the general rule is that confession should be vocal, it can be done through writing in some cases, the priest said. He noted that those who are deaf or mute have always been permitted to make written confessions. And in the case of insurmountable shame, this would also be licit, he said. “A psychological inability can be just as real as a physical one.”