Confession at Maddleskirk Abbey

BOOK: Confession at Maddleskirk Abbey
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‘F
ATHER
W
ILL, CAN
you do me a great favour?’

‘Of course, Father Attwood. How can I help?’

‘Rather unexpectedly I’ve been called to hospital. It follows a blood test relating to my prostate cancer. I must go to the Beach Hospital in Scarborough to be told of the findings. Six o’clock until seven. It means I can’t take confessions in the abbey church this evening. Sorry about the short notice but I wondered if you could stand in for me? I’ve told the abbot and he sees no problem if you agree.’

‘I’ll be happy to do that,’ said Will, smiling. ‘Does it mean you’ll be detained?’

‘There was no suggestion of that. They didn’t ask me to take my overnight things. The snag is my appointment is rather late in the day – six o’clock – which is why I can’t get back in time for confessions.’

‘Well, I hope it’s not bad news.’

‘If it was, I think I’d have been given some warning. I’ve got an abbey car and driver booked but I don’t want him to hang about waiting. I can either get a bus back or take a taxi. Thanks for helping out, you’re a good friend.’

Father John Attwood was a relatively new recruit to the Benedictine community of Maddleskirk Abbey in its beautiful setting not far from Aidensfield in the North York Moors.
He had joined the monastery late in life after a career in the building industry. A widower with no family, he was a gentle person who fitted easily into the monastic routine where his knowledge of construction techniques and structural maintenance had already proved of value. He liked nothing more than fixing or repairing faults and was skilled with a range of tools. Undoubtedly he was an asset to the monastic community but, unlike Father Will Redman, he was not a member of the
monk-constables
, the abbey’s own private police force – monkstables as they had become known. The abbot had felt that Father John was rather too old to be engaged in police work even as a gentle part-time occupation around the monastery campus. There were plenty of other activities to keep him occupied.

Father Will Redman, who was one of the monk-constables, was pleased to help his friend. Confession was one of the most important sacraments of the Church and the short notice did not present a problem. At the appointed time, Will made his way to the confessional in the abbey church. Tucked away in a quiet corner of the south transept, it was rather like a large double-sized wooden telephone kiosk with two compartments, each completely enclosed for privacy and security. He failed to notice that the wooden name-board above the penitents’ door continued to display Father John Attwood’s name – Father Will did not see that because he had entered the confessional via the rear door, thus avoiding the south transept. Because Father Will was not a regular hearer of confessions, he did not have his own name-board.

As he settled on the basic box-like seat, he hoped the incoming penitents would not object to this last-minute substitution. Some liked to be heard by the same confessor every time – but by his voice, which had no trace of Father John’s Lancashire accent, they would quickly realize he wasn’t their regular priest. They could change their minds and leave if they wished. Even though fewer people were confessing their sins in this ancient and traditional manner, confessions continued each Saturday
evening between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. in Maddleskirk Abbey Church.

In that time, a gathering of about twenty-five to thirty people could be expected to individually confess their sins in total secrecy. However, the confessional had another use. Not everyone came to confess their sins – some came for an anonymous conversation with a priest in the hope it might help them cope with some crisis or personal problem. Some lonely people came for little more than a chat and the priest was always there to help both practically and spiritually under the cloak of anonymity. Many considered this to be an additional means of helping people in need.

As Father Will prepared for his task, he wondered about the health of Father John. He had found his vocation late in life and the pair had become good friends. During one of his regular chats with Father Will, John had mentioned, somewhat casually, that as a widower with no family, he had realized that what he needed was peace, solitude and companionship in a friendly environment. A monastic community offered all that – and more. There was the added spirituality and he knew he would be cared for in the community of 120 monks, not to mention their valued role in the local community. Father John was confident he had made a wise decision and it was increasingly evident to others that he was very content with his new life.

From his hard chair in the confessional that Saturday night, Father Will Redman could not look into the south transept so he had no idea whether or not a queue had formed or how many people were waiting. He could only sit and wait for someone to enter – he couldn’t go out to issue invitations! Anonymity was one of the key elements of confession.

To the right of his chair and very close to his ear was a stout wooden partition containing a small metal grille with a sliding panel. Behind that partition was the penitents’ cubicle complete with kneeler, their eyes level with this sliding panel.

He could operate the slide when anyone settled at the other
side. A penitent could look through the panel to see the priest’s face but the separating mesh did not permit a very clear view. Likewise, he could not see the penitent’s features – the darkness within the confessional added to the visitor’s anonymity. During his wait, the sliding panel would be closed but he would open it when someone turned up and settled down to begin their confession. The opening of the door, which activated a low light, would alert him to an arrival.

Listening to people making their heartfelt confessions was never easy. Sometimes, people were in genuine distress at the enormity of their guilt so the act of absolution could be extremely difficult for a priest, acting as he did on God’s behalf. However, it was undertaken by Catholic priests throughout the world. Even the Pope attended confession, as did priests, emperors, sovereigns, presidents and other national, political and religious leaders.

Father Will knew that this practice was something that puzzled and intrigued a large section of the general public. For Catholics, however, it was a perfectly normal part of their faith. It was constantly reinforced that the seal of confessional was absolute. No one could or should break that seal.

As Father Will waited, his long scarf-like stole, embroidered with three crosses – one at each end and one in the middle – was around his neck, hanging down with each end below waist level. The middle cross was at the back of his neck. His stole was the traditional priestly symbol of humility and service to others. As Father Will waited with his prayers and thoughts, he would do his best to provide spiritual succour to anyone in need.

Then someone arrived. He could not see who it was.

As the penitents’ door opened, the electric light in that side of the confessional came on automatically but soon extinguished itself once the penitent had found the kneeler. The door closed and the rustle of clothing indicated someone had knelt down. The internal light faded although there was a dim glow of light in both cubicles. It came from the church itself, filtering
through the opaque glass panels high on the outer walls of both cubicles.

The penitent took a long time to settle down. Father Will thought it sounded like a woman with shopping bags, trying to find somewhere in the darkness to put them. When she was on the kneeler, there would be some space at either side of her, enough for a shopping bag or handbag. He waited. Eventually the silence indicated she – or perhaps he – was settled. Father Will then slid aside his panel and turned his head sideways so that his ear was close to the mesh-covered space. It was vital that he could hear the penitent’s whispered confession and that no one outside could overhear it. Furthermore, he did not want to recognize his visitor.

He made the sign of the cross accompanied by the spoken words: ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. Please continue, take your time.’

In response a woman began to speak very softly. She had a faint but recognizable Lancashire accent and sounded middle-aged. He was sure it was not a young voice but not that of a pensioner either. Someone he knew, perhaps?

She began. ‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It is many, many years since my last confession. I have forgotten what to do but I have committed many venial sins. …’

‘That does not matter … what does matter is that you are here now, willing to resume the practice of your faith. Do your best to recall your serious sins as you express your deep sorrow for offending God.’

‘There were many trivial matters: not saying my prayers, using foul language, losing my temper, and so on.’

‘They are no problem. What about mortal sins? Serious sins deliberately committed?’

There was a long silent pause and then she said, ‘I’m here to confess to a mortal sin, Father.’

‘Then pray, my daughter, that Almighty God will make you honest and penitent with a firm purpose of amendment. God
will forgive you but only if you are truly sorry with no intention of repeating your sin—’

She interrupted him and blurted out, ‘I’ve committed murder, Father. I’ve killed someone, stabbed him!’ The words burst from her as if she had been keeping them hidden and was now spitting them out. She began to sob and her voice weakened as she repeated, ‘I have killed, Father, please God forgive me.’ And then she dissolved into a flood of tears but did not run away or leave the confessional. For a few moments Father Will remained silent. This reminded him of one of the training lessons from the seminary when all trainee priests were warned about the enormity of sins that some people might confess. All young priests and monks had been warned of the possibility that murderers, rapists or terrorists might confess some dreadful actions and crimes, and that non-Catholics, old and young, might enter the confessional as some kind of sick joke.

However, the important thing was that the seal of confession was absolute even in the most extreme of cases. A priest hearing any confession must never divulge what he had been told.

As Father Will sat alone in that dark cabinet, that warning had become a reality. He could not discuss it with anyone other than the penitent and he must not make any attempt to identify her or to demand that she surrender to the police. He must not impose any condition upon her absolution, nor could he question her about the circumstances of the crime or seek the identity of the victim. He must do nothing that might lead to her identification.

So could he pronounce absolution for this woman? It all depended upon her conscience – in other words, was she genuinely sorry for what had happened? Was this a genuine confession? Or a test or joke of some kind? She was still kneeling and awaiting his reaction but would she repeat her crime? Or had she killed earlier? That was highly unlikely unless she was a serial killer. In granting her absolution, he could not require her to report her crime to the police or ask her to care for her
victim’s family. Although he must not come to any such agreement as part of her absolution, he was able to suggest ways of easing her conscience provided they did not lead to her identity and therefore breach the seal of confession.

He waited until she had composed herself, then said in a soft voice, ‘I must ask you not to agree to nor ask of me any act that would violate the seal of confession. I cannot make it a condition of absolution that you must inform the police. I cannot insist that you help any dependants who are the result of your sinfulness. You may decide to take such steps as a form of reparation but whatever decision you make, it must be entirely your own. I cannot and must not advise or compel you.’

There was no reaction. She remained in the box in total silence, so after a while he asked, ‘Do you understand?’

‘Yes, Father,’ she whispered tearfully.

He paused again, then asked, ‘I must be sure that you are truly sorry for this grievous sin.’

‘I wouldn’t be here otherwise, would I, Father?’ And now her voice sounded stronger and her accent was emphasized. ‘Of course I’m sorry … you have not asked who I have killed … or anything about my crime, my sin.’

‘I do not want to know anything that might identify you. What you do now is your responsibility. As I have pointed out, I must not do anything or suggest anything that could break the seal of this confession.’

She burst into tears.

He continued in a soft voice, ‘I need to be sure that your confession is sincere, that you are truly sorrowful and that you will never again commit such a grave sin.’

‘I can promise that, Father. I am truly sorry, really I am. I cannot think what made me do it …’ And she burst into another flood of tears. ‘I am really, really sorry for all this.’

Her sobs intensified and he felt sure they could be heard by the others queuing in the transept.

‘I shall grant absolution. Can you hear me?’

‘I can,’ she whispered in a husky voice.

Making the sign of the cross in front of her secret and tearful face behind the mesh, he pronounced the words of absolution:

‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Almighty God now absolves you from your sin. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Amen. Now you may go and God be with you.’

There was a rustling sound as she rose to her feet. The light in her cubicle switched itself on as he was closing the small partition. Then she departed with the curious words, ‘And I know what you did, Father. Remember that. I know
your
secret,
your
sin.’

Then she was gone. The light went out and the door closed behind her. Father Will sat in stunned silence awaiting the next penitent. He was alone for just a few minutes before the next one arrived but he could not forget that woman’s parting words.

But could he or should he ignore them?

BOOK: Confession at Maddleskirk Abbey
7.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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